Homelessness high on rural municipal agendas

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Calvi Leon/Local Journalism Initiative

The housing crunch being felt in hundreds of small and rural centres — not just in big cities — will be front and centre this week.

Provincial and municipal leaders from across the region meet today at the virtual Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA) conference to discuss about the rural housing crisis.

“It’s an exciting time because it’s recognized by all orders of government,” said Robin Jones, chair of ROMA, a non-profit representing 420 rural Ontario municipalities.

“This is a crisis, and we need to work together,” she said. “It’s not just governments. We need to work with the not-for-profits, and we need to work with the developers. But from ROMA’s perspective, some of the barriers are so solvable because they are entrenched in government policy.”

The conference, called Rural Opportunities, will also cover topics that include community safety, rural and northern health and climate change. It’s expected to draw nearly 1,000 participants.

This year, two topics that will dominate the conversations are rural housing and homelessness — issues that have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic across Ontario, including parts of Southwestern Ontario.

“We’re calling it a (housing) crisis for a reason,” said Brian Elliot, executive officer of Habitat for Humanity Heartland Ontario, which serves London and ­Middlesex, Elgin, Oxford and Perth counties.

“The list of people that are in substandard housing has never been higher. We have a lot of people living month to month and living in inadequate places.”

“There’s no shortage of families applying (to Habitat), whether in Drumbo or London.”

The hope for this meeting, he said, is for provincial leaders to look at policies and procedures that act as barriers to solving the housing crisis.

Governments may have surplus lands that they could offer to organizations like Habitat to build affordable housing, Elliot said, adding, “They have the ability to change policies and procedures as it relates to speeding up getting projects from conception to shovels in the ground.”

Coinciding with the conference, ROMA is set to release Monday its nearly 70-page report outlining key issues and recommendations to improve rural recovery and growth following the pandemic.

“We got a lot of hard work ahead of us,” Jones said.

“The ROMA board has really smart people who are deeply committed to the issues that are raised in the paper, and specifically they are committed to the housing challenges and trying to get a roof over everybody’s head.”

The conference comes less than a week after a similar meeting was held between provincial government officials and municipal leaders.

Source: The London Free Press thru

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