Lambton’s warden frustrated more affordable housing isn’t being built in Lambton

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Over 100 people were part of a forum with the charity Indwell discussing plans for affordable homes in Lambton County. The group says the county needs to be more proactive. The county's warden says the province and feds have to step up to provide funding.
Cathy Dobson/For The Independent

Lambton County Warden Kevin Marriott says the blame for a lack of new affordable housing in Sarnia-Lambton lies squarely with the provincial and federal governments.

“I get mad,” he said, speaking on the phone from the annual Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA) conference in Toronto this week.

“The political will is there at the county to build more affordable and supportive housing.  We are definitely open to working with groups like Indwell (charity).  We want to add 250 units in the next five to 10 years,” said Marriott who is Enniskillen Township’s mayor and chairman of Lambton County Council.

At a time when there’s a serious shortage of affordable housing and when homelessness is increasingly visible, Marriott said a lack of funding from upper tiers of government in Toronto and Ottawa is stalling new housing projects.

“There’s a lot of criticism because people on the outside think it should happen a lot quicker but, in my opinion, the higher the government level, the slower the response, and we definitely need help from both governments.”

Marriott said he is particularly frustrated with the federal government.  He wrote the Minister of Housing, Infrastructure & Communities about new affordable housing last fall and received no response.

“This (Liberal) government doesn’t do much for this riding,” Marriott said.  “It used to be everybody was treated the same but now it’s very evident that only sitting (Liberal) members hand out cheques.

“It’s so blatant and I’m so frustrated that 9/10 announcements are from Liberal MPs.”

He said he’s talked to Sarnia-Lambton Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu and “she is aware of it.”

On the provincial front, Marriott said he hoped profitable discussions will take place this week at the ROMA conference where a Lambton contingent was scheduled to meet with Ontario’s Deputy Premier, Health Minister Sylvia Jones.

Annualized operational funding for affordable housing is on the agenda for discussion, Marriott said.

Meanwhile, Lambton County has declared affordable housing its number one priority and set nearly $3 million aside for it. 

“We put an additional $1 million into the fund last year and we are proposing another large increase for that fund in 2024,” said the warden.

“But it’s sitting there waiting to be spent because we don’t have (upper tier government) partnerships yet,” said Marriott.

“Three million dollars can only build about 15 units and that’s not practical.”

The county recently approved $794,000 in “seed” money for five potential projects to help them get very preliminary work done, but no significant funding for a large new project has been approved for years.

A $7-million affordable housing project being built by Lambton County on London Road called Maxwell Park Place is nearly two years behind schedule.  It was approved in 2021 and 24 units were supposed to be ready by spring 2022.  But now officials say it will likely be another seven to nine months before completion.  

Marriott said he is aware that a grassroots group of local Rotarians and church leaders who want to build affordable housing, met last week at Grace United Church and invited Indwell.

Indwell is a well-established charitable organization that has successfully built supportive housing for 1,200 tenants in seven Southwestern Ontario communities. Representative July Ryan said her organization is “open to expanding to Sarnia” and has met numerous times with the local grassroots group.

“It’s moving along but the politicians and municipal staff need to be part of the conversation,” Ryan said.  The county is responsible for all social housing in Sarnia and the rest of Lambton.

Attendance at the community meeting at Grace United Church greatly surprised organizers who anticipated 15 interested residents and had almost 100 there.

The strong turnout proves a lot of people care and are determined to find solutions to the housing crisis, said organizer John Barnfield.

“This has blown up. You can feel the energy and passion in this room,” he said.  “We’re going to build on this.”

Marriott wasn’t at that meeting but Deputy Warden and Sarnia City Coun. Brian White was.

Several times, he was called on to defend the county’s lack of funding projects.

“I think the political will is changing,” White told the crowd.  “And I think the administration (bureaucrats) is coming along.  I’m not being negative when I say that, but the wheels turn slowly and it takes time to change direction.”

White told the crowd to keep up the pressure.

“Keep demanding better of us,” he said.  “The more pressure you put on certain councillors who have a whole other view of what poverty is, the better.”