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City staffs up to support lofty housing goals

Thunder Bay’s city council has approved the hiring of two new temporary staff positions to support housing development, with one focused on affordable projects.
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The City of Thunder Bay has targeted 2,100 new housing starts in just three years. (Evan Buhler, RMO)

THUNDER BAY – A city council that’s previously focused on cutting municipal staff made an exception Monday, approving two new temporary positions meant to support Thunder Bay’s highly ambitious housing goals.

Council voted by a strong margin to move ahead immediately with the hires, over objections from a minority that the decision should wait for budget time in February.

Instead, Coun. Rajni Agarwal won the day with her argument that the city couldn’t afford to lose months on the step, after targeting a staggering 2,100 new housing builds over the next three years. 

Reaching that goal will require an infusion of tens of millions of federal dollars, not to mention the ability and willingness of builders to achieve a pace of housing development unseen in Thunder Bay's modern history.

Council's decision will see the city move forward immediately with hiring an affordable housing navigator and a housing accelerator coordinator within the city’s development services division.

The affordable housing navigator would assist non-profit groups to “find a pathway to successful projects,” director of development services Joel DePeuter told council.

The housing accelerator coordinator, meanwhile, would develop and oversee the incentive programs included in the city’s application for $45 million through the federal Housing Accelerator Fund.

The incentive programs envisioned by the city are expected to offer developers subsidies of $20,000 or more per unit, with higher amounts for types of housing governments want to encourage, like affordable units and infill developments.

The resolution approved Monday, put forward by Agarwal, sets aside up to $200,000 a year through the end of 2026 to support the positions, drawn from the city's land development account. The account would be reimbursed if the city is successful in receiving new provincial and federal housing incentive funding.

“I am not one to spend a lot of extra money, but the money is a front-end investment to be replenished… a temporary bridge for what we need to get done,” Agarwal reasoned.

The navigator position was included as an action item in the city’s Housing Accelerator Fund application, on which it’s still awaiting word.

While those federal dollars may or may not come through, Coun. Kasey Etreni pointed out the city will receive an estimated $600,000 from the province’s Building Faster Fund after beating its housing target this year.

That amount is roughly equivalent to what the two new positions will cost the city over three years, she noted.

Monday’s vote came over objections from a minority of councillors, who noted it departed from normal procedure for creating new staff positions.

Coun. Mark Bentz voiced discomfort with authorizing the step outside of the budget process and without a formal recommendation or full report from administration.

“Administration has the ability to come forward with recommendations at whatever times it wishes, so if it deems it needs this expansion, I’d be much more comfortable getting recommendations from [them] on how these positions would be handled, how they’d be financed, and how long we’re going to need them,” he said.

Bentz moved unsuccessfully to push the decision to the 2024 budget process, which concludes in February, with his motion voted down 9-3.

Agarwal argued a matter of months could be meaningful given what DePeuter called a “very tight window” to receive the funding and work to hit the 2,100-unit target.

“If we start working on this after the budget, we’re into February,” she said. “We will not have incentives ready, and we will miss this 2024 building year.”

Coun. Andrew Foulds said he’d shared Bentz’s skepticism over an unusual hiring process, but was won over after hearing staff support the move.

“I think housing is an urgent matter,” he said. “We are in an affordability crisis. I want subject experts able to operationalize this money immediately.

“This is very unusual, but I do think we’re living in extraordinary times, and sometimes we have to go outside our comfort level and perhaps do things a little bit differently so we can get things done.”

Coun. Brian Hamilton agreed there was an “element of haste,” saying the city should move quickly to seize momentum on housing.

“Somebody approached me in the gym the other day, a developer – I’ve never had this ever before – looking for a place to build, looking to coordinate with our staff. I think there’s a real strong appetite out there for development now,” he said.

Administration still needs to draw up formal job descriptions for the positions before launching the hiring process, DePeuter said.

Ian Kaufman

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