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Mayor defends Owen Sound's marketing campaign

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Mayor Ian Boddy defended Owen Sound’s Work from Home Capital of Canada marketing campaign, which is taking place as the average price of homes sold locally hit a record level.

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He said the initiative – aimed at enticing people from big cities to relocate and work from home in Owen Sound – is part of the city’s efforts to grow its property tax base and is not affecting the rising housing costs.

“If you look, it goes back starting about 2015 as Toronto prices started to go up and Mississauga prices followed and then Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and there’s been a wave out and we’re finally in that wave,” he said during an Owen Sound & District Chamber of Commerce virtual Leader’s Forum Friday.

“There’s an argument that we’ve maybe had depressed housing prices up here for quite a while.”

Boddy said the city must attract new residents and new housing to expand the property tax base and spread the increasing costs of services provided by Owen Sound to more households.

“In Owen Sound between 2011 and 2016, we lost population. We’re decreasing. We just looked at the BMA report, we have one of the highest-taxed cities in the area per household. We can’t keep doing that – either you want high taxes or you don’t,” he said.

Boddy said the city’s campaign has been “very successful” in grabbing the attention of people in the Greater Toronto Area.

The mayor’s comments came after Leader’s Forum participants – Boddy, Georgian Bluffs Mayor Dwight Burley, Grey County Warden Selwyn Hicks and Bruce County Warden Janice Jackson – were asked whether consideration has been given to pausing Owen Sound’s marketing campaign until pending subdivisions are complete to “allow housing to catch up” with demand.

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The person who anonymously submitted the question during the one-hour event said there’s been a “huge effort” to market the region and encourage people to move to the area to work from home and those efforts are “driving the housing crisis.”

The average price of homes sold in Grey-Bruce surpassed $610,000 last month, which set a new record and represents a 55 per cent increase from February 2020, according to the Realtors Association of Grey Bruce Owen Sound.

In Owen Sound, the average price of a home sold in February was $443,226, which is a 26.8 per cent increase from the same month in 2020 and an almost 100 per cent increase from the same month in 2016. Months of inventory fell in the city to less than one month for the first time in at least six years.

A 2019 report on housing in Owen Sound by the RentSafe EquIP research project, which included representatives of the Grey Bruce Health Unit and Bruce Grey Poverty Task Force on its advisory committee, said Owen Sound is in a housing crisis that is “characterized by an inadequate supply of low-income housing, rising costs that are out of step with household incomes and aging housing stock that is deteriorating.”

Francesca Dobbyn, executive director of the United Way of Bruce Grey, said the entire Grey-Bruce region is in a “full housing crisis” that is preventing even people with wages considered above low-income from being able to afford a home.

Boddy said the number of houses on the market in Owen Sound shows there’s a housing shortage. But if bedrooms in the city are counted, the city has an abundance of housing.

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“We’ve got an awful lot of people that are retired – husband and wife or maybe just one or the other – and they need that smaller house to be able to move into and we need to build those so that we can release the houses for families to live in,” he said.

Many of the units being built in the city now will be those kinds of smaller housing units, which will allow retirees and empty-nesters to move out of their larger homes and, in turn, make available more single-family homes, he said.

Boddy said the city has issued over the past two years building permits for 264 residential units and one-third of those are affordable through Owen Sound Housing Company.

Five multi-unit housing developments are underway, he said, and he expects Bremont Homes will begin work this year on its planned 337-unit Telfer Creek subdivision next to the Owen Sound hospital.

Mortgage rates are “really low” right now, he said, which is a factor in driving up housing prices.

Jackson, who’s also mayor of South Bruce Peninsula, said her municipality is not actively promoting the town to potential new residents, but people are still flocking there to live, which is causing housing prices to skyrocket.

Half of the town’s population is seasonal, she said, and many of those residents are renovating their cottages and moving to the town permanently amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The town has also seen an “incredible” uptick in people from urban areas purchasing income properties, she said.

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“We’re seeing a massive amount of movement up here, which is causing a strain on the real estate market. The inventory is very, very low and the demand is very, very high and it’s driving the prices right through the roof,” she said.

Hicks said Grey County has been working for years to recruit more workers, including tradespeople from the GTA, to relocate to the region.

“There’s no question in my mind that we’re not going to meet the (labour) needs with the 1.3 children that we have per family. We’re going to need people and we’re going to need skilled labour and other labour as well,” he said.

“These people are important to us, but at the same time, we have to look at things like infrastructure – how do we support them?”

Burley said the housing inventory in Georgian Bluffs “is pretty well used up” and a new subdivision in the northern part of the municipality is sold out.

But he doesn’t think efforts should be paused to entice more people to move to the region.

He noted Grey County has adopted policies that encourage more affordable housing, such as those enabling homeowners to create granny flats in their homes.

The need for more affordable housing and transportation options and to expand the availability of broadband and collaboration among neighbouring municipalities were among the other topics discussed during the Leader’s Forum.

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