Peterborough builds 50 transitional tiny homes, but no similar plan in Toronto yet

The City of Peterborough is about to open 50 tiny homes for people experiencing homelessness. Could Toronto see similar homes? Nick Westoll reports.

As Ontario braces for winter, the City of Peterborough is rushing to open dozens of new transitional homes as the municipality — like many others in Ontario — continues to deal with homelessness.

However, the 50-unit project on Wolfe Street on the edge of downtown Peterborough is something not typically seen in Ontario. All of the homes are modular and are so-called tiny homes, and it only took six months to build.

“This isn’t a replacement for affordable housing, but this is a reaction to really looking from the perspective of people that we’re setting up,” Ward 3 Coun. Alex Bierk said during a tour of the property.

“My friend who I grew up with, he got kicked out of the men’s shelter for eating Smarties in bed because that was one of the rules that they had. He just said he would rather stay outside, so a model like this gives people some autonomy.”

The homes are located on a municipal permit parking lot next to a City-owned building. Officials said each one cost around $21,000. All of the single-room structures have full-size beds with linens, electricity, heating and cooling units, hard-wired smoke detectors, refrigerators, cutlery and other small amenities. Residents will have the ability to pick out dressers and side tables to suit their likes. There are also small outdoor storage areas at each home.

Also, there are five communal washrooms built in a standalone structure and each one has a shower unit attached. At the adjacent municipal building, there will be laundry and food facilities along with spaces for residents to access the services of physical and mental health professionals along with social workers.

“The success of this project is riding on the wraparound supports that we’re providing,” Bierk noted.

Officials said safety was a top consideration for the site. New fences and CCTV cameras were installed and there will be 24-7 security patrols.

“People are free to come and go … it’s been fenced for a reason to keep people out, not keep people in,” Coun. Keith Riel said.

Bierk and Riel said curfews will be in place at the site and those living in the homes will have to agree to a common set of rules. They said a neighbourhood liaison committee has been established to address issues that arise.

“The idea here is when the residents move in here they will have their own community liaison committee. This is their home,” Riel said.

The project is largely funded by the Ontario government (approximately $2 million) along with some municipal funding. The City of Peterborough is responsible for the operations.

RELATED: Churches use tiny homes for homeless

Before the conversion of the site began, it became an encampment. It moved across the street to the south beside a rail line and officials said up to 70 people are believed to be living at the site.

“We did a poor job when certainly the tent city morphed in here. I didn’t think that we thought that was going to happen,” Riel said.

“People that were chronically unhoused and living here. We’re dealing with a complex set of needs that weren’t being met, a lot of health needs, and it was very sad to see that,” Bierk added.

“We’re bringing an incredible amount of structure and support to the area and I truly believe that there will be challenges, but it will represent a big change.”

Both councillors said affordability and access to housing have been major issues in Peterborough.

“Well when you have less than a one-per-cent vacancy rate for housing, this is what you’re going to end up with and certainly with Ontario Works or ODSP payment that they get when you were looking for a one-bedroom apartment here for $1,300 people can’t afford it,” Riel said.

“We had Trent University students having to access the shelter system. We’re a post-industrial city and a lot of those working-class, industrial jobs had been lost … there’s a growing disparity and I think this is a growing reflection of that,” Bierk said.

There are estimated to be more than 300 people experiencing homelessness in Peterborough. The population is roughly 81,000 people. Riel said construction of a 98-unit apartment building has been approved, but said the City’s plan is to see 2,000 units built in the community.

“The municipality can’t do this on their own. We have to get these other levels of government to realize there is a crisis in this country,” he said.

“Certainly when they start to get their act together and start giving the money. We have the will. You’ve just seen something that’s happened in six months with the money that they gave us.”

Could the Peterborough development happen in Toronto?

Toronto currently has 259 Green P parking lots with 28,374 spaces. There are also 44 garages with 12,149 spaces.

I visited two parking lots just east of Scarborough Town Centre after the Monday morning rush to get a small sense of the demand municipally owned lots near a major hub can face. While the mall parking lot saw a large number of vehicles, a Green P lot on Grangeway Avenue was almost empty and a second one on McCowan Road was nearly half full.

CityNews spoke with Coun. Alejandra Bravo, who chairs the City of Toronto’s economic and community development committee, to ask about the potential for Peterborough’s project could be replicated. She brought a motion asking for City staff to look at building tiny homes, mobile homes and modular homes on municipal lands, citing examples in Kitchener and Nova Scotia.

“Well we had a different administration and with the election of the new mayor, we do have new opportunities,” she said when asked why Toronto hasn’t been able to move in a similar timeframe as the City of Peterborough.

“I think it’s really important when you make a commitment as a city to progressively advance the right to housing that we’re looking at every possible option when people are facing a very cold winter.”

However, Bravo noted the possibility of seeing similar projects built in Toronto in the short term isn’t there yet.

“It’s not going to happen quickly here because we haven’t made the pivot yet. There has to be a study and that will be reported in the first quarter of 2024. The sooner, the better,” she said.

“What we really need to be thinking about is how we’re using every division, every tool that the City possibly has working with the other orders of government bringing them to the table because a roof over your head, a safe place to sleep at night free from fire, free from the elements safely, is an absolute human right and we have to be leaning into that.”

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