February 11, 2009

Erin needs more affordable housing

As published in The Erin Advocate

When I am ready to retire, I would like to have the option of buying a smaller home in Erin. Is it too much to expect? Should we be able to stay close to our community when we have no need of a larger home?

It is a sad reality that many people have faced this issue and have decided to move away. It seems to be the price of living close to the Greater Toronto Area, and of living in a town with no sanitary sewer system.

The housing market in Erin has gone soft in recent months, along with the rest of Canada, but a quick scan of real estate listings shows plenty of houses selling for over $350,000, and a limited selection below that amount. New subdivisions in recent years have featured large lots and relatively expensive homes.

The main reason, says Erin Mayor Rod Finnie, is that large lots are required for individual septic systems. To justify the cost of large lots, large homes are built.

"When we do get sewage, I expect that development would include smaller homes," he said. In 2007, Erin decided to freeze new housing development while it works on its Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP).

The plan will guide development for decades, and public input will soon be requested. It involves not only sewage systems for the urban areas of Hillsburgh and Erin village, but a vision of the type of community we want. Current projections show the town's rural population declining slightly to 58 per cent by 2031, assuming a sewage solution is found.

The SSMP process will take until the end of 2010 – a long time for housing development to be tied up, said Councillor Josie Wintersinger. "I had hoped to be able to do more for seniors, so they wouldn't have to move to Guelph or Orangeville where they don't know anybody," she said. The mayor said the SSMP process "is taking a lot longer than I had hoped for".

Current homeowners should not be overly concerned about the slightly lower value of their properties during this recession, according to John Cook, of McEnery Real Estate in Erin.

"Our market seems to hold its value – it is a very desirable area," he said. "Some people are sitting on their hands, to see if they have a job next month, but the market has not fallen through the floor. It is still a safe place to invest."

Of course, smaller homes do come on the market, but there does not seem to be enough choice to meet the needs of buyers. For some, a home in Stanley Park is an attractive option. But others would prefer a townhouse to a mobile home, and or would like to own their own land.

Cook said a balanced approach, with a mix of different levels of housing, would be a benefit to the community. "We need more entry and exit type properties," he said, referring to younger and older home buyers.

The Canadian Real Estate Association reports that the average price of Multiple Listing Service homes in Canada in December was down 11 per cent compared to December, 2007. Sales as a percentage of new listings in the fourth quarter of 2008 fell to the lowest level since the mid-1990s.

The Royal LePage 2009 Market Survey predicts a price decline across Canada of 3.0 per cent this year, to an average of $295,000, though there are major variations by local market. Toronto is expected to be down 4.0 per cent. Regions dependent on manufacturing jobs will have sharper price declines. Prices will still be higher than three years ago, due to a surge in 2007.

Strong growth in the first half of 2008 was reversed by bad economic news in the second half, creating a buyer's market, according to recent analysis by RE/MAX.

"The situation is not expected to be remedied until consumer confidence is restored," said RE/MAX VP Michael Polzler. "We could see a bounce back as early as spring – if inventory levels remain stable, pent-up demand kicks into gear, and lower interest rates stimulate home-buying activity."