This is part of a series of stories on the effect COVID-19 has had on the real estate market in Parry Sound-Muskoka, #COVIDrealestateboom.
Kelly Jones is deeply aware the Muskoka region is experiencing a housing crisis: she supports low-income residents through her work at the YWCA Muskoka, but she’s also spent the last six years living in a social housing unit in Huntsville with her two daughters.
”For the last three years, I’ve been searching to get out of housing,” she said, ”but I cannot afford what’s out there.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has many from metropolitan areas looking to flee their population-dense settings for the simpler lifestyle Muskoka offers. It’s also easier to do as many offices stay closed and employees continue working from home.
There’s heightened interest in Muskoka real estate and renting right now: it’s something Susan Campbell and her colleagues at the Lake Country Community Legal Clinic have noticed.
”It’s a fact, can’t deny it: Our housing is hot at this time of the year,” she said.
The clinic provides low-income people with legal advice on housing. She said they’re getting more calls from people looking for affordable housing in the area.
”We’ve had more in the last six months than we’ve probably had in the last six years,” Campbell said.
This coincides with people’s increasingly unstable housing situations and the lack of affordable housing.
Jones said some people she knows, including her colleagues at the Bridges out of Poverty program at the YWCA, left Muskoka this year to find an affordable place to live elsewhere. Others, Jones and Campbell said, are renting rooms out of hotels or motels.
”I’ve seen the surge, especially over the pandemic,” Jones said.
When people on the higher end of the socio-economic spectrum move into a new neighbourhood, anti-poverty advocates often worry low-income people will get pushed out when property values rise – a process known as gentrification.
”It’s absolutely going to happen,” Campbell said.
She said issues around rent control have persisted in Muskoka for years. In Ontario, landlords can only raise rent when their units are vacant. However, Campbell said this motivates landlords to find ways to have tenants move out or evict them in order to hike rent once the unit is vacant.
”Even before the pandemic, we had a huge problem with rental housing,” Campbell said. The legal work she does at the clinic involves advising tenants on their eviction cases. She said many have lost their homes since the beginning of the pandemic.
Jones is cautious about using the term gentrification.
”Muskoka is such a challenge? it’s so beautiful and people want to live here,” she said, but added, ”I could see the locals getting pushed out.”
She and Campbell said they’re worried locals working in the service industry living on lower incomes could not afford to stay if rent increased.
”We’re the ones that are serving and cleaning cottages, mowing lawns, are grocery store attendants and at your Shoppers Drug Mart,” Jones said.
Samantha Hastings, the District of Muskoka’s community and planning services commissioner, said she doesn’t see gentrification as an issue for Muskoka.
”We obviously do have wealthier residents and there is a hidden poor,” she said.
Hastings said an increased Muskoka population can help the district improve services for all residents in the area.
”We can more efficiently provide any kind of service, whether it’s water and sewage, transit, roads – everything is more efficient to deliver based on a larger population,” she said.
Rural Muskoka areas see it similarly: David Pink, director of development services for Muskoka Lakes Township, said an increase in their year-round population could mean a boost to the year-round economy.
”The year-round population does struggle: it’s a very seasonal economy and that poses a lot of difficulties for business and for those looking for housing and employment,” he said. ”If our towns, Bala and Port Carling, were to grow, I think that would be beneficial.”
Hastings added more system users can drive service costs down in urban areas, which could make a more enticing case for private developers to support affordable housing proposals.
”Affordable housing is obviously a growing need,” she said. ”We’re going to have to tackle it in partnership with the private sector: it’s not something government is going to be able to solve by itself.”
Jones said she engages with Muskoka cottagers through her work and said many have been benevolent with their time and financial support for the poverty reduction program.
She wants people to form connections across class lines to collectively advocate for affordable housing for all.
”Maybe I am looking at it with rose-coloured glasses, but I do see the hardships of it as well,” she said. ”If we can find that common ground, we can support one another.”
Zahraa Hmood is a Local Journalism Reporter with the Parry Sound North Star and MuskokaRegion.com. LJI is funded by the Government of Canada.