Beds and housing being added but demand eclipses supply: RRDSSAB

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

While it has a year of significant achievement under its belt, the Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board (RRDSSAB) warns that there are still rising pressures around housing in the district.

As part of the presentations made to the assembled delegates of the Rainy River District Municipal Association (RRDMA) at their Annual General Meeting on Saturday, January 14, 2023, RRDSSAB CAO Dan McCormick discussed the year in review for the organization, going over the accomplishments they made in 2022, as well as what he sees are barriers or issues still to address in the coming years.

“Housing is one of the biggest concerns in our district,” McCormick told the RRDMA assembly.

“There are a lot of people who are without housing in our district. Either they can’t afford it, or there is no housing to be had. So one of the things our board worked on was how to get people off the street. You’ve heard lots of stories about what’s going on, particularly right now up in Kenora. We have it on a smaller scale in Fort Frances, and Fort Frances gets it because they’re sort of the hub, so we have people moving from outside areas of the district to Fort Frances because that’s predominantly where a lot of the services are.”

Perhaps one of the most visible successes the organization had last year were the significant improvements and renovations made to the former Apostolic Way church located at the corner of Victoria Avenue and Church Street. The one-time church is now home to the Seasonal Warming Centre, which generally operates from November until April or May in order to provide a warm place for those experiencing homelessness to sleep during the cold winter months, as well as a number of new spaces being operated by partner community organizations.

“The other thing we’ve done in the same building is we’ve built five safe beds,” McCormick explained.

“Those beds are filled generally by the OPP or directly through CMHA. CMHA operates it, we just own the building, and all of their funding comes through Ontario Health. That became operational in October of 2021. The average stay in that building is 30 days, and that’s just to try and get people straightened out so they can now secure housing.”

The next phase for the building has been renovating the main floor of the building into six residential treatment beds, which are anticipated to be complete in Spring 2023. The building has also seen renovations that have expanded an entire top third floor from what was once a smaller balcony to be office space, built a full kitchen that can be accessed by and isolated to any of the programs that operate within the building, and installed an elevator for those with mobility difficulties. RRDSSAB is also exploring possibilities with CMHA to utilize the warming space centre during the summer months for different programming. All in all, the building offers plenty of space for those in need to stay warm, access treatment and potentially get to the stage where they can continue to improve their lives.

Unfortunately, as McCormick explained, one of the barriers still facing those in need and countless others in the district is the lack of housing actually available for rent or purchase. To address this issue, the RRDSSSAB completed the purchase and rezoning of the former St. Michael’s School building and lands to begin transforming the area for a number of different purposes, including a dedicated EarlyON Centre space, offices for the Community Paramedicine Program, and a number of new living options.

“The school is going to be renovated into senior’s housing,” McCormick said.

“It already has our community paramedicine offices in there, so they will be available for seniors in that building, which will be sort of quasi-assisted living, but not true assisted living. The other thing on that site is we’re going to build five apartment buildings. Each unit is two stories, the bottom floor has two bachelor apartments, two accessible one-bedroom apartments, and the upper floor has four one-bedroom apartments. By the time this complex is built you’ll have 40 apartments in the community.

Even with the planned additions of seniors apartments and the new apartment buildings, the housing situation in the district is still dire. McCormick said there are about 500 apartments in the district, of which 300 are operated directly by RRDSSAB. The remainder are operated by non-profit boards that RRDSSAB assists with funding. McCormick said there is currently a 180-190 person waitlist for the 300 apartments that are under the direct operation of the RRDSSAB.

“Some of the apartments have waitlists that exceed ten years,” he said.

“There is a tremendous need across the district for more apartments, and the three area’s we’re seeing are singles affordable housing, so one-bedroom bachelor apartments are really needed, the other area we really need something is seniors affordable. A lot of seniors cant afford to pay current market rents that have been driven up, and tenancies have been taken away and put back out at higher rates, making it very unaffordable for people. The other thing we’re seeing is a huge demand in family housing. Where we previously had four-bedroom, three-bedroom homes standing empty, particularly in Atikokan, for almost ten years, now we don’t have enough apartments there to meet a third of the demand. Things change very rapidly.”