Right to home: Shaping how we plan Kitchener

By Janine Oosterveld, Manager, Customer Experience & Project Management

The right to home is a simple concept that is complex to solve. Leilani Farha’s talk on the value of a human right to housing framework provided insight into both the shift in mindset that is needed and what that might look like for local governments. She explains the right to housing as the right to live somewhere in peace, security and with dignity. Examples include:

  • Security of tenure – where a person enjoys living without fear of eviction;
  • Affordability – relative to the needs of the household;
  • Decent housing that is structurally sound, sanitary without risks like infestations or black mold; and,
  • Cultural appropriateness – including housing that is relevant for Indigenous peoples, newcomers and intergenerational families.

Leilani explains that a human rights-based approach shifts the framing from people as beneficiaries to people as entitled to safe, secure, and decent housing. Governments, at all levels, are then accountable to people and people are ‘rights holders’, where access to housing is the norm and delivered equitably across jurisdictions.

So how does this apply to Kitchener’s urban planning framework?

I appreciated Leilani’s acknowledgment of Kitchener as a good example through the Housing for All Strategy. Kitchener’s leadership chose to identify and tackle things that are within our jurisdiction and ability to change, despite housing falling under the mandate of the Region of Waterloo within our two-tiered municipal system. This was a significant shift in approach that has led to several City actions including affordable housing incentives (e.g. development charge incentives and application fee waivers), streamlining development approvals for affordable and supportive housing, and advocacy, which included working with our Regional counterparts to provide temporary locations for A Better Tent City.

As a member of Kitchener’s planning team for the past 10 years, I have witnessed the transition and we continue to make changes with so much more work to be done. As planners, one of the primary principles of equity is that we cannot “people zone” – meaning, bylaws cannot be set up to exclude a certain group of people. Kitchener’s planning tools allow a broad range of housing types to meet the needs of current and future residents as they change over time. One example is “single family” zoning where it is illegal to have more than one dwelling unit on a property. Since the 1990s, Kitchener has been a leader in this area by permitting duplexes in most single detached residential zones. More recently, updates to the Zoning Bylaw over the past year allowed additional dwelling units in the form of backyard homes and the flexibility to provide up to three dwelling units on approximately 25,000 properties.

One of Leilani’s examples included lived experience in the decision-making process. All too often, decision-makers have the privilege of safe and secure housing and may not fully appreciate the systemic barriers affecting access to housing. Kitchener has been integrating lived experience into our engagement practices. Most recently, the Kitchener Housing Lived Expertise Working Group was established in partnership with the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region to guide and monitor the implementation of the Housing for All recommendations using a right to housing lens.

We have also begun a community-led update to our vision for Downtown which includes a Downtown Community Working Group whose membership includes those with lived experience. This group will work collaboratively with City staff to update Kitchener’s vision for Downtown to recognize the evolving needs of our community in an area that is growing quickly.

Leilani identified that this is a complex problem that cannot be turned around overnight and multiple strategies are needed. Kitchener residents also understand the importance of affordable housing as reflected through the 2022 Environics survey conducted as part of the City’s strategic plan process. Through this survey, 33% of residents identified housing affordability as the single most important issue facing the city. Residents of Kitchener, through the survey, also recognized the need to coordinate with other levels of government to fund and support programs. Cross-jurisdictional work is ongoing and must continue from the national down to the local level to support equity and the right to housing.

My questions for you are:

There were many housing advocates, residents and development professionals who attended or watched the recording. Considering the right to housing is complex and requires multiple actions, what additional steps should we take, collectively, beyond the work already underway?

Kitchener’s planning team is open to exploring innovations in housing policies and tools. As we start to plan for an update to Kitchener’s Official Plan, which is our long-range policy document that guides growth and development 20 to 30-years into the future, how can we better integrate the right to housing into the Official Plan?

How do we hear from those that are most impacted by housing scarcity and affordability to ensure that their voices are captured and included as we look forward to plan Kitchener’s future?

What do you think? Add your comments below.

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Thank you to everyone who joined us for this five-part speaker series in 2022/2023. Together, we explored topics related to how we can make city infrastructure and services more equitable and accessible for all residents. The speaker series has now concluded. If you have any questions, please contact the Planning division at planning@kitchener.ca

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