• Soaring house prices and a lack of money are hobbling two successful programs that help social housing tenants get into their own homes.

    The initiatives, operated by the city and the Realtors Association of Hamilton-Burlington, have helped more than 300 families leave subsidized housing for a home of their own but are now inactive.

    RAHB’s Home Ownership Affordability Partnership helped a dozen families between 2004 and 2012 buy and renovate fixer-uppers in Hamilton’s core. In a recent release, however, the association said it hasn’t been able to complete a new project because soaring house prices across Hamilton have made it hard to find affordable homes.

    “There’s no doubt that the increase in house prices is having a bearing on the program,” said Ross Godsoe, CEO of the realtors’ association. “These prices have created a real challenge for people in social housing.”

    HOAP matches interested clients with a realtor and banker who help them find a house and mortgage. The program then finances needed repairs and the closing costs of the purchase as well as carrying costs for the six-week renovation period.

    At the end of that process a family that used to live in a subsidized apartment now has a home of its own, a social housing unit has been freed for another needy case and a piece of a Hamilton neighbourhood has been revitalized.

    Since 2012, however, HOAP has been kept on the sidelines of the affordable housing debate because Hamilton’s steadily rising home prices have made it harder to match low income families with a house.

    Godsoe explained that when HOAP started, half of the houses it helped clients buy were in Hamilton Centre and sold for an average price of $102,000. Average prices in that part of the city today are $220,000.

    One of the forces driving that constant rise in prices is a wave of “housing refugees” from Toronto looking for more house for the same buck in Hamilton.

    “A lot of our market is coming from the GTA,” he said. “They’ll buy these properties in a heartbeat.”

    Hamilton was an initial backer of HOAP, but community services department spokesperson Aisling Higgins said its attention has shifted to its own Home Ownership Down Payment Assistance Program.

    Financed in 2008 with $1.4 million in provincial money, the program gives qualified clients a 20-year, no interest, no repayment grant toward the down payment on a house in a specified neighbourhood such as Jamesville, Beasley, Keith, Gibson/Landsdale or Stinson.

    The price of the house can’t be more than $275,000 and if the client sells the property before 20 years, the loan and a portion of the equity in the house are paid back into the fund to finance more purchases.

    Starting in 2008-9, $1.4 million was doled out to 195 recipients. Repayments of those loans then financed $580,000 to 31 recipients in 2010, $824,000 to 45 applicants in 2011-12 and $415,000 this year to 25 families.

    The program is not accepting new applications right now.

    Dave Brodati, Hamilton’s manager of investment in affordable housing, said the program has been successful in its goal of helping people who can carry a mortgage but lack a down payment. Rising prices, however, create difficulties by restricting the number of house available under the program’s price cap.

    “Our hot market is also drawing more competition for the available houses.”

    Supporters of the programs say their biggest contribution is to free up social housing units for new families. Available numbers, however, say the 300 families moved into the “private” housing market have barely made a dent in the waiting list for subsidized units.

    The city’s website shows there were 5,724 low income families waiting for an affordable unit in March, up from 5,476 for the same month in 2014. They can expect to wait up to four years before a unit becomes available.

    Until then, they’ll have to make their incomes stretch to pay an average rent of $959 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in the city.

    Tom Cooper, of Hamilton’s Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, said programs like HOAP and the down payment aid help the affordable housing problem “on a microscale” but aren’t replacements for the comprehensive national housing strategy Canada desperately needs.

    “The fact we’ve helped 300 families is great, but there are thousands who are still suffering. What we need is a federal partner to start investing in housing again. We haven’t seen that kind of investment in a decade.”

    Until that happens, social planner Renee Wetselaar urged the city, realtors and other housing players to use the tools they have.

    HOAP, for example, has nearly $500,000 on hand “and I can’t rationalize why they haven’t moved forward with something,” she said.

    “I just don’t know why the will isn’t there to do more,” she added.

    Robert Floris is an independent mortgage broker at Mortgage Architects in Hamilton, Ontario.


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