Over 850 people made their way to the Delta Hotel on Stone Road for the annual winter ritual of hearing the mayor talk. The Chamber of Commerce’s State of the City event for 2023 had the usual aspirational statements and hopeful outlook about the future, but it also came with a warning about the tough times ahead and the need to work together as a community to meet the challenges were all familiar with by now.
“I’m known for giving my State of the City addresses in a manner that pulls together a gimmick or a memorable group project to pull you along during my talks. A spiffy PowerPoint presentation or table exercise to keep you entertained, but I’m not doing that this time.” Guthrie explained at the beginning of his speech, adding that it was a purposeful decision.
“I need you to listen very carefully to my words today. To watch my demeanor, my body language,” he said. “Listen to my tone because today I need to tell you straight up what’s going on in our city and where I believe we need to go. There are just no gimmicks for the seriousness of the issues I need to address with you today.”
Unsurprisingly, the root of the troubles that Guthrie was about housing issues, affordability, and homelessness and mental health issues.
“The Provincial Legislation changes dropped on cities the day after our own election will have major ramifications on how we handle the housing crisis,” Guthrie said. “The housing crisis is real, and it’s been coming on for a few years now, but now it’s smacking us in the face and our wallets big time.”
The mayor said that all three parties at the table – the City, the developers, and the community – need to be ready to act quickly to get more housing available and to meet provincial requirements recently established in the More Homes, Built Faster Act. He told developers to be ready to put shovels in the ground as soon as projects are approved, and he told City staff and council to try and get applications done as quickly as possible. As for everyone else…
“The community must stop being NIMBY – Not in my backyard,” he said. “More often than not, it’s the same recipe of complaints from every neighbourhood. Not every development is going to destroy the value in your home, cause accidents and have children or animals run over or cause massive parking issues or have a design element that you don’t like.
“We are in a housing crisis and you and me and probably every single person in this room is comfortably housed. It’s time to embrace different housing types for different people because communities are made of differences. It’s time to embrace YIMBY – Yes in my backyard.”
In other news, Guthrie pointed to the only two slides he brought, images of the front page of the Guelph Mercury from 2014 that pegged the cost of the Baker Street redevelopment and the South End Community Centre at $53 million and $49 million respectively, projects that may now end up costing three-times as much due to inflation. Guthrie said that the lesson learned is that delays cost more in the long-run.
“Whether you voted for these projects or not Council, they’re approved projects and we must do what we can to get them done,” he said noting that there are ways the business community can help out. “There are sponsorship opportunities coming up. Perhaps naming rights, or equipment donations and more can be thought of for you and your organizations. ”
In terms of issues of homelessness, mental health and addictions, Guthrie expressed frustration that the meeting on these issues with the Provincial government that he asked for eight months ago as the head of Ontario’s Big City Mayors caucus never happened. While these matters are technically the Province’s to deal with, Guthrie said that he wants to put his energy into coming up with local solutions and not just complaining about what the Ontario government isn’t doing.
“I’m not going to waste my time playing the victim card on provincial housing legislation,” he said. “I’ll point it out where I must, stand up where I can, but I’d much rather spend my time thinking about how to get homes built faster, reducing red tape and making things easier for people to deal with city hall on housing. I’d much rather our energy be put into becoming the best and most affordable city to find a place to live.”
Guthrie did a longer-than-usual question-and-answer session after his speech where he expanded on some of things he talked about in his speech. A third-year student at the University of Guelph asked him specifically about housing for students and the challenges they’re facing in finding any accommodation, and not just affordable housing.
“Did you see the picture that went viral around our city a couple of weeks ago? It was 50 Kids deep at one house trying to get a room, and it’s unacceptable in the city to have this type of a housing crisis,” Guthrie remarked.
“We need to have more supply so that it creates more choice, and so that there’s competition, and then hopefully the rents will go down,” he added. “As a council, and as a city, we need to start making sure that we say ‘yes’, especially to student purpose-built type of projects. And the struggle isn’t just for students, it’s for often parents who are trying to figure out how to pay for their kids to be able to get the the university education they’re looking for.”
Answering a different question, Guthrie noted that this is not just a matter of more housing, but making sure there’s a diversity of housing for a different types of people, families and communities, some of who are settling in the Guelph for the first time.
“One of the concerns myself and other mayors have across the province is that we’re not diversifying our housing units as much as I think we need to be doing,” Guthrie said. “What we’re saying in some cases, and not on purpose, is ‘Welcome to Guelph’ and you and your family can go live in this tiny house in the backyard. That’s not right. We need to diversify our units, not just for immigration and refugee situations, but for everyone.”
In terms of solutions to housing from the Ontario government, Guthrie did point out one thing when the question came from the floor. There’s a lot of land in Guelph that are brownfields waiting for someone to cover the cost of cleaning them up.
“If the Province wants to get housing built, near infrastructure that’s already existing, give us the money to clean up the land,” he said. “You win everywhere on that; you get a brownfield that is no longer an environmental problem, you get housing for people to live in, and it’s near amenities that already exist int the community.”
Guthrie also encouraged everyone to get involved in helping council set priorities in the next version of the Strategic Plan, which will be approved by council in July and will then inform the next four-year multi-year budget.
You can see the live coverage of the State of the City by clicking here.