Plan to demolish affordable units for funeral home expansion draws criticism
One Kitchener councillor called it the hardest decision in his 12 years at city hall.
On Tuesday night, council voted in favour of a motion allowing five affordable housing units to be torn down to allow a funeral home to expand.
The decision to allow Henry Walser, owner of Henry Walser Funeral Home, to demolish three Becker Street homes that he owns and currently rents out to expand his business has been debated in council chambers multiple times.
“My role is a funeral director,” said Walser. “I want to develop a funeral home that is good for this community. The death rate is 100 per cent - that is a fact. As this community grows, I am trying to create a place where we can do our work, help families navigate the waters of grief and loss and be a good corporate citizen.”
Walser pointed out that he is a developer, and although he provides affordable housing, that isn’t the business he is in.
Councillors said despite hearing from delegates and deferring the motion since January, they were in a tough spot when it came to making the decision.
On the one hand, they want to try and preserve affordable housing, but said even if they were to vote against the project, it's likely the property owner could appeal the decision with the province and win.
TENANTS VOICE OPPOSITION TO DECISION
Those who live in the homes said council let them down.
Megan Ruttan and Cameron Walker have lived in one of Walser’s affordable homes for the last 10 years.
“They could have said no. It was their moral prerogative to say no,” said Ruttan.
The duo said they feel the decision to effectively remove affordable housing makes clear where council's priorities lie.
“Morally abject, especially from a city council that says it cares about affordable housing,” said Ruttan. “It’s clearly nonsense.”
Ruttan and Walker say this has been difficult, but affordable housing is worth the fight.
“You have to keep fighting. It’s absolute worth the fight. I don’t regret it. City council sided with power. It’s shameful,” said Ruttan.
Walser noted he also offered some help to the tenants, including $5,500 for relocation costs, and a new place at market value.
They did not take him up on that offer.
Meanwhile, Ruttan plans to start a tenants rights advocacy group to help prevent evictions.
COUNCILLORS SPEAK TO THEIR VOTES
According to city council, the situation is not so black and white. Councillors said their options were limited, forcing them to make a tough decision.
“The affordability crisis happened in the middle of this application, so there is some honouring the city's commitments with the applicant,” said Scott Davey, a councillor who voted in favour of the motion.
Davey said if council rejected the proposal, Walser could appeal to the Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT), which decides in favour of developers more than 95 per cent of the time.
“So, the worst thing you can do is appeal to the OLT and lose, because not only do you lose anything that you negotiated, but you expend a lot of tax dollars defending it,” Davey said.
Davey said by working with the applicant they were able to save one of the homes originally slated for demolition.
“My greater fear is that this goes to the OLT, and we lose three homes instead of two. It was a very difficult decision,” he said.
Coun. Aislinn Clancy voted against the proposal, but agrees the provincial appeals tribunal stacks the deck against the city.
“The 97 per cent success rate for developers in the OLT shows there is a lack of democracy. I would suggest people go to the province and address that issue,” Clancy said. “I don’t think its serving its true purpose.”
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