The housing crisis in Belleville

Originally posted Dec. 2, 2021

In the City of Belleville, there is one shelter to meet the needs of unhoused citizens. This shelter, the Grace Inn, hosts all of 21 beds. And yet, a study conducted in 2018 found that there were 150 Belleville residents living unhoused, with 45% experiencing chronic homelessness; an amount that overwhelms the capacity of The Grace Inn shelter by seven times. The homelessness crisis is only deepening: since 2019, the price of a single family home in Quinte has increased 61%, and a report found that rent in Belleville is only affordable to workers making $20 or more an hour.

It’s become tradition in City Council meetings to complain about the increases in police activity in the downtown area, and no Councillor is more contemptuous towards the unhoused than Councilor McCaw. McCaw uses City Council meetings to berate the only shelter in the city and call for funding cuts because, according to her, the Grace Inn is serving too many non-locals. Not only does this not matter – the difference between freezing on the street and surviving the night does not depend on your postal code – it is simply untrue: 87% of the homeless population have resided in Belleville for more than a year (September 2021).

The choice to blame other municipalities for our homeless problem is striking. We know for a fact that housing costs in Belleville have increased due to demand from outside, a demand that has caused some home costs to jump by nearly 30%. People coming from outside of the city seeking shelter are not causing the crisis; the housing crisis is the result of our local government’s refusal to lobby for and fund actual solutions to the problem. Social housing is needed, not high priced condominium developments and manicured single family detached communities. The Council does not blame non-resident buyers for the problems in housing affordability, but finds time to debate the cost of the supposed non-resident unhoused population. All of this is a distraction from the actual issue at hand: what Council allows for development, and how it spends its resources

Despite McCaw’s consistent calls for defunding, the Grace Inn is a privately-run shelter and receives only a portion of its funding from the City. The public has, at best, limited influence on critical operating decisions like service hours and services offered, decisions that McCaw seeks to assert influence over. The Grace Inn lives in the public imagination as a municipal project – but it is private. This is a sobering reminder that our municipality is not even doing the bare minimum in terms of addressing unhoused needs.

Homelessness in Belleville is a blight, not because people can’t afford to live here, but because we don’t value them enough to build an affordable city. Most Councillors may not be openly anti-homeless, but they stop short of supporting necessary social programs, choosing instead to farm the problem out to police and private developers. These solutions are tried and tested throughout Ontario, and not once have they led to a total reduction in homeless cases.

The MP for the Bay of Quinte, Ryan Williams, recently stated that the key to solving the housing crisis is to build more housing, asserting that we need to double the amount of housing in Canada. Decades of building out Belleville has proven this strategy wrong. Yes, we need housing stock, but the leading cause of homelessness in Belleville is the inability to afford rent. This is a problem brought by profit-driven housing development. If we continue to build without a public housing solution, the crisis in housing will continue.

Social housing development that does occur is meagre and prioritizes the profits of developers. Magnolia Gardens, built by KGF Capital Realty, has made headlines across Quinte for providing a timely solution to the housing crisis. Their application to the city specifies that 30 units will offer rent at 70-90% market rate, which is still far out of reach of those living on disability payments or fixed incomes. It’s clear that these 30 units of “affordable” housing – on which our federal government dumped $23 million to develop – are not for those already in crisis. As we’ve seen elsewhere, when market-indexed “affordable” units are built alongside non-regulated units, the price of the affordable units are not truly shielded as the market price rises alongside the cost of these new builds.

While it seems that money for social services is never available, this is not the case for the police budget. On Aug. 24 of this year, Council agreed to fund a special patrol in the downtown district on 4:00-9:00 p.m. weekdays, over the next six months. This pet project takes up $55,000 of the City’s 2021 operating budget. According to authorities, this move is “intended to counter a surge in incidents of violence, sexual harassment, and urinating and defecating in public areas.” Policing the homeless is common in municipalities that want to “beautify” their downtowns, but have no solutions to the homelessness crisis. Council fosters a whimsical hope that police can solve the homelessness issue, but unless they are providing safe housing or shelter, this is a counterintuitive move.

This money would manifest real value if invested in social programs that prevent homelessness in the first place, or provide unhoused residents with the support they need to get housed. In fact, the resources are already there, as we have community groups that actively work with and support unhoused residents. Not Alone Team Quinte and Bridge Street United Church are proactive at building and supporting the community, and offering solutions that policing lacks. What if Council decided to support these initiatives instead of an already bloated police program intended to target and remove residents from sight?

It is clear that the City of Belleville has, like every other municipality in Canada, an uncontrolled, deepening housing crisis. It won’t be changed by how many people have local postal codes, by criticizing shelters, or by building a handful of units at slightly below the bankrupting market rate. City Council shows no desire to put in the work to effectively combat the issue and invest in actual solutions. Their consistent overfunding of the police budget, while vital services such as affordable housing and shelters remain drastically underfunded, shows that Council is either failing to understand the problem or unwilling to address it.

We believe there is an urgent need for a group that will fight for the rights of the unhoused and those in precarious housing situations in Belleville. We propose the formation of a Quinte Union of Tenants which, modelled after similar work in Toronto, Kingston, and beyond, would deliver essential aid services to tenants and the homeless and bring a political message to the struggle of the precariously housed. Such a union would work alongside existing services and advocacy groups in the community to amplify their efforts and find opportunities to partner, and expand what is possible. If you are interested in joining the struggle for housing rights in Belleville, contact us at