The camping option
Three trends are converging.
First, real estate prices continue to surge. A couple of Main Street properties are rumoured to have gone recently for around the million-dollar mark; at this rate, a mansion in Wellington could soon fetch as much as a garden shed in Toronto. Second, there is a crying lack of housing stock of the kind your average Joe can afford. People who have jobs in the County are moving to Belleville, Trenton—even Deseronto; and spending their discretionary income on commuting instead of depositing it in the local economy. And third, we have something like 500 vacation rental properties in Wellington that are full to the rafters in summer, but that stand largely vacant the rest of the year.
Surely these trends can somehow present a proverbial opportunity where others just see a crisis.
Let’s first of all credit the County for not standing flat-footed in the face of these trends. It has made nice to developers, promising them speedier and simpler service, if not an outright reduction in the cost of getting hooked in to our water and sewer systems. It has passed a bylaw allowing for the construction of in-law suites and granny flats. It is considering reducing the minimum permissible size of a residence. And it is calling for proposals on the development of the old Dukedome property as a “mixed price-point residential development with a component of affordable housing.” (It’s sad when it’s taken as given that housing is normally unaffordable).
But I have in mind a bolder option. Let’s go back to those vacation rental properties. Okay, maybe 500 was a bit of an exaggeration, but there are a lot of them. While these properties rent like hotcakes in the summer, in the fall The Times is filled with advertisements for ‘September to May’ rentals at reasonable rates. Therefore, if our would-be year-round renters could make other cost-effective arrangements for the summer months, they could more easily afford to live in Wellington. So why don’t we offer our potential year-round tenants a fourth season option. Let’s offer them summer camping.
Here’s how it would work. A property owner and tenant enter into a lease that gives the tenant the right of regular tenancy in the fall, winter and spring at a reasonable rate that reflects the fact of slack demand; and the additional right to be a camping tenant for the summer months at an even more reasonable rate that reflects the fact you are living in a tent. The owner would still be able to rent the premises to summer visitors— who would just have to put up with someone else camping on the property. To make it work, the tenant would have to use a picnic cooler to store food and a camp stove or barbeque to cook meals, and would have to respect the summer renter’s right to exclusive use of the house, subject to the right to use the bathroom facilities or pick up a forgotten sweater from a drawer in the bedroom, say for a 15-minute period at specific times of the day.
But look who stands to gain: tenants would gain the right to reasonably priced year-round accommodation; owners would get the security of year-round rental income; and summer renters may catch a bit of a break in rates. Besides, some tenants and summer renters may just get along like a house on fire, forming lifelong friendships and exchanging Christmas cards.
If that proposal doesn’t fly, you could instead keep the proposal alive by moving to the broader concept of County-sponsored group campgrounds. For instance, CML Snider school and grounds are empty during the summertime. What would be wrong with establishing a ‘renters tent city’ on the playing field? You could offer access to that sturdy building’s plumbing on a 24/7 basis, as often as you felt inclined. A real community spirit could develop, and you’d have a very ‘United Nations’ vibe. The camp may even become a tourist attraction. Admission could be charged, and costs reduced. And whether it be a property by property or group experience, the County could be proactive and serve as a bulk discount purchaser of tents, sleeping bags and other camping gear for resale to renters at a small markup.
Yes, there are ways in which the County could address the lack of affordable housing in a bolder way. Whether it will embrace the camping option I describe above will be a test of our leaders’ good judgment.