Housing crisis the stuff of movies at Windsor International Film Fest

Ora Sawyers

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Fabulous movies and big-screen entertainment aside, the Windsor International Film Fest has never been shy about tackling tough social issues and addressing community challenges, and the 19th annual edition now underway is no different.

And that’s why WIFF, running Oct. 26 to Nov. 5 at several downtown venues, will serve as the launching pad on Saturday of a “housing innovation lab” by the Windsor Law Centre for Cities (C4C). Its aim is helping find solutions to the growing challenge of how to provide decent, affordable shelter for Canadians.

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Ontario and Canada’s “housing crisis” has also hit Windsor and Essex County, and the folks behind this new initiative say it’s a complex problem that can only be solved with community-wide involvement.

“There’s lots of talk, and there’s been lots of investment — unfortunately, homes are not being built fast enough,” said Lori Atkinson, local regional manager at Libro Credit Union.

And that’s especially true of decent housing that’s affordable or attainable for a growing number being financially squeezed out of the dream of owning the roof over their heads.

Libro, the largest such customer-owned financial institution in Southwestern Ontario, has identified housing as one of its key community investment priorities, with a particular focus on home affordability and attainability. Earlier this year, it granted $50,000 to The Bridge Youth Resource Centre for its tiny-home initiative in Leamington, and it has a multi-year funding agreement with Habitat for Humanity, which provides affordable home ownership to those who would otherwise be excluded.

On Saturday, at a WIFF documentary being sponsored by the University of Windsor’s Centre for Cities (‘Lac-Megantic: This is Not an Accident’), Libro will announce a $20,000 donation to help kickstart C4C’s Housing Innovation Lab.

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“Housing is a really complex issue,” said Atkinson, who describes as a crisis the local shelter situation. “It’s not just a problem for governments, it’s not just a problem for developers — we need to look at housing more innovatively.”

That’s where C4C’s housing innovation lab aims to come in.

“Windsor’s now at Ground Zero of the housing crisis — right now, it’s the question of our generation,” said Rino Bortolin, a former Windsor city councillor recently hired as the Centre for Cities’ strategic advisor and project manager.

With some discussion and work already underway informally, Bortolin said C4C and its new lab has been reaching out to partners and potential clients in the private and public sectors. He’s hoping to meet soon with the federal minister specifically appointed recently to deal with housing.

Atkinson said she’s not aware of any Ontario municipality meeting annual targets for new housing set by the Ford government. But even if Windsor could reach its provincially set target of 13,000 new units over a decade, “that will leave us well behind the need,” said Bortolin.

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The local housing innovation lab, which already includes a housing economist, urban design architect and land use planner, is “about turning on its head how municipalities are currently doing housing,” said University of Windsor law professor and C4C director Anneke Smit.

Part of the task, she said, is bringing in tools and solutions being successfully applied elsewhere, including in Michigan, that have “no traction yet in Canada.” The goal is to not only see more attainable housing built but to do so as “a municipal finance win, a local economy win, a climate win — a plan that will not break the municipal bank,” said Smit.

A concern for Bortolin is being “on the verge of the next housing boom since World War Two and making the same mistakes.” For him, that includes continued sprawl of low-density residential subdivisions across area farmland and floodplains, all at an added future cost to taxpayers.

To speed up the construction and supply of much-needed new housing, he said, it’s important to fast-track development applications and part of that is for developers and the community “to know what’s expected and what’s coming.”

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Bortolin, who chaired the planning committee during his time on city council and understands how opposition can build to neighbourhood change, including residential densification, said “target market analysis” can help municipalities understand what they need to build while achieving buy-in through community engagement.

Through its “Vital Conversations” partnership with WIFF, Libro is presenting five movies from around the world addressing the issue of housing. It includes a special presentation of the Canadian documentary ‘Someone Lives Here’ by director Zack Russell, about what happened after a carpenter quit his job to devote himself full-time to building innovative “tiny shelters” for Toronto’s homeless. WIFF describes the movie as “a sobering and maddening watch.”

Atkinson said the Sunday, Nov. 5, second screening (1:15 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre) will be followed by a community discussion with the individual at the film’s centre on stage.

Other movies in the Libro series include the comedy Bungalow, billed as a young couple’s “renovation drama”; Razing Liberty Square, about a historic Black public housing community in Florida fighting off developers eyeing their elevated property for neighbourhood “revitalization” and to house the well-to-do from Miami worried about rising ocean levels; Attila, a documentary on a Hamilton man found dead on a rooftop following an eviction; and Locked Out, about a group of Black women in Detroit fighting off scammers, eviction threats, and traditional banks to maintain their access to the American Dream of home ownership.

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Housing is also a theme running through WIFF’s ‘Spotlight on Architecture’ series presented by the Windsor Regional Society of Architects.

While in the past taking a more serious look at social issues, WRSA chair Suzanne Stier said that, in its 10th year at WIFF, “we wanted a more light-hearted approach this year.”

Perfect Days, by famed director Wim Wenders, is about a Japanese toilet cleaner whose simple life revolves around his neighbourhood of small cafés and bookshops and familiar faces, “a poetic reflection on finding beauty in the everyday world around us.”

The Belgian documentary Life, Assembled, looks at three architects and their work with a handful of utopian inhabitants trying to put their housing ideals into practice. “It’s about finding beauty in shelter,” said Stiers.

Detroit: The City of Churches is a documentary on the importance and visual beauty of that city’s 300 years of spiritual homes.

Stiers said her organization’s members are “specifically trained to design around needs … and adapting architecture to address those needs.”

Those behind Windsor’s new housing innovation lab plan on tapping into that type of locally available resource.

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