Interview: Doug Linton, Affordable Housing Task Force, Collingwood

Doug Linton, former Chair of Collingwood‘s Affordable Housing Task Force, joins Home Suite Home host Kelly Caldwell to discuss his commitment to volunteerism, the inception and development of the Rapid Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Program, and his vision for the future of affordable housing and community development.

“The second most effective way to improve affordability within a community [is] the creation of accessory dwelling units…so you have to figure out a way to reduce the barriers to the homeowners to do that.”

Access the “layman’s guide” to Accessory Apartments that Doug and Kelly reference at

Video Transcript

Kelly: Thanks so much, Doug, for meeting with us today. I really appreciate you taking the time. 

Doug: Oh, really, it’s my pleasure. 

Kelly: Thank you. So you and I have worked together for a number of years now. We first met on the Affordable Housing Task Force.

Doug: Right. 

Kelly: And we now work for the same real estate years across the hall from one another. And there’s a lot of fun banter on the daily, and all the time that I’ve gotten to know you, one of the things that I admire so much about you is your dedication to give back to the community. You’re always doing volunteer work, you’re giving back to people, and it’s just all of this different stuff and to the point where you were a recipient of the Order of Collingwood Award.

And I just want to take a moment for the viewers to read what that award is. The Order of Collingwood is presented annually to people who volunteer in the community and therefore enrich the social well-being, natural or cultural environment or recreational character of the town. That’s huge. That’s saying that you as an individual have impacted the entire community. And what I’m interested to know from you is tell me where this drive to give back and this passion comes from. 

Doug: Well, listen, first of all, it’s it’s incredibly humbling to be recognized with being named to the Order of Collingwood. I mean, it was unexpected and, you know, you start out as a volunteer, I guess, just saying yes to things and, and things that you’re interested in, things that you’re excited about, things that have meaning for you and, and you just keep saying yes over and over because it’s important. 

You start to see the fruits of your labour, and you start to see things happening in the community, and so it encourages you to keep saying yes. It’s not like I think anyone goes into these things knowing that they’re going to have an impact on the community or anything like that; it’s just you choose something that has meaning to you, and you get involved. And that’s really where it happened. 

And if you’re asking how it all started, really, my father was a really serious community activist and volunteer in the community that I grew up down in Tillsonburg, Ontario. He was awarded the Citizen of the Year in 1999 and when I moved to Collingwood in 1986, I was in my early 20s and the one thing that my father really encouraged me to do was get involved locally. He said, you know, get involved where things matter at the local level, be it politically, be it volunteering, be it community service groups, and you can have an impact. And I just started to do that. I got involved with the Municipal Parks Recreation and Culture Committee and helped establish the trails network here in Collingwood. I got involved with what was then the Collingwood Information Centre, now the Collingwood 211/411 organization. 

Then the Task Force, of course, most recently. But for decades I’ve been involved with the Collingwood what was the Dragon Boat and Canoe Club and now the Collingwood Paddling Club, where we introduce people to recreational and competitive paddling throughout the community and we run a day camp program and dragon boating and a lot of other things down at the harbour. 

Kelly: Oh my gosh, thank you. So what’s your favourite part? What’s your favourite part about all of us? 

Doug: Favorite part? Gee, that’s a good question. I don’t know if I’ve ever really thought about that. I think it’s just the involvement. It’s it’s getting it’s yeah it’s energy. It’s energizing. I thrive on movement. I thrive on energy. And being involved with these groups that are so dedicated to making changes and making things happen, gives me a sense of purpose, gives me a sense of accomplishment I guess. It’s just energy. It’s movement. 

Kelly: It’s so wonderful. Amazing. So you are the former chair– 

Doug: –until about last month–

Kelly: of Collingwood’s Affordable Housing Task Force. One of the incredible things this group created was what’s now known as the Rapid Accessory Dwelling Unit Program. 

Doug: Right. 

Kelly: Can you expand a bit for our viewers so that they really understand the nuts and bolts of what this is? 

Doug:Sure. So in November 2021, after many months of a ton of work by this incredibly dedicated group of volunteers, yourself being one, you know, we made our report to council and it was a very in-depth and very nuanced report with many, many suggestions and many recommendations. Council immediately jumped on a couple of those recommendations. 

The first was to establish the Affordable Housing Reserve Fund and then to fund that initially with, I believe it was $350,000. So this was before the creation of the Affordable Housing Master Plan, which was also part of the recommendations within that initial report and they saw the need to create the reserve fund in order to establish a new position within the community in the planning department, the housing development coordinator position. And these two, these two, initiatives were really vital to to get the ball rolling on some of the things that Collingwood wanted to do and that we were recommending within that initial report to council from 2021. 

Our initial hire in the planning department was a woman named Jenn Rae who was our first housing development coordinator. Jenn, with incredible energy and enthusiasm and professionalism, undertook the job of developing this Rapid Accessory Dwelling Unit Program. And that all came about again. I think you were integral to the creation of that, Kelly, because you were the one who really, informed our task force of the issues that the average homeowner faced when trying to develop a legal accessory unit in their home. The kind of roadblocks that existed in the kind of challenges that existed. And, and, and I remember looking at what was then considered to be a layman’s guide that was created by the municipality around how to develop an ADU in Collingwood. And I’ve got 20 plus years of working through negotiations and writing contracts and helping clients figure out zoning and things like that. And I read through the layman’s guide and was befuddled by it. It was shocking how, how, how complex it was. 

So I think that through, as a result of all of that, you know, we saw the need to try to create, a simplified process by which a homeowner can establish a legal accessory dwelling unit on their property. You know, and again, just to go into a little bit more background, I think it’s, it’s clear that when you’re talking about affordable housing and it’s, it’s really important to make the distinction between affordable housing and what some people refer to as attainable housing. 

There is a very distinct definition of affordability. Anything beyond 30% of your gross household family, if you’re paying more than that, it’s technically not affordable. The whole concept of attainable housing is a little nefarious. We’re not quite sure what that means. So we really like to stick to the concept of affordable housing as opposed to attainable housing, because it’s a clearly defined concept and we can all work towards the same goal. But having said that, one of the ways to ensure affordability within a community and the very most effective, costly cost-effective and efficient way of doing that is by ensuring that you’re retaining the current existing stock of affordable housing, and that is by far the simplest and the most cost-effective way. 

So you take a look at what exists in your community from the residential rental stock, to what’s currently affordable. And you make sure that you put mechanisms in place through things like municipal rental replacement bylaws, through ways to incentivize property owners who have that kind of a, an affordable unit to, to retain them as opposed to, you know, buying something like buying a property that’s currently a rooming house and its best value is being seen as conversion into a boutique hotel.

If we could find a way to incentivize property owners through a grant program, funding, or some other mechanism to maintain those properties as boarding houses while still providing the return on investment that an investor or property owner requires, then we can retain that affordability. Again, that’s been shown to be clearly the most effective way to maintain affordable housing in the community.

So, that being said, the second most effective way to improve affordability within a community has been recognized as the creation of accessory dwelling units, taking existing properties and willing homeowners or property owners who are willing to develop that residential component aside from simply a single-family dwelling. So you have to figure out a way to reduce the barriers to the homeowners to do that.

So, your initial question was, what are the basics of the Rapid ADU Program? Well, basically, it has three general components. The first and foremost, I think, is really a single portal for a homeowner or property owner to gain access to the information and to the process of developing an ADU on their property. 

Kelly: And so does Collingwood have that?

Doug: Collingwood has that through our hHousing Development Coordinator, Claire de Sousa, currently in the planning department. So yeah, that–

Kelly: –is there a website that people can go to?

Doug: There is and again, it’s part of the Collingwood Engage page in the Collingwood Rapid Housing website within the municipal website and I’ll refer to that in a moment as well because that portal is the first is the first element of the Rapid ADU Program. It’s a, it’s a way for that property owner to come in and speak to somebody who will actually talk to them about the process and the means of establishing an ADU on their property, without getting too far into the weeds of the complexities and not being simply handed this guide and being told, here’s what you need to do and being totally, totally overwhelmed by it. So there’s this individual who’s there to help guide you through the very complex process, but to do so in a manner that’s a little more user-friendly, let’s say. 

That’s the portal aspect. Then there’s the actual granting aspect. This is the second component of the Rapid ADU Program. There are three basic grant opportunities or funding opportunities. The first is a grant of around $5,000, $5,000 plus dollars. That is to help offset costs of things like development charges, building permits, and the kinds of administrative costs that a homeowner has to go through to develop an ADU.

Kelly: So that’s specific to the town of Collingwood. 

Doug: Specific to the town of Collingwood. Right. And the barrier to entry for that is it’s pretty low. What you have to do is you have to be willing to make a commitment to rent that ADU for a period of five years–

Kelly: Okay. 

Doug: –on the long-term rental market. So that’s something that’s administered through the Residential Tenancies Act so that’s not short-term accommodation. That’s not seasonal accommodation. You’re willing to rent that to someone for a one-year lease or a two-year lease. As long as you’re willing to make that five-year commitment, you have access to that $5,000 plus dollars. 

At that point, then you can then consider, a grant through the County of Simcoe that’s in the amount of $30,000 and that’s to cover general building expenses. The cost of actually creating the ADU on your property, that barrier or that requirement of commitment to a little bit more. So what a homeowner or a property owner needs to do is then commit to retaining that property or that ADU for a 15 year period at an affordable rate. And those rates are established by the County based on Statistics Canada numbers and what income rates are in a community and things like that.

And if you’re willing to do that, then you can have access to that $30,000 grant, at which point, if you’re approved for that grant, the municipality then will stack a further $5,000 onto that. So now you’re talking about if you stack the three grants together, you’re looking at over $40,000 in grants and funding that’s available to a property owner to create a legal ADU on their property.

Kelly: And that’s massive. So, like, I know if we’re doing a basement unit, $40,000 could potentially be up to half the cost of building that.

Doug: Right, right. And again, all of these are to to try to remove the kinds of barriers that property owners have traditionally faced to the creation of the ADUs. And the proof is in the numbers in that in 2023 we had, if I’m not mistaken, about twice the number of ADUs approved in Collingwood as in 2021. And that correlates directly with the number of people who have been approved for these grants through the rapid ADU program. 

Kelly: So there is uptake on it. People are coming in, they are applying for it. They are. 

Doug: Yeah, unquestionably. The numbers are still not huge, but the numbers are there to demonstrate that it’s effective and that people are getting getting involved with it. So that’s the grants program. 

And then the third and final component, not final, sorry the third component of the rapid ADU program are pre-approved plans. And this is something that I think we’re really proud of because if I’m not mistaken, we’re the first municipality in the province to do this, to create a pre-approved plan so you can go to that website, the Collingwood Rapid ADU website, and you can see a list of a number of pre-approved plans for a 400 square foot, an 800 square foot, detached dwelling that is already set up and ready to go, that if your property meets the appropriate setback requirements, things like that, the approvals are in place for one of those projects already established. 

There aren’t a lot of them on there right now, but I know that our housing development coordinator is working all the time to bring in more developers with more plans and have those go through that pre-approval process so that it’s kind of like a pick and play kind of a process for that homeowner or property owner to create the ADU on their property. It’s really pretty cool. 

Kelly: That’s incredible. So yeah, if I’m a property owner, I can go directly to the municipality. I will be connected with an individual who will help me identify whether my property is suitable for an accessory unit, whether it’s attached or detached. That individual will guide me towards the resources that are accessible for grant funding. Once that’s done, they can hand me pre-approved drawings that I can select from. 

Doug: Right. 

Kelly: And I pick that one, fill out my forms, submit my permit application, and boom, there you go. There’s a permit. 

Doug: Right. And all of this to try to increase the speed by which these things can get actually moving and the simplicity that a property owner can, can, benefit from.

Kelly: Yeah. That’s amazing because I know, like when Jeff and I first started doing this, you know, every property that we purchased, we had to go in and come up with drawings from the beginning, which could be quite taxing, you know, trying to…

Doug: Expensive.

Kelly: …expensive, right? Standing in there with a designer, trying to figure out where plumbing goes, all the rest of it. So the fact that the town has come up with these pre-approved drawings and people who are unfamiliar with bylaws, building codes, etc., I can just go, I like this.

Doug: Right? 

Kelly: Is so brilliant. I love it. 

Doug: And there’s a cultural shift that’s going on within the municipality as well. I think that in, in previous times, you know, in certain departments within the municipality, would, would I, I’m not going to say create barriers, but wouldn’t necessarily be entirely, open to the idea of an individual coming in and, and requesting assistance for this because you’re dealing with laypeople, you’re dealing with people who aren’t in the development community, and it’s that have to do handholding. As a realtor, it’s kind of like first-time homebuyers, right? 

You have to work so much with first-time homebuyers. It’s incredibly rewarding, but you have to work with them and talk them through every phase of the process. It’s like that with somebody coming in without a development background who wants to develop an ADU on their program. You have to hold their hand.

And I think in years past that, municipalities would potentially say, listen, it’s, you know, they push these people off to a certain extent because it was so much harder to work with these as opposed to the people who knew what they were doing. They were coming from a planning or development background, and they were submitting an application for a large subdivision or something like that. And it was easier, although more, more time extensive, but it was almost easier to deal with those kinds of applications than to deal with mom-and-pop, who want to establish a two-bedroom apartment in their basement. 

Kelly: So that’s amazing. So instead of taking a top-down approach where you’re going, here’s all the data, go figure it out, Collingwood is actually taking the approach of going bottom up and saying, let me take your hand and show you.

Doug: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, yeah. So it makes so much more sense to be able to encourage people to do that when they know that they’ve got a friendly face and they’ve got somebody who can provide them with that information and that guidance and not just stonewall them the moment they walk in.

Kelly: Yeah, that’s so amazing. So good. You’ve already talked about the grant funding. Tell us your goals. What would you love to see? Tell me your big, audacious dream for the development of affordable housing in Collingwood.

Doug: Gosh, the moonshot? 

Kelly: Yeah. The moonshot. 

Doug: I tend to think of things, big picture, high level. I’m not very good at specifics, so I tend, I try to, I try to think of things if you’re asking me for my personal, big moonshot, it’s–and I know this is a phrase it’s kind of often used and maybe too often used–is a paradigm shift. I think that paradigm shift in smaller communities is really important.

We all moved to small, ee either were born here or we’ve moved to a small community and we’ve all done so, we’re still here because we like the small town esthetic, right? We like the sense of community. We like the sense of having a smaller group of people that we like. The idea of walking down here, Ontario Street and going into a grocery store and meeting people that, you know, and carrying on conversations, having these, these connections with people.

I think that’s what drives people who live in small communities. And I think one of the issues that we have to come to grips with over time, and what I’d like to see you when you’re asking about my goal, is I’d like to shift the conversation somehow and shift the perception that so many small, smaller community people, have around how they see their community.

I’m sure you’ve heard, and I certainly hear it all the time, people who say our small town, our small community, is looking more and more like the big city and is looking more and more like Toronto all the time. 

And whenever I hear that, I try to say, you know, I tell people that’s a good thing. I think we need to look more and more like a more urbanized environment. We need to we need to embrace density. We need to embrace height for our buildings. We need to stop restricting height. We need to embrace the flexibility of a property owner to have those three residential dwelling units on their single-family home property, zoned properly, and possibly four.

Kelly: Yes.

Doug: We need to encourage that shift in thinking around what it means to be a small community. And I guess it’s through good planning. It’s good, it’s through the work that we’re doing on the task force and the work that the council is doing, and they’re, they’re very progressive approach to things. We can choose how or what parts of the city we want Collingwood to start looking like. 

Right. There have been clear examples of affordable housing. You know, everybody thinks of Toronto Regent Park, clearly a failed experiment. But now you look at Regent Park, now that they’re talking, now that they’re shifting it strictly from a subsidized, rent-geared-to-income housing development into a mixed-use development where now you’re having some market rent housing, along with mixed-use commercial industrial, as well as some, retail and operations.

And suddenly, you’re creating not just a ghetto, you’re creating a community. If you look at some of the urban communities that exist within the bigger cities like Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary, you see these incredible places to live. And that’s the paradigm shift that I think we need to embrace around how we see a community.

Are we just a community of single-family residences on great big lots, with white picket fences and a driveway and a two-car garage? Or do we see ourselves as a community based on families living close to downtown, being able to walk to places and accepting a little bit more density, accepting a little bit more height in order to really enhance the community that we live in?

Kelly: Accepting the change. 

Doug: Accepting the change. 

Kelly: Well, thanks so much, Doug for your time today. I really appreciate your insights. I thank you so much for all of the work that you do within the community. You’re such an inspiration to so many of us, and thank you so much for being here today. 

Doug: Again, my pleasure and thank you for doing this. This is a really important topic. It’s very timely and, I’m glad that we can work on this together.

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