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To shelter victims of the housing crisis, this Manitoulin Island innkeeper has taken in long-term tenants

Anchor Inn’s Denise Callaghan in Little Current, Ont., says she couldn't bear to see rooms empty a couple of nights a month when so many community members are struggling to find housing. So the Manitoulin Island inn is now booked up with longer-term tenants, despite it not being the best financial move.

'If I could turn this whole place into an apartment building, I probably would,' says business owner

Portrait of a woman.

It's one of the oldest buildings on Manitoulin Island, and is celebrated by locals for its food, nightlife and history — but the Anchor Inn can't welcome overnight guests until at least 2024, perhaps 2025.

All its rooms have been taken up by longer-term tenants who had nowhere else to go due to the housing shortage in the area.

William Lanktree, 73, is one of those tenants.

When he began searching for a new home in his area last year, he couldn't believe how much the housing landscape had changed on his native island.

"Unless you got $1,500 or $2,000 to pay for rent, where are you going to live?" he asks.

He visited one place he thought he could afford, but said it was in such poor condition that "it wouldn't have been suitable for a dog."

As his search grew increasingly hopeless, he took to asking everyone he saw if they knew of any affordable accommodation he could live in while he battles a new bout of cancer.

That's when he decided to go to Little Current's Anchor Inn and ask owner Denise Callaghan if she had any rooms for rent.

The establishment does have a dozen rooms, but they're usually booked by tourists or other short-term visitors who flock to the area in great numbers to enjoy the natural beauty of the world's largest freshwater Island.

But seeing that Lanktree was running out of options, Callaghan agreed to set a room aside for him for up to a year at an affordable price.

She then started realizing how many other people in the community were struggling to find housing — especially those struggling with mental, physical or addiction issues.

Quickly, all the rooms she had available filled with longer-term tenants. Now all the rooms are booked for at least the next year.

Depending on the size of the room, the Innkeeper is charging between $700 and $900 per month.

It's not a profitable arrangement, considering it usually costs more than $100 per night to stay in the kitchenette rooms of the Anchor Inn, but Callaghan has no regrets.

"Obviously I'd be making more money if I did that. But it's not always about the money.

"There's a serious housing shortage on the island and everywhere. And if the rooms are going to sit there, empty for five to six days per month, they may as well be full," she said.

Tenants 'wouldn't live anywhere else'

As the space was designed to accommodate temporary guests, the rooms don't have a stove.

"That's one of the big things they are missing," said Callaghan. "They have to buy pre-made meals, microwave dinners or go to one of their friends' houses to cook a bowl of soup.

The inn does have a restaurant, but she said most of her tenants are on a tight budget, so it isn't really an option for them.

Lanktree doesn't mind, though.

"This is the best place on Earth," he said. "I see the lake every day, and I got my Lazy Boy chair with me."

"I look out my window, I see the nature, the scenery, the boats."

Lanktree's favourite thing about living at the Anchor Inn is the sense of community that has developed with other tenants and regular patrons, something he needs as he battles illness.

His neighbour, 76-year-old Barry Hamilton, feels the same way.

His wife recently became sick and had to move elsewhere to receive care, leaving him to find a place he could afford by himself.

"I didn't properly plan for retirement," Hamilton said. "I didn't make investments like I should have. Now everything is becoming unaffordable to me."

Hamilton said he's so grateful he became "another guy on the second floor of the Anchor Inn" after Callaghan renovated the establishment's conference room to accommodate him.

"I'm really comfortable living here, so I'll probably just spend the rest of my life in this hotel," he said.

As for Callaghan, she said that if she could convert the inn into an apartment building, she would.

For the time being, though, she's happy to forgo profits if it means contributing to easing the housing shortage on the island.

Housing problem isn't going away soon

Donna Stewart, chief administrative officer of the local Manitoulin Sudbury District Services Board, said over 200 people are waiting for an affordable one-bedroom unit on the island.

"Our housing waitlist has never seen a spike like this in more than 24 years of keeping track," she said.

Thanks to a land donation from a local family and funding from the provincial and federal governments, the organization recently built an affordable housing unit for seniors, but that took years to achieve and only ended up removing 12 people from the waitlist.

"It's great to hear a local hotel is willing to turn their temporary stay units into longer-term accommodations. I'm sure it's heartwarming to the community to know someone is stepping up to help alleviate the void.

"But these individuals are still going to need to find long-term housing, so there's still going to be a gap there."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aya Dufour

reporter

Aya Dufour is a CBC reporter based in northern Ontario. She often writes about the mining industry and Indigenous sovereignty. Follow her on Twitter @AyaDufour.

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