ST. THOMAS, ONT. -- A conference Friday is making the case that improved social housing could have a further advantage, helping to limit the spread of diseases like COVID-19.

In the face of growing concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus, about 60 people gathered to discuss way to improve affordable and supportive housing.

Many believe it’s the type of housing that could help limit the impact of these types of viruses on the most vulnerable populations.

Those attending the affordable housing forum in the St. Thomas Public Library on Friday morning were given the chance to opt out due to coronavirus concerns, but they all decided to take part.

Most agree the greatest area of need is for housing that is combined with community supports, mainly to address the growing number of residents with both mental health and addiction issues.

Those individuals are also among those at greatest risk when it comes to illnesses like COVID-19. Many have compromised immune systems, and being warehoused in shelters only increases the risk.

St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston hosted the forum, "You know, we've got people not capable of being in an apartment right now. We have to help them with the support structure so if they are in an apartment it's a success."

On hand for the forum were municipal politicians, developers and those from social service agencies, including Laura Sherwood

She is director of Hospice Partnerships with St. Joseph's Health Care Society. They are looking to build a new hospice in St. Thomas but also see the potential to include supportive housing.

"I think that's the new space of health care, is that we are needing to think outside the box and work with community partners."

The federal government has given the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) the lead on the affordable housing strategy, including providing low-interest loans with favourable terms.

Jamie Shipley is a CMHC Outreach Specialist, "So that just makes the projects work better on the balance sheet. So they can afford to have favourable rents and still make the project fly."

Earl Taylor is past president of the London-St. Thomas Association of Realtors. He says LSTAR sees the need for a different approach and has put together a housing coalition.

"We brought together the banks, the builders and the realtors to try to identify how we, as a group, can cooperate and collaborate to identify and maybe solving what affordable housing concerns there are."

The other challenge this region faces is the unprecedented growth that is currently taking place, with the London-St. Thomas region the second-fastest growing location in the country.

But Preston believes that can be an asset, "We've got to use the leverage of the good help all the rest of our community."

Organizers hope this forum will generate more creative approaches to all housing issues.