Author: Ingrid Strauss, Citizen Journalist
During recent municipal elections affordable housing has been an emotional issue raised by residents in many communities in British Columbia, from resort communities like Whistler, Kelowna and Tofino to resource communities like Fort St John, Fort Nelson and Dawson Creek. But nowhere is the concern more acute than on southern Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, with Vancouver labelled the third most unaffordable housing market is the world.
Home ownership is a cultural tradition that provides financial security and wealth generation for owners but home ownership is slipping out of the reach of both newcomers and the next generation. Prices have skyrocketed but the average income has not kept pace.Vancouver’s chief planner, Brent Toderian, says suck it up and learn to enjoy renting.
Affordable rental housing, however, is failing to keep up with demand. A high percentage of available rentals are condominiums rented out by individual investor-owners. They tend to be in newer buildings with a range of amenities so rents tend to be higher than for purpose-built rentals. BC Chamber of Commerce president John Winter said in a statement that affordable rentals are critical for small businesses to attract and keep workers.
A coalition made up of representatives from organizations that include the Urban Development Institute, BC Non Profit Housing Association and Vancity have adopted a Canadian Rental Housing Charter outlining a plan to increase affordable housing across the country. The goals include a National Economic Strategy involving an adequate supply of rental housing, reinstating federal tax incentives to stimulate private market rental housing, increasing the supply of federal, provincial and municipal land for affordable rental housing, and encouraging municipalities to adopt policies that support rental housing construction.
Local governments play an important role in ensuring there is a suitable supply of housing, in a range of types and locations, to meet community needs now and in the future. Communities do this by going through land use planning processes that ensure an adequate supply of suitably zoned serviced land and appropriate regulatory processes are in place. Together with fiscal amendments, these are the main tools that can be used by local governments to reduce the cost of market housing and to incent purpose-built rentals.
Recently the city of Kelowna released a new affordable housing strategy that followed two and a half years of research, surveys, workshops, open houses and much debate. The city went from a housing strategy that created affordable housing through density bumps (more units per hectare if some units were affordable) to having 20 different strategies.
Some of the recommendations found in the Kelowna housing strategy are described in a provincial Housing Policy Branch study entitled Local Government Guide for Improving Market Housing Affordability.
According to the guide, zoning bylaws are a land use management tool local governments can use that addresses housing affordability in the development process. Zoning changes include: density bonus; small lot zoning; housing above shops; housing agreements; and comprehensive development zoning. It is important to avoid the perception that zoning is for sale as this undermines the validity of community planning.
Rezoning changes require a supportive council but residents themselves can take a leadership role and initiate zoning changes. In Burnaby, residents in a neighbourhood petitioned the city to pursue rezoning to allow existing large lots with single-dwelling units to be developed into smaller lots for single and two-family development. The petition included signatures from more than 50% of residents and/or property owners of the area.
The guide notes that reducing the approval process time frames is another way local governments can reduce costs and contribute to housing affordability. Specific tools include: fast-tracking affordable housing applications; streamlining development applications; and, facilitating the process by providing clear guidelines of expectations.
In addition, local governments can offer direct or indirect financial incentives to stimulate the creation of affordable housing. Incentives can take the form of cash grants, possibly from a housing reserve fund, or the reduction or waiving of development fees and taxes. Local governments can also use tools such as: land grants; leasing land below market value; and deferring payments on land leases.
In 2002 Central Saanich initiated a project to develop Residential Development Application Guidelines. The policy states the municipality will only pursue residential rezoning applications that include a component for creating affordable housing and tenure options. With the guidelines now nearly ten years old, it may be time for Central Saanich to expand its policy toolkit and address housing affordability together with related regional transportation and access to local amenities issues.