Affordable Housing is the hot topic of the day and it may well be the ballot-box question of the BC election in May.
by Michele Murphy
A pre-election poll of more than 600 random British Columbia residents conducted in August by The Innovative Research Group Inc. found that 83 per cent of the respondents said the government should be doing more to make housing more affordable.
“In terms of what’s most pressing today, the top-of-mind response tells us it’s affordable housing. That is on the tip of the tongue for people,” said Greg Lyle, managing director of Innovative Research, in a Globe & Mail interview last August.
With a record-low vacancy rate, a hot real estate market – here and in Vancouver – an increasing population in the popular Capital Region and housing starts not keeping up with demand – the Capital Region is particularly vulnerable. Add a growing gap between income and housing costs and available, affordable housing is now considered by many to be a crisis, a crisis that is gaining attention, and action, in both Saanich and on the Peninsula.
In response to community concerns, Saanich North and the Islands MLA Gary Holman organized a workshop on affordable housing back in 2014. “I didn’t feel that the discussions about affordable housing on the Peninsula were considering all of the needs or based on adequate data,” said Holman. Attending the workshop were representatives from the Capital Regional District (CRD), BC Housing, Canada Mortgage & Housing Corporation (CMHC) and various non-profit housing providers and advocates as well as local municipal representatives.
Out of that workshop came a call for an affordable housing needs assessment. The assessment was to consider needs for all incomes across the housing continuum, with a particular focus on households with lower or more modest incomes. It would also include a very cursory, initial assessment of the affordable housing situation on the four W̱SÁNEĆ First Nations on the Peninsula, the Pauquachin, Tsartlip, Tsawout, and Tseycum.
Holman worked with the CRD’s Henry Kamphof (now retired) and Janis Gauthier, a housing consultant supporting the study on a volunteer basis, to secure grants from the CMHC and BC Housing to fund the study.
The assessment was done by housing research expert and (now) Executive Director of the Community Social Planning Council, Marika Albert with CRD Regional Housing agreeing to administer the contract. It was overseen by an advisory committee comprised of Christine Cullham, manager of CRD Regional Housing, Gauthier and Holman with representatives from each of the municipal councils – Barbara Fallott from Sidney, Celia Stock from North Saanich and Alicia Holman from Central Saanich – who informed their councils on progress of the analysis.
Holman announced the completion of this first-ever affordable housing needs assessment for the municipalities on the Saanich Peninsula this past October.
What is affordable housing?
Is affordable housing simply housing for low-income and marginalized members of our community? Is this a downtown issue?
Not so, says Albert. “Affordable housing is defined by CMHC as housing that’s rent or mortgage payments are less than 30 per cent of a family’s gross income. Any housing that sees a family spending more than 30 per cent of their income on rent or mortgage payments is considered to be unaffordable and unsustainable,” she explains. And while affordability can be an issue at all income levels, she explains that it tends to be more acute for low-income households.
According to this made-for-the-Peninsula study, this is NOT just an urban issue at all.
The study compiled data on the current and future need for, and supply of affordable housing for each of the three peninsula municipalities. Based on this data, gaps in affordable housing supply were identified. The study found that there are 4,000 households (based on average household size, likely representing more than 8,000 individual residents) in “core housing need”, i.e., spending more than 30 per cent of their gross incomes on housing costs, including rent or mortgage payments.
Even more troubling is that more than 550 renter households, representing more than 1,000 residents, are spending more than 50 per cent of their gross income on rent. Such households are very vulnerable to losing their housing, perhaps even becoming homeless.
The study found that most of the existing housing stock and new housing being constructed on the Peninsula, 80 per cent or more, was ownership not rental housing, and affordable only for higher income earners. There are no facilities for women fleeing abuse, nor any homeless shelters.
The above estimates do not include hundreds of First Nations families who are in dire need of safe, secure and affordable housing. On a proportional basis, the housing situation for the W̱SÁNEĆ communities on the peninsula is even more serious than for non-First Nations.
With the needs assessment complete, the document has the potential to help facilitate solutions. There are a number of proponents, particularly non-profit organizations, that can use this newly gathered data to fulfill part of the demand analysis that is required by funders to help confirm the feasibility of affordable housing projects. This study is a cost-effective way of providing this due diligence.
The timing of the needs assessment may be opportune with recent funding announcements for affordable housing at the federal, provincial and regional level. “There are several new affordable housing projects being proposed on the Peninsula by both non-profit and for-profit developers. It is crucial that local governments take advantage of every opportunity, not just with non-profits, but with every new development involving substantial up-zoning, to provide at least some affordable housing, particularly rental housing, since such opportunities are limited,” says Holman.
Holman emphasized the importance of municipalities using tools like housing agreements and covenants to break the link with market forces and ensure housing remains affordable over time. He suggests that having a larger stock of affordable rental housing will also provide an indirect benefit by helping to moderate rent increases in the housing market as a whole.
Christine Cullham of CRD Housing, Albert, and Holman have presented the results of the needs assessment to Central Saanich and North Saanich, with the next presentation to the Sidney township on November 21. After these presentations Holman will be organizing at least one public meeting to discuss the study results with the community and stakeholders.
Albert also appeared at a well-attended Affordable Housing Town Hall in Saanich earlier last month. She was joined by Jake Fry of Small Works, Vancouver, Kristi Fairholm Mader from Ready to Rent BC, along with opposition MLAs Lana Popham, Rob Fleming, Carole James and David Eby, NDP spokesperson for Housing, Liquor Policy, Gaming, and Translink.
The Saanich town hall concluded that there were three initial actions that have the potential to make a difference, considerably quickly. The first calls on the provincial government to relax its rules on post-secondary institution debt so UVic and other post-secondary institutions can build more on-campus residences. Other actions call on municipalities to create rental-only zoning and another calls on the province to strengthen the Residential Tenancy Branch in terms of rental increase protection.