The quest for affordable housing

By Leslie Campbell, September 2016

The gap between incomes and housing costs has grown so wide that bold action is long overdue.

In Victoria, lots of high-end housing has been constructedWHEN I MOVED HERE from Winnipeg 30 years ago, I quickly found myself a modest one-bedroom apartment on Quebec Street in James Bay. A three-story walk-up, my pad featured hardwood floors and a southern exposure. It had a tiny galley kitchen, a balcony, and a parking space. I loved it; it was the perfect nest from which to fly about my new city and start my life over. It cost me $315/month. 

Having settled the housing facet of my life, I moved on to finding a job, doing freelance writing, taking some classes, and volunteering with local organizations. I couldn’t have done any of it without a secure home whose rental rate allowed me to afford the other basics along with a few frills, like writing and art classes, and listening to some great music at Harpo’s.

Contrast my welcoming environment to what people at the low end of the income spectrum face now: a rental vacancy rate of 0.6 percent—one of the worst in Canada—along with out-of-reach rents. My Quebec Street home was torn down years ago to make way for a strata-titled townhouse complex. But a search of rental listings yielded a similar apartment—without the hardwood floors and free parking—for $1250/month. 

The tales of woe I am hearing personally range from students losing a shared rental house when the owner decided to cash out, to a family from the Comox Valley with two university-age children struggling to find a house to rent. Lisa Morgan says she is hoping for something around $2000/month, but after months of looking, she’s found the only suitable homes in terms of location and space all fall in the $2800-3000 price range. As the search continues, the family is camping out at the grandparents’ home in Brentwood Bay. Daughter Morgan will commute to UVic.

Another, much younger family, with their infant, was “renovicted” from their rental home recently. Unable to find an affordable replacement despite both parents working, they are moving into the unfinished basement of their parents. With only one kitchen and bathroom, “adjustments” are having to be made by all parties.

At another end of the spectrum is an active  septuagenarian who owns a home with reasonable mortgage fees, but is considering selling and moving to Mexico because there seems no other solution in the face of needed costly repairs and rising utility bills. 

Sixty percent of Victorians rent their home. Renting is the only way many young people, singles, seniors and families can afford to house themselves. They all add to a city’s diversity, vibrancy and potential. So it seems in everyone’s interest to help them feel more welcome in our city.

 

IN RESEARCHING THE ISSUE of affordable housing, I kept coming across the name of Marika Albert—the author (often with others) of reports for both the CRD and the Coalition to End Homelessness. She also served on the City of Victoria’s Housing Affordability Task Force and is currently the managing director of the Community Social Planning Council of Greater Victoria. 

During an August meeting, Albert and I discuss this community’s housing challenge, focusing particularly on rentals.

Together we look at the graph (below) from the 167-page Capital Region Housing Gap Analysis & Data Book that Albert helped compile. The graph puts the problem into stark relief, illustrating a fundamental mismatch between where our population is in terms of income, and the cost of available housing. Only 13.7 percent of the region’s homes are affordable for 50 percent of its households. The income at the upper end, just left of the dotted red line is $59,999. Put another way, there are only 22,000 units priced at 30 percent of the gross income of 79,000 households. And there’s an oversupply of housing for those in upper income groups. Since these figures are from data from 2011 to 2014, the gap is likely even more dramatic now.

CRD affordable housing availability by income group

 

The lower-income people who cannot find housing that “matches” their income are, says Albert, therefore overspending and experiencing a lot of stress and its attendant problems, and in some cases homelessness.

Albert and other members on the City of Victoria’s Housing Affordability Task Force looked particularly at ways to generate more housing for households in the $18,000-$57,000 per annum range. 

“We really focused on immediate need and trying to resolve the real crisis or the tension that we have now. We talked a lot about inclusionary zoning, densification and diversified densification. How do we fit more people in an area, but without necessarily having to build massive towers? How do we fill in the corners of our neighborhoods a bit more?”

The task force came up with a list of things the City should consider, and these have informed the City’s Housing Strategy 2016-2025. Among the recommendations already prioritized in the Strategy are removing the minimum unit size (currently 335 square feet); reducing parking requirements for units (which can add $25-40,000 in costs to developers, which is passed on to tenants); removing the rezoning requirement for garden suites; and reviewing the Housing Reserve Fund guidelines for grants to developers of affordable housing projects. (Non-profit providers have expressed concerns that the $10,000 per unit cap on grants may soon limit their ability to build units that are affordable for people in the low-to-moderate income bracket.)

Other recommendations of the task force that will be looked at further down the road  include fostering the conversion of older motels to apartments, and contributing City-owned land at no cost or at reduced market value for the development of affordable housing projects. (The City of Vancouver recently committed to building 400 affordable rental suites on its city-owned lands.)

Albert says, “I think that municipalities are in a position to be a bit more assertive [with developers] around what they see as their community needs. We have developers wanting to build here. Ultimately, it’s going to be lucrative for them.” She feels some progress has been made, but too often it’s just not enough. “It’s sad. It’s like, ‘Really? Just 10 [affordable units in a large complex]? What’s that going to do?’ I find it frustrating because I think a lot of effort has been put into lobbying for more units, changing how we do that whole process and then it’s just, ‘Oh, we’re just going to do this fast route, 10 units and then that’s it.’” 

She is, however, excited to see that the City of Victoria is endorsing the creation of an “inclusionary housing density bonus policy” for the Downtown core. Inclusionary zoning essentially means that if housing is built in that zone, it has to represent the income distribution of the area—thereby maintaining its diversity. Albert believes, “The more diverse your community is the more it thrives. Jane Jacobs has talked about that a lot in her work.”

 

DESPITE HER WORK AND ADVOCACY at the civic level, Albert admits cities do not have the tools or money available to them that upper levels of government do. When it comes to the bolder measures needed to address the profound disconnect between incomes and housing, those upper levels need to come to the table.

On the income side of the equation, she notes, household incomes have been stagnating. “We are losing our purchasing power. Income assistance rates haven’t gone up since 2007.” Another graph we examine shows that the rate of the increase in shelter costs and the rate at which wages are going up have decoupled in the past decade. On the ground, this translates to a person working full-time at BC’s minimum hourly wage of $10.45 spending 50 percent of their income to rent a bachelor apartment at the 2015 regional average of $716/month. Looking at another scenario, a family of four would require both parents working full-time at $20.05/hour to afford the basics, including a 3-bedroom apartment with utilities and insurance amounting to $1488/month all-inclusive. Those wages, by the way, would not allow for vacations, savings, or debt servicing.

“We can’t just address one side of the coin,” says Albert—“especially for people who are on low incomes, who are living on disability, who are trying to scrape by in a rental market that has no vacancy and is becoming more expensive.”

Increasing minimum wage, income assistance and disability rates, of course, points us in the direction of the Provincial government.

With an election in May, the Liberals—along with both the NDP and Green parties—do seem to be paying attention to the dearth of affordable housing, which a recent poll found to be the top concern of British Columbians. The government’s actions thus far, however, have been aimed at cooling the over-heated real estate sales market, especially in Vancouver (e.g. a tax on foreign buyers) or, as in Victoria, funding much-needed new transitional supportive housing to address homelessness, a crisis made so visible by the tent city on the Province’s Law Courts grounds.

The Province is also the level of government where rent controls can be enhanced and legislative measures to deal with burgeoning renovictions can be implemented. The Province’s Tenancy Branch has received almost 5000 applications to dispute eviction notices in the past year, which likely represent the tip of iceberg (who has the time and money to file a complaint when hunting for a new place?). The penalty for landlords who are found to evict someone “in bad faith” is two months’ rent, which they can make back in no time, given the market and the loopholes in the Residential Tenancy Act. 

The Province has far more tools at its disposal than the City to help those caught in the squeeze illustrated by our graph. With a provincial election come May, citizens have some influence as well. 

 

THE OTHER DIRECTION TO LOOK FOR BOLD MEASURES to tackle housing affordability, of course, is the federal government.

In one of the reports Albert worked on, I had noticed a graph showing the age of this region’s rental apartments. It made clear that between 1961 and 1980 there was a building boom in purpose-built rental apartments; in fact, the ones still standing represent 43 percent of all rental units in the CRD. In the City of Victoria itself, of the current 17,000 or so purpose-built rental apartments, “nearly 70 percent of these units were built between 1950 and 1975 under a series of Federal tax measures and construction incentives,” states the City’s Task Force report.

Albert explains that during that era, “We had a national housing strategy. The federal government through CMHC was investing in the building of purpose-built rentals—both market rentals, but also subsidized units…There was actual incentive for developers to build them.”

By the mid-1980s, however, the feds had lost interest in subsidized housing and discontinued funding any social housing projects. Then came the Province’s turn to lose interest and halt their funding. One result: Where homelessness was virtually unheard of in the 1980s, by the 2000s people were sleeping in doorways and parks. There are now 235,000 people homeless in Canada.

The Trudeau Liberals, during the election campaign, acknowledged the need for the feds to re-engage on the housing front in a bold way: They promised to “prioritize investments in affordable housing and seniors’ facilities, build more new housing units and refurbish old ones, give support to municipalities to maintain rent-geared-to-income subsidies in co-ops, and give communities the money they need for Housing First initiatives that help homeless Canadians find stable housing.” They also said they’d remove all GST on new capital investments in affordable rental housing. And “conduct an inventory of all available federal lands and buildings that could be repurposed, and make some of these lands available at low cost for affordable housing in communities where there is a pressing need.”

In all, the federal Liberals promised that $20 billion would be invested in social housing over the next decade.

In Victoria recently, federal Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Jean-Yves Duclos said a national housing strategy could be in place before the end of the year. He also announced $150 million in federal funding over the next two years for housing in BC, $51 million of it for repairs and upgrades to social housing units.

So the feds are re-engaging with the issue—though with many promises to keep. And the Province, heading into an election next spring, is starting to engage as well. But in those years in which they were both missing in action, things got awfully difficult for many Canadians.

Leslie Campbell is the founding editor of Focus. She now lives, almost affordably, in a co-op heritage house in Victoria.