What should the B.C. government be doing to create more affordable housing in Vancouver? This is a question I, and many other so-called housing experts, are being asked daily as we await next month’s provincial budget.
Given that the Liberal government lost the last
election because it paid insufficient attention to housing
affordability, British Columbians are hoping for many housing
announcements in the budget. But really, what can, or should the B.C.
government, be doing to make housing more affordable for residents
throughout the Vancouver region, and elsewhere in the province?
the election campaign, the NDP promised to introduce an annual,
two-per-cent tax on foreigners who buy B.C. property but don’t pay tax
here. They estimated this would generate $200 million a year to fund
affordable housing. While I don’t disagree with the proposal, here are
two other ways to free-up more funds for affordable housing: Overhaul
the Homeowner Grant and Property Tax Deferral programs.
told it’s political suicide to end grants to 92 per cent of B.C.
homeowners, I think it’s time to phase out the Homeowner Grant Program
and redirect the money to those in greater need. To begin, why not
establish different price thresholds for regions around the province?
Surely it makes sense to differentiate between Kerrisdale and Castlegar,
where $1.65 million buys one of the nicest houses in town.
why is this program not means-tested? This could be accomplished in
part by making the grant a taxable benefit, rather than tax-free.
the Property Tax Deferral Program may be necessary for low-income
seniors wanting to stay in their homes, it too should become
income-tested. Far too many, who can afford to pay property taxes, take
advantage of cheap provincial loans, currently at less than one per
While directing funds saved from these programs into rent
subsidies for the needy, and low-interest loans for non-profit housing
would be beneficial, there is much more the province can do.
years ago, during Vancouver’s municipal election campaign, I first
promoted the idea of setting up temporary modular housing for the
homeless on public and privately owned vacant land. Thankfully, the
government is now promoting this idea through a provincewide program.
However, relocatable modular housing could accommodate a much broader
range of households seeking affordable homes.
The province could
encourage this housing by offering property-tax relief to owners of
vacant lots, just as it now does for those creating community gardens.
Instead of growing expensive tomatoes, these properties could
accommodate one-, two- and three-bedroom homes for millennials who might
otherwise leave the province.
We often hear that one way to
create more affordable housing is to increase supply. While I agree with
those who argue we also need the right supply, a major challenge facing
private and non-profit developers is obtaining zoning, development and
building-permit approvals. They really do take too long, and cost too
While the responsibility for approvals generally rests with
municipal government, except for the City of Vancouver, municipalities
are legislated by the Municipal Act. Why should it often take a year or
more to approve a single-family house or three years to approve rental
To speed up approvals, there is an urgent need to
review and overhaul our current planning and approval procedures through
Municipal Act amendments, wherever necessary.
One way to
accelerate approvals would be for the province to encourage a greater
role for Independent Certified Professionals in the issuance of
development and building permits. Regular audits could be carried out to
ensure zoning bylaws and codes are being met.
contributing to the high cost of new housing is the Community Amenity
Contributions (CACs), which are usually charged by municipalities
whenever a property is rezoned.
Four years ago, the provincial
Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, in consultation
with local governments, the development and building sectors, and legal
and academic communities, prepared a document titled, Community Amenity
Contributions: Balancing Community Planning, Public Benefits and Housing
Affordability. It was well-researched and thoughtful, and put forward
many sound recommendations. Sadly, it appears to have been all but
ignored or forgotten.
As CACs, combined with other municipal fees
and charges often exceed the cost of land, it’s time for the province to
play a role in insisting that municipalities abide by the
recommendations set out in this document.
Sadly, even if all these
suggestions were implemented, the cost of renting or buying a home in
B.C. will continue to be out reach for too many. However, by combining
long-term promises with practical, short-term solutions, B.C. can play
an important role in increasing affordable housing in years to come.
Geller is a Vancouver-based architect planner, property consultant and
developer with five decades of experience in the public and private
sectors. He also serves on the adjunct faculty at SFU. His blog is found
at gellersworldtravel.blogspot.ca and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.