Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Opinion: Housing affordability? It’s time for province to offer both long-term promises and short-term solutions Vancouver Sun January 17, 2018

     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?
     During 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.
     While I’m 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.
     Secondly, why is this program not means-tested? This could be accomplished in part by making the grant a taxable benefit, rather than tax-free.
     While 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 cent.
     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.
     Ten 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 much.
     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 apartments?
     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.
     Another factor 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.
Michael 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 geller@sfu.ca.

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