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Comment: Municipalities play a huge role in workforce housing

Affordability and the cost of living in Greater Victoria are growing concerns for residents and businesses.

Affordability and the cost of living in Greater Victoria are growing concerns for residents and businesses.

Last year, the Victoria Foundation’s Vital Signs report found that more than 50 per cent of respondents said the cost of living is the top issue facing Greater Victoria. Locals aren’t the only ones to identify cost of living as a concern. Recently, Greater Victoria was named the second-most-unaffordable city in Canada. This does not bode well for our community.

Attracting and maintaining quality staff becomes a challenge when workforce housing is neither available nor reasonable. Workforce housing is affordable housing for those with an income that is insufficient to secure higher-quality housing reasonably close to the workplace.

The cost of housing, including rentals, is troubling and unlikely to decrease. Rental availability in the city dropped significantly in 2014, with only half the units available from the previous year. With vacancy rates of 1.5 per cent, it will be some time before we see significant price adjustments.

In 2014, we saw the first purpose-built rental in more than 30 years in Victoria. Projects such as these across the capital region will assist in the workforce-housing crunch. The pending approval of the Hudson Walk as well as the Bosa Properties project on Pandora will add 170 and 200 units respectively to the much-needed rental inventory.

The cost of housing affects businesses throughout our region. Attracting skilled staff to Greater Victoria is not always an easy task. Yes, we have a fantastic quality of life, but if housing is not available or completely out of reach, it makes it even more difficult to attract workers. Pair the cost of living with the already-low unemployment rate, and businesses are facing an even greater skills shortage in our area.

The chamber of commerce is pleased to see councils around the region approve new developments of rental buildings. Further, we believe that any purpose-built rental buildings that are brought before council, if they are in accordance with the official community plan, should be expeditiously approved.

Mandatory affordable housing units for new developments, as well as potential municipal rental subsidies offered to landlords that allocate a certain percentage of their units as “affordable,” could be challenging. Municipal programs will have costs that will be borne by other properties.

With the availability of rental units already extremely low, there’s a risk that designating more units as affordable housing will cause the remaining units to increase in price. Negative consequences will result if we do not address the total inventory of housing units in our region. Increasing the availability of rental units seems an obvious first step.

Affordable housing is a complex problem for all levels of government. Housing needs a long-term vision for what we want in our community. It is up to our municipal governments to make a favourable environment for businesses to invest in housing. This includes all types of housing, not just rental.

Developers have told us that regulatory burdens can drive up the cost of buildings by 30 per cent or more. Municipalities across the capital region can assist in reducing these costs by streamlining approval processes and creating an investment-friendly environment.

Last month, Langford announced it would do just that. In an effort to increase economic activity, Langford is looking at a change in polices. Some of the strategies include reducing costs for businesses to either build or locate in the area, as well as decreasing development costs and rezoning fees.

Workforce housing and labour supply have been a long-standing priority for the chamber. We continue to be in open dialogue with municipalities on increasing the supply of workforce housing. We hope to continue this discussion with municipal leaders as we look for solutions that will increase affordability in our region.

The economic vibrancy of our region depends on affordability; we need to work together to find solutions.

Bruce Carter is CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.

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