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Comment: Step up or step aside, developers

Re: “Inclusionary housing could increase costs, group tells Victoria,” Feb. 14. I am a member of the city-appointed working group that the Urban Development Institute audaciously claimed to speak on behalf of.

Re: “Inclusionary housing could increase costs, group tells Victoria,” Feb. 14.

I am a member of the city-appointed working group that the Urban Development Institute audaciously claimed to speak on behalf of. Contrary to the claims of the institute, there was no consensus to embrace cash-in-lieu contributions from developers over on-site affordable housing. There was interest in studying this option, and interest ranged from reluctant to enthusiastic.

But there was also much interest in fixing Victoria’s flawed methodology for calculating bonus density, and I noticed UDI was silent about this. Why do I say flawed? Because during roughly the first half of 2017 (the height of the real-estate boom) Victoria received a measly $750,000 in amenity contributions from developers — roughly the same amount Tofino received from one 22-unit townhouse project.

There was also much interest in updating the inclusionary housing policy by applying the city’s current definition of affordable housing, which ties the generally accepted affordability rule of thumb (30 per cent of income) to the bottom four household income groups.

You get the point. Much was discussed. Points of alignment arose around several issues, but no consensus was achieved and UDI was not anointed to speak on behalf of the working group.

The institute needs to step up or step aside. They have been invited by the city to be partners in designing a resilient housing system with other stakeholders. Claiming to speak on behalf of everyone, while ignoring the input of those whose ideas don’t shore up their bottom line, doesn’t buy a lot of good will.

How long can we refer to the housing situation as a crisis, while at the same time prioritizing the building of expensive housing for the richest 10 per cent? How long can we refer to the housing situation as a crisis while expecting the impacts of the crisis to be managed by donations and volunteers?

The poorer half of all households in the Capital Regional District compete for less than 15 per cent of the housing supply (Capital Region Housing Data Book). The development industry, with no guidance from the public, is inclined to produce only the most profitable housing — the benchmark price of a condo in the Victoria core area is, as of January 2019, just shy of half a million dollars.

Who can afford to spend that on housing? Households that earn about $9,000 a month. Or those who have built substantial equity. That leaves out 90 per cent of families who live in Victoria.

The rapid price escalation of real estate has effectively erased many first-time homebuyers’ downpayments, and where the flow of renters into homeownership has frozen, adding to the competition for rental units. With a generation shut out of homeownership, and competition for rentals fierce, people with any sign that they are different don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of securing a place to live.

Moreover, when the development industry removes older, low-cost housing and replaces it with housing that only the top 10 per cent of households can afford, the only way to replace that housing is with publicly funded, taxpayer-subsidized housing. Otherwise, we see an increase in the number of people who are homeless in our region, or an increase in long commutes.

An appropriate response to a crisis means using all the tools available. Inclusionary housing is one tool in the tool-kit and a sensible response to mitigate the ongoing exclusion and displacement of local people from housing and from neighbourhoods.

Victoria is not blazing a new path, it is joining cities from Bowen Island to Burnaby, and Langford to New Westminster, which require anywhere from five to 20 per cent of new housing to be built for either affordable homeownership or to be transferred to non-profits to manage as rentals affordable to low-income households, or cash contributions to housing funds.

Of course, inclusionary housing depends on the development industry continuing to build housing and showing up as team players. A basic requirement of membership in a city-led working group ought to be an expectation that members think and act in the public interest. This is admittedly an abstract idea that invites people to think, not of their own well-being, but of the well-being of others and the well-being of the whole.

I’m hopeful that UDI will step up. However, some would say that it is naïve to think UDI will come to the table as a team player acting in the public interest after this shot across the bow.

And that is why council must continue to remind developers that rezoning is a privilege, not a right, under our municipal charter, by continuing to apply the interim policy of requiring that 10 to 15 per cent of all units be affordable to local incomes.

Kudos to Victoria city council for re-affirming that the City of Victoria will develop “an inclusionary housing policy for the end of March 2019, including an amendment to the draft policy that will result in the creation of the most truly affordable housing units, the most quickly.”

Nicole Chaland is the former director of community economic development programs at Simon Fraser University, where she also taught Affordable Housing Systems for Sustainable Communities. She lives in Victoria.

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