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Monique Keiran: Housing crisis is everyone’s problem

Canadians have until Oct. 21 to help shape what could become a national housing strategy.

Canadians have until Oct. 21 to help shape what could become a national housing strategy. With the challenges felt by many of the region’s residents in finding adequate housing within their means, we have much to contribute to the housing conversation.

Real estate across southwestern British Columbia is increasingly unaffordable. A recent study by RBC ranks the Victoria area as the third-least-affordable market in Canada, after Vancouver and Toronto. A typical Victoria-area household spends more than half of its pre-tax income to cover the costs of owning a single-family house. And that’s less than half of what a similar family would pay in the Lower Mainland.

Bidding wars, common during house sales before the economy slowed in 2008, have again become standard practice. They’re even being used by renters trying to sign leases for the region’s few available apartments.

Almost all of the region’s municipalities are grappling with the issue. On the mainland, density near transit hubs is clearing away sections of long-established, three- and four-storey rental apartment buildings and light industry anywhere within three kilometres of a SkyTrain station. Vancouver has rezoned many communities to permit “invisible” densification — laneway, secondary suite and market-rental homes.

Here, the Capital Regional District has proposed to borrow funds to build, in partnership with the province, more than 440 units of subsidized housing and 440 of market-priced rental units over the next five years. City of Victoria staff recommend the city remove the minimum condo-unit size in areas where multi-unit residential buildings are permitted.

Saanich is discussing loosening restrictions on detached secondary suites, while North Saanich got a head start and finalized its plans to implement its housing strategy in 2013.

Even tea- and tradition-steeped Oak Bay is pondering whether to allow property owners to build infills in some areas of the municipality.

Affordable housing is a complex problem. It includes homelessness, addiction and other social issues.

It also affects regional economic sustainability. Victoria-area businesses in the service and hospitality sectors report difficulty attracting and keeping workers due to the region’s high cost of living. Household debt is at record levels, with little sign or opportunity of declining.

It also touches on community viability. Many young families can’t afford to live here. Older people need housing that suits their changing health and mobility needs. So much household income is going toward housing that paying for education or covering emergency costs becomes problematic.

To solve this challenge, stakeholders from across the region and beyond must work together. We must be creative. We must be open and willing to consider new paradigms and social expectations for housing. We need to look at solutions designed, tested and built elsewhere that might work here — whether rooftop, micro, flexible or modular housing, live–work buildings and neighbourhoods, or design solutions to fit families comfortably within smaller spaces, or ways to pipe natural light and fresh air into the interiors of apartment buildings.

The long-held North American gold standard of adulthood — owning a detached family home with front and backyards for kids and dogs to run in — is becoming either more elusive or more geographically remote.

Even with a new McKenzie/Trans-Canada Highway interchange on the horizon, the dream of filling large volumes of house and garage space with mountains of “stuff” is gradually commuting into a workaday highway grind.

Communities thrive as the people living within them thrive, but hours spent in traffic every day don’t meet the definition of “thriving.” Our neighbours and neighbourhood organizations — each with a stake in ensuring our communities remain vibrant and viable — can contribute creative, community-friendly ideas that further neighbourhood character, diversity and sustainability.

In addition, each level of government acts as a kind of gatekeeper for affordable-housing initiatives. Government can put in place systems that, taken together, make building or renovating housing more affordable, promote a greater proportion of inclusive housing and co-housing options, and even encourage alternative solutions such community land trusts, and community investment funding.

Solutions to B.C.’s affordable housing crisis exist, but to make them happen, we must all work together.