Increasing Affordable Housing

MAIN OBJECTIVES:

  • Increase housing density along urban corridors
  • Provide incentives to build rental housing and “purpose-built” housing
  • Continue to encourage carriage homes and secondary suites
  • Maintain our city’s low property taxes, which factors into affordable housing

We are currently experiencing a housing shortage. The rental vacancy rate in Chilliwack is less than 2%.  Rental rates are sky-high.  This will only increase, unless we make some decisions now that will significantly increase the supply of AFFORDABLE housing. There are some things that we control, and other things that we can not control. We can not control the market, the migration of people to Chilliwack, or the cost to build new homes.  But we can control the supply side of the equation, through zoning, tax incentives, and “purpose-built” housing (a rental building that is available only to seniors, or to people with disabilities, or to single-parent families, single room occupancy, etc.)

Different people are under threat of becoming homeless, or forced into homes that are undersized or unsafe. In Chilliwack, a family of 4, with both parents working, full-time, year round, need an annual income of $63,000, to meet basic needs and maintain a decent standard of living.  This works out to about $17.50 per hour, on average. If both parents work minimum wage, the annual income is around $35,000.  For these families, over half the income is going to “housing”, unless it is subsidized. Seniors on fixed incomes are also continually at risk.

In my line of work, I see it all the time. People are renting a place, and have been for years. The rental rate can only increase between 2 – 4 % per year, so that is manageable.  But then their landlord decides to sell this rental home.  And the buyer is someone who is going to live there herself.  Now these people who have been renting this place for years, need to move out and find another place to rent. They are now competing with many other people looking for a place to rent. The result is that we have one less rental unit, and one more renter. Less supply and more demand, and the rental rates continue to increase.

We need affordable housing, so that every worker, from minimum-wage and up, has a place within our city, to live. We don’t want to be like Whistler, where your workforce drives in from Pemberton and Squamish. We owe it to our kids, that there is an adequate supply of housing options in Chilliwack, once the time comes when they want to leave the home. Too often these days, young adults are staying with their parents indefinitely, because there are no affordable housing options.

Homelessness anywhere, is a function of “desirability”. There is no homelessness in Cache Creek, Williams Lake or Hedley. That is because there is adequate housing stock there, the vacancy rate is reasonable, and therefore rental rates are affordable.  Since Chilliwack is one of the most desirable places in the world to live, we will continue to have the problem of “affordable housing”, unless we create an environment where we increase the supply.

One solution is to tweak our Official Community Plan, and continue the discussions surrounding “density”.  City council and staff does this regularly, and encourages feedback from the community. The push towards densification is necessary, if we are going to increase our population by 40,000 people over the next 20 years. We should encourage developers to build apartment buildings that are higher than 5 storeys.  In 20 years, we know that we will have 10-storey buildings like Abbotsford, so we should recognize that need, encourage it through incentives, and prepare for it. People are going to keep migrating here.

While increasing density is very important, the type of density that we create is equally important.  We need more rental units, so encouraging development of rental units should be a priority.  The city has several options.  One way, is to speed up the process. If there is a development application, and it is going to be a rental building, then that application is fast-tracked. Priority is given to it.  If it is going to be “purpose-built”, then the city can offer to waive fees, reduce DCC’s, and/or reduce property taxes for a specific time.

We should encourage apartment units that are smaller in size and simplified in design, so that the cost per unit is reduced. Reducing unit sizes will mean more units and less cost per unit.  Reducing the unit size, and allowing buildings to be only “single-room occupancy” is another way to increase the supply of affordable housing. This type of housing should be built along urban corridors, with easy access to public transit and other services.

The majority of people have been renters at one time. Renters are not different people. Renters become home-owners, and home-owners become renters. Some renters have untidy homes and throw weekend parties, and some home-owners have untidy homes and throw weekend parties. Unsightly premises, noise violations, and other bylaw infractions are dealt with by city bylaw enforcement, and whether the complaint is against a home-owner or a tenant is irrelevant.

Rental rates are driven by cost. If we can decrease the cost and increase the supply, the rental rates will come down. One cost every landlord has, is property taxes. So keeping property taxes low is a key part in creating an environment to encourage affordable housing.

We can also increase the supply of affordable housing, by encouraging carriage homes and secondary suites in homes. Recently, our city allowed secondary suites in all detached homes, with certain exceptions. We also allow carriage homes on properties zoned R1-A, subject to some conditions. These are great steps in the right direction. Both these changes require the homeowner to live on the property. This tends to reduce friction between neighbours, because the landlord lives there as well and can respond immediately to any issues that come up.  It increases affordability, as a homeowner is less likely to be driven by a return on her/his investment.  The pressure for rent increases on this type of housing is going to be less than other types of rental housing.

No one likes the word “density” when it comes to city planning.  But we know that people continue to come here.  Most of us came here from other places too. Building on the hillsides is expensive, and most of the undeveloped land on the valley floor is either in the ALR or on First Nations land. That means “density” is the only solution, if we want to increase affordable housing options.

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