BCNPHA in the News

Op-Ed: Jill Atkey and Thom Armstrong — Mixed-income developments are the most effective way of getting more non-profit homes built

BCNPHA CEO Jill Atkey and CHF BC CEO Thom Armstrong, Op-Ed (Vancouver Sun), June 17

We’ve heard a lot about social housing in the news lately, along with a lot of confusion about the value of mixed-income housing.

It’s not something we’d expect in a city that recently claimed top spot as the most unaffordable in North America. But if the recent debate at city council on how to make affordable housing easier to build in Vancouver proves anything, it’s that the absence of consensus is hindering, not helping, the creation of badly needed affordable homes.

On reflection, the definition of social housing has become a liability because it’s not always clear what it’s being applied to or why. This is especially true in Vancouver, where it has come to mean a fixed and limited percentage of affordable homes in a given development.

The term “social housing” has been used since the 1930s to mean housing supported by government, either by subsidy to the development itself or to individual residents — often both. It was expanded to include publicly owned housing in the 1950s and ’60s and, finally, in the 1970s to include mixed-income housing, in which a development reserves some of its homes for households that can’t afford market rents, while the rest are rented out closer to market rates.

The community housing sector has been building mixed-income housing since the 1970s. A column in The Province dated June 2, 1975, noted that without specifically encouraging non-profit and co-op homes for young families, seniors and everyone in between, we run the risk of creating a city with an “unhealthy social mix of the very wealthy and the very poor.” If only governments at all levels had heeded that advice more consistently since it was offered almost 50 years ago.

There are many benefits to building mixed-income housing. Incorporating a mix of income levels in one development keeps an organization’s mortgage payments within reach. It also creates diverse communities that are reflective of our city’s residents and, ideally, gives people of all backgrounds access to homes in more neighbourhoods.

Most importantly, mixed-income developments are the most effective way of getting more non-profit and co-op homes built and operating sustainably with limited government support.

But despite the success and proven benefits of mixed-income housing, recent proposals are being heavily debated and too often rejected because they’re not affordable enough. Critics decry the current metric for being too modest — they want more homes to be affordable to people with incomes below the province’s Housing Income Limits. Others question why an entire building is called social housing if only 30 per cent of the units are, in fact, affordable to lower-income households. Ironically, their goal is usually not to increase the number of affordable homes, but to prevent the entire development from going forward. Usually ignored is the fact that when a non-profit or co-op developer is involved, the actual split is driven by project viability, not by the expectation of more profit.

Perhaps we’re all asking too much from one beleaguered definition. For private developers, the 30 per cent threshold is almost always a ceiling — exceeding it eats into profit. For non-profit or co-op developers, it’s a bare minimum they’re happy to exceed as long as the development remains viable.

For the community housing sector, the goal is always more affordable homes and a deeper level of affordability overall. But the astronomical cost of land and construction, exacerbated by an uncertain, time-consuming, and therefore expensive municipal approvals process, heightens the appeal of a stable, mixed-income development starting at a minimum level of affordability that grows over time.

Such developments open the door for innovative partnerships that create diverse, welcoming communities. The three newest housing co-ops in Vancouver all include homes for clients of Community Living Society who have developmental disabilities but can live independently with minimal supports; a prime example of why mixed-income housing is so important and why we need much more of it — not less.

Call it whatever you want, but when a non-profit or co-op developer builds a mixed-income community, we know it’s going to start with something good, and get even better.

What could be more valuable and less confusing than that?

Jill Atkey is CEO, B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association. Thom Armstrong is CEO, Co-operative Housing Federation of B.C.

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