Lisa Cordasco, Vancouver Sun, September 22 (with quotes from BCNPHA CEO Jill Atkey)
Federal promises to increase affordable housing and expand rapid transit in the Lower Mainland could result in a higher cost of living, less-affordable housing and more climate destruction, according to some analysts and advocates.
During the recent election campaign, the Liberals made promises to address housing affordability with first-time homebuyer tax credits and savings accounts. They made other pre-election commitments to contribute up to $1.3 billion toward the construction of the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain expansion.
But housing and climate experts say neither set of initiatives will achieve its goals without integration.
“Our biggest transit investments have inadvertently displaced affordable rental with market condos,” said Alex Boston, executive director of Renewable Cities, a policy and planning think-tank at Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. “The Surrey-Langley SkyTrain project will actually increase carbon and congestion because it is facilitating urban sprawl.”
Jill Atkey of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association agrees.
“We have dislocated policies. Transportation planning is separate from housing planning and housing planning is separate from school planning, even with health care, we’re building a giant hospital at St. Paul’s with no new housing planned, around it,” she said.
Both Atkey and Boston believe a new approach is needed where groups like TransLink work with municipalities, developers and the province to create housing alongside transit corridors, and for the federal government to demand such links before providing funding.
Atkey said she is disappointed that the election promises made by the Liberals have focused more on new-home ownership.
“We were hoping to see increased investment in affordable housing, but we didn’t see much of that in the Liberal platform. There was more of an emphasis on new-home ownership, which a lot of economists say is not a good idea because it simply stokes the demand for unaffordable housing,” said Atkey. “Even with those incentives for first-time homebuyers, unless you have an inheritance, you don’t have much chance of getting into the market, so what about the rest of us?”
Boston said first-time homeowners are being pushed to the suburbs, where their costs for transportation will increase. He said vehicle growth is 2 1/2 times the rate of housing growth.
“The further you are from employment hubs and services, the more you drive. Housing developments in places like Surrey, Langley and the Tri-Cities, for example, are being created to accommodate cars. They are not transit-oriented and they are not walkable. Instead, they need to create neighbourhoods around transportation corridors.”
Boston suggests TransLink partner with developers or non-profits to build affordable housing on transit-owned property, where SkyTrain stations and transit hubs are built, and he adds the federal and provincial governments must make that a requirement to receive transit funding.
“Single-family housing developments never pay for the cost of the infrastructure they need,” said Boston. “Densely populated neighbourhoods actually subsidize those costs.”
Atkey said the Liberals did make some election promises aimed at affordable rental housing but they’re not new initiatives. Most are enhancements to the continuing National Housing Strategy.
“They plan to double the existing Co-Investment Fund, but that is not a fund that has taken off here in British Columbia. We’d rather see a complete retooling of that program,” she said.
The Co-Investment Fund offers loans to underwrite housing developments, but Atkey said the requirements cut out most non-profit and co-op housing proposals.
“You need to get municipal approval processes before getting the federal funding committed, but municipalities want funding commitments before they will entertain approval processes, so it’s a catch-22,” said Atkey. “To get though the approvals process, a non-profit would have to put up close to $500,000 and that is a huge risk to take without the certainty of that final approval.”
Atkey says groups like hers will be watching with interest a new federal promise to examine the tax regime for large corporate owners of residential properties.
“For every unit of affordable housing we are building, we are losing two affordable housing units, so the solution is not just to build, but to preserve what we already have,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of details on this yet, but this could limit the excessive profits that result from rennovictions. We’d like to see assistance for non-profits to take over these properties. The provincial government is interested, but we haven’t heard much from the federal government.”
Atkey is also interested in a federal promise of a rent-to-own program, which the province already has.
Analysts like Boston and advocates like Atkey agree more integration is needed between programs that target health, transportation and housing plans along with more co-operation among governments to align their programs and funding priorities.
“The disconnect is we have strong provincial housing programs rolling out right now and they don’t really align with the federal programs,” concluded Atkey.
Boston said there are signs that various levels of government are understanding that integration is crucial: “There is big support provincially for strengthening sustainable land use and transportation policies. The UBCM has identified it as a priority, Infrastructure Canada is internally recognizing these linkages and that’s hopeful.”