Housing affordability is a crisis for communities across B.C. and will undoubtedly be one of the main issues in the fall 2018 local government elections.
Sky-high property prices have made purchasing a home impossible for many B.C. residents, and rents have soared well beyond the range of affordability for a large percentage of tenants. Since 2017, the City of Vancouver has been the least affordable place for housing in North America, and the problem has spilled into neighbouring lower mainland communities, Vancouver Island and parts of the interior.
Short supply of rental housing has led to vacancy rates well under 1 per cent in many B.C. communities, with Victoria at 0.7 per cent, Burnaby at 0.6 per cent, East Vancouver at 0.3 per cent and Kelowna at 0.2 per cent.
This is not a "business as usual" situation, and bold action will be required to address the crisis. Measures have been taken to reduce overseas and investor demand for housing throughout the province, but these actions have not been enough. B.C. communities need access to a robust and stable supply of housing that is truly affordable to make a real impact on this growing crisis. This will help directly, in terms of increasing affordable housing supply for those who live in the new units, as well as indirectly, by putting downward pressure on market rental prices through increased vacancy rates and more housing options for renters.
While many of B.C.'s housing affordability problems are the result of poor policy choices, there are concrete actions local governments can take right now to make things better.
Local government policies we propose in this document include:
- The 30% formula: Defining "affordable rental housing" in municipal policies as housing that: a) costs 30 per cent or less of an area's monthly median household income; or b) is at least 30 per cent below market rent in that area (whichever is lower in a given community).
- Rental zoning: Using new rental zoning powers to increase and protect the supply of affordable rental housing.
- Fast-track affordable construction: Accelerated permitting and approval processes for construction of affordable rental housing.
- The 50/50 model: All future private density increases should be matched with an equal increase in public density, split 50 per cent private and 50 per cent affordable public. This can be accomplished using either inclusionary zoning or density trading.
- Development cost waivers: Targeted incentives for affordable rental construction, including waivers for Development Cost Charges (DCCs) and Community Amenity Contributions (CACs)
- 10-year tax waivers: 10-year property tax waivers for public and non-market affordable rental housing construction.
- Build on public land: Building new affordable rental housing on municipal and school district owned lands.
Land value capture: In the Metro Vancouver region, using TransLink's existing powers to tax a portion of the significant land value increases in properties close to mass transit lines and other publicly funded infrastructure. The increased value of this land results directly from public investment, and it is fair that the public recoup some of that value to fund needed services. This revenue can be used to fund expanded transit service, and thus greater access to viable housing options for commuters throughout the region.
In addition, we propose some key measures the federal and provincial governments can take to help municipalities address the housing crisis, including:
- Mandatory inclusionary zoning: Enable B.C. local governments to mandate inclusionary zoning of affordable housing in all new developments. Cities in the United States have created tens of thousands of affordable housing units this way, and Ontario and Alberta have both recently given this power to local governments in those provinces.
- Increased and accelerated capital funding: While senior governments are signalling changes in the right direction, they need to scale up and accelerate capital funding for affordable housing construction if they are serious about addressing the crisis.
- Tax waivers and incentives: Much of the existing affordable rental housing stock was built in the 1960s and 1970s with the help of targeted tax waivers and incentives. The federal and provincial government should use similar measures today to encourage affordable rental construction and the preservation of existing stock.
- Close loopholes for land speculators: The provincial government needs to close property tax loopholes that encourage land speculators to hold undeveloped residential land without developing it, in anticipation of future land price increases.
B.C.'s housing crisis will not be solved overnight, but there are effective actions local governments can take now to improve housing supply and affordability in their communities. Some of these policies may seem bold and unprecedented, but the unprecedented severity of the affordability crisis facing B.C. communities requires such innovation in policy and regulation. Local governments could be further empowered in these efforts by making some straightforward legislative changes at the provincial and federal levels of government.
The stakes are too high for inaction or weak measures. The housing crisis is already driving unacceptable levels of poverty and homelessness in this province, and contributing to a growing sense of desperation for hundreds of thousands of young people, families, seniors and others across B.C. If we want healthy, diverse, equitable and livable communities for all British Columbians, we need to take meaningful political action now. The alternative is the continued degradation and hollowing out of our communities, allowing them to be selectively repurposed as privileged investment opportunities for a wealthy few.