The City of Vancouver is moving forward with a housing agency that it says is aimed at generating 500 affordable housing units in the next three years.
City council heard from a series of speakers Wednesday (July 9) on the new body, including several members of the Coalition of Progressive Electors, who criticized the agency for not going “nearly far enough”.
The agency, which was originally proposed by the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability, is intended to act as a “catalyst” for new affordable housing projects, according to the city’s chief housing officer, Mukhtar Latif. City council approved the task force's recommendations, including a plan to establish a local housing authority, in October 2012.
The affordability of the housing units will be targeted at low to moderate-income households, ranging from people on welfare to a maximum household income of $86,500. It is aimed at generating a total of 2,500 housing units by 2021.
“The fundamental point made by the housing task force two years ago was that there should be a strong commitment at the policy level to the development of affordable housing right across the spectrum,” said Vision Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs as council moved to receive the report.
“There’s a range of incomes which are struggling with affordability because the private sector’s not able to produce, or unwilling to produce…condos and apartments at levels that are affordable to many working families," he added.
“So those moderate-income households are looking for relief, and the homeless strategy deals with one end of the crisis, but there’s a very large part of our city that are not getting housing relief in that moderate income range, and what was needed, or the how, was this agency.”
COPE representatives argued that the city’s agency won’t do enough to address the housing gap. Speakers compared the agency to COPE’s proposed housing authority program, a plank of its election platform approved by its members at an annual general meeting on July 6.
“The key difference here is that a strong authority will be able to build social housing or subsidized housing that poor people and low-income people…can afford,” Tristan Markle told council.
“In order to do that…it has to have the power to build housing.”
“The housing agency proposed here today is one that is not empowered to build housing, and it relies on private developers while allowing them to keep profits,” stated Sarah Beuhler.
“Under our plan, what we will do is levy a special tax on private developers, as well as a luxury housing tax.”
COPE’s proposed housing authority program would build 800 units of social housing each year, according to the party, funded in part through a tax on houses valued at more than $1.5 million, levies and contributions from developers, and Property Endowment Fund revenues. It would also own the housing it builds, and would be governed by a board including tenants and community members.
Other speakers who addressed council on the housing agency Wednesday included former city planner and housing affordability task force member Nathan Edelson.
“Housing is about people, not about numbers of units...it’s important to set challenging goals for the amount of housing that will be built,” he stated.
“To do this we need a clear benchmark. This should start with an indication of how much affordable housing would’ve been built without the new agency, and there needs to be a number that doesn’t double count, inadvertently, units that would be built as part of the strategy to end homelessness.”
Edelson also pointed to the importance of urban design for new affordable housing.
“Ultimately, city council and the staff for whom they work will not be cherished for packing people into small high-rise apartments along busy arterials,” he said.
“Our job is not to warehouse people, but to house them in great and inclusive neighbourhoods. These need community amenities, great parks, schools, and places that provide social, health and affordable commercial services for the diversity of people who live nearby.”
After council concluded hearing from speakers, Non-Partisan Association councillor George Affleck moved a motion calling for council to publicly ratify a decision it made during an earlier in-camera meeting to create the agency, to expedite reporting out from that meeting, and for the city to include a representative from council on the board of the new housing agency. After the other parts of his motion were ruled out of order, council voted to release details from the closed meeting.
"I just thought why did we have all these speakers if it didn’t matter?" Affleck said in a phone interview Thursday (July 10). "I didn’t feel comfortable not having a vote on it in public."
According to city staff, the in-camera decision was required to set up the new legal entity.
Earlier this week, city council heard an update from city manager Penny Ballem on Vancouver’s strategy to address homelessness. According to Ballem, council’s plan to end street homelessness by 2015 can still be achieved through support from senior levels of government.
Those forms of support include rent subsidies and an adequate number of low-barrier winter shelter beds provided this year from B.C. Housing, the city manager said.
Other factors Vancouver is counting on include an “adequate pace” of delivery for new or interim supportive housing within the next year, strategies to prevent more people becoming homeless, and sustained affordability and maintenance of the city’s low-income single-room occupancy housing stock.
Results from the Metro Vancouver homeless count released in March showed that the number of unsheltered homeless in Vancouver increased from 273 in last year’s local count to 538 this year.