By Terry O’Neill
A few years ago, a Vancouver daily newspaper published a story about the growth of Metro Vancouver. To illustrate the piece, an editor selected a photograph of my neighbourhood, Eagle Ridge in northern Coquitlam, and slapped a caption on it which read, “Urban Sprawl.”
Let me say this: My wife and I moved into our neighbourhood 30 years ago, a young couple just starting out, full of dreams, aspirations, and no small amount of trepidation. For the most part, those dreams came true in our little patch of the world. We raised our children in Eagle Ridge, sent them to school here, and then sent them off to university from here. This is our home. This is where we live.
And this place, despite what the insulting newspaper caption implied and despite what some downtown urbanites might think, is not some sort of suburban blight. It is the manifestation of our hopes and dreams. It is the very tangible place where we have spent most of our adult lives. It is the place we love.
I tell this story because it helps explain why I think one of the most pressing issues facing Coquitlam today is that of affordable home ownership. I believe that the city should do everything in its power to help today’s young couples and families find and keep the homes of their dreams.
Of course, many of the reasons why housing in Coquitlam is so expensive are out of the control of city council and are common to the Lower Mainland: our area’s attractive geography and climate attract huge numbers of migrants from within and without the country, driving up demand; and our land supply is limited, being hemmed in to the north by mountains, to the south by the border, and to the west by the ocean—reducing supply.
High demand and low supply mean one thing: rising prices.
Nevertheless, some things are in Coquitlam’s control. Consider property taxes. In the year 2000, my wife and I paid $1,699.07 in property taxes. In 2008, we paid $2,328.87—an increase of 37 percent. That dramatic rise is unacceptable, especially at a time when inflation was running at only one or two percent a year.
And let’s look at our utility bill. This year, it increased by a whopping 17 percent. One Coquitlam resident recently calculated that the annual utility bill has risen 84 percent since 2004. Again, this is simply unacceptable.
What’s driving these increases? The short answer is that the city is over-spending. According to a November 2009 study by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Coquitlam had a dismal record of overspending on operating costs in the years 2000 to 2007.
The federation calculated that, if operating expenses had simply kept pace with population growth and inflation, Coquitlam’s spending should have grown 20 percent in that time. Instead, spending grew at more than twice the expected rate, or 41.9 percent. Once again, this is simply unacceptable.
With high house prices, the average homeowner is already carrying a large monthly mortgage payment. Adding ever-skyrocketing municipal taxes and fees only makes the financial burden worse.
The situation might not be so bad if city hall operated efficiently, dealing quickly with building applications and rezoning matters, for example. But, from what I’m hearing as I door-knock throughout the city during this campaign, the opposite is true. Building permits take too long to be approved. Red tape is rampant. Delays stretch from weeks to months to years.
As the saying goes, time costs money. And if it costs more to build a house, it certainly will cost more for a young couple to buy that house.
I look at our own grown children today and wonder when and if they will ever be able to afford to buy a home here, in the city where they have spent their entire lives. The prospect is not great. But with vigilant work at city hall, I believe that council can help and must make more home-buying dreams come true.
Terry O’Neill is running for Coquitlam city council in the May 15 by-election.