We’re in the midst of an affordable housing crisis

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      We are facing a severe shortage of affordable housing.

      Throughout the Metro Vancouver region, rental homes have long waitlists—and households at all income levels are grappling with rising costs. At the same time, incomes are stagnating and apartment vacancies are at an all-time low.

      I’ve spent the last six years working with nonprofits, developers, government organizations, and other partners to build affordable housing. It’s a slow, arduous, and incredibly challenging process—and this needs to change.

      What is affordable housing?

      What do I mean by affordable housing? The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) defines “affordable housing” as housing that costs below 30 per cent of a household’s before-tax income.

      The problem is that there is a huge discrepancy between current incomes and housing costs, meaning it’s harder and harder to meet the requirements that unlock the (already limited amount) of public funding. Instead, new affordable housing is most often achieved through public and private partnerships, with the support of deep subsidies.

      If we are serious about housing equity, we need a major overhaul of how new affordable homes are built.

      How is affordable housing built?

      Currently, funding for affordable housing is available from a few sources. At the federal level, the CMHC offers some grants and low-cost financing. Provincially, BC Housing as well as credit unions such as VanCity also offer grants, subsidies, and loans. Municipalities offer waivers on development fees for nonprofit-owned housing, which can help offset costs. Many also have policies that require the inclusion of affordable or rental units, though these requirements often make projects infeasible.

      Because development and construction costs have massively increased, affordable housing projects now often require multiple funding sources. Funding programs also have varying metrics and different reporting requirements, which increases the effort and paperwork required to even get started. Applications always exceed available funds.

      At the municipal level, discretionary, politicized approval processes give residents the impression that they can choose who is allowed to live in their neighbourhood. Not only do affordable developments face the same lengthy approvals process—which can take up to six years just to get to the start of construction—but building new affordable homes faces added vitriol from residents with a NIMBY (not in my backyard) attitude.

      What should we do differently with affordable housing?

      BC has over 800 nonprofit housing providers operating over 70,000 homes. There is no shortage of willpower from these organizations, which are consistently stepping up to find innovative solutions. But if we want to truly grow our capacity for affordable housing, here’s what I think we need to do:

      1. Replace exclusionary zoning with by-right zoning, which makes density for affordable homes permitted outright. 
      2. Simplify and add predictability to the approvals process, reducing risks and delays.
      3. Lower development costs and levies. Surmounting costs make many affordable housing projects infeasible.
      4. Align application metrics and reporting requirements across all levels of government. Accessing public funding should be easy, consistent, and clear.

      We need a massive build-out of affordable housing. It’s time to champion the role it plays in creating healthier communities for everyone.

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