Vancouver councillor Pete Fry says that the city’s definition of social housing doesn’t translate to affordable homes for many people.
The Green councillor noted that this is the reason why he continues to push for a new meaning, so everyone knows it’s about affordable housing.
“The definition is problematic and it needs work,” Fry told the Straight in a phone interview.
To illustrate his point, the councillor went over the city’s definition. The term refers to an entire development, wherein 30 percent of units are for residents who cannot afford market rents and the rest of the 70 percent are rented out for as high as the market can bear.
To qualify for the 30 percent of the units, a household should have an income at or below the so-called housing income limits or HILs determined on an annual basis by B.C. Housing.
HILs vary from city to city, and for 2021, the HILs for Vancouver are as follows: $55,500 for a one-bedroom unit or studio; $67,500, two bedrooms; $78,000, three bedrooms; and $83,500, four bedrooms.
Using 30 percent of income as a standard for affordable housing, a housing income limit of $55,500 for a one bedroom or studio translates to a monthly rent of about $1,387.
“We know that the median income for a single person in Vancouver is close to $40,000 a year,” Fry noted. “We’re not really meeting that basic kind of affordability metric through the definition of social housing right now.”
The City of Vancouver has an official profile of social indicators for 2020, which is based on the results of the 2016 federal census.
The document notes that the median personal income in the city is $39,000.
Again using the 30 percent measure for housing affordability, anyone earning an income of $39,000 should pay only $975 for a one-bedroom unit or studio.
The city’s official profile also provides a picture of income distribution in Vancouver.
Starting from the botton, the document notes that 10 percent of households have annual incomes ranging from zero to $15,000. Next, 13 percent earn $15,000 to $30,000, 16 percent make $30,000 to $50,000, 14 percent bring in $50,000 to $70,000, 16 percent earn $70,000 to $100,000, and 30 percent make $100,000 or more.
The continuing controversy over the definition of social housing has echoes from similar concerns over how the City of Vancouver defines terms such as “affordable rental housing”.
In 2014, a B.C. Supreme Court rendered reasons for judgment on a petition by the West End Neighbours Residents Society. The group questioned a city policy that granted numerous incentives to developers of so-called affordable rental housing.
At the time, the city’s definition of affordable rental means monthly rents starting at $1,443 for a studio unit, $1,517 for a one bedroom, and $2,061 for two bedrooms. The city maintained that these are affordable rates because they cost less than buying a home.
Justice Susan Griffin noted that the residents group, which was represented by lawyer Nathalie Baker, argued that the city was “in error in defining ‘affordability’ in relation to home ownership”.
“The petitioner argues that the word ‘affordable’ must mean below market rates for rental buildings, not below the cost of home ownership…,” Griffin wrote.
Moreover, the city could have simply used the term rental housing instead of affordable rental housing.
In the end, Griffin dismissed the petition, ruling that the “petitioner’s position falls into the category of criticism of Council’s political choices”.
On June 2, 2020, council approved Fry’s motion, directing staff to report back with a proposed new definition of social housing.
Fry’s motion also instructed city planners to “consider alternatives that refer specifically and only to non-market affordable rental or co-op housing”.
It took almost a year before council received feedback in the form of a memo from Gil Kelley, who was then the city’s top planner. Kelley is no longer employed with the city.
In the memo dated March 5, 2021, Kelley identified “several issues” that may arise from council’s directive to “explore a narrower definition”. This means “all the units in the building would be affordable to households with income levels that are not sufficient to find acceptable housing in the private market”.
Kelley cited as one example concerns from the “community housing sector that a narrower definition of social housing could result in a reduction of development applications for new non-market housing”. This is because applications may “not meet the narrower definition at the outset of the project, even if the development might qualify for additional funding to deepen affordability later on”.
“Partners noted that new non-market housing might be able to proceed under a narrower definition of social housing when significant senior government funding is available to fund deeper levels of affordability,” Kelley also wrote.
In the interview, Fry said that Kelly’s memo was “basically saying, ‘Well, it’s complicated.’ ”
“I still believe that there’s more work that could be done,” Fry said.