Municipalities must ensure the market provides truly affordable housing for locals – Cowichan Valley Citizen
This column is the second in a two-part series.
Home sales prices in the Cowichan area have more than doubled in the past five years, mirroring trends in cities and towns across Canada where first-time home buyers are being squeezed out of the market. At the same time, our rental vacancy rate is now lower than Vancouver’s.
This problem is obviously bigger than the Cowichan region, and we are rightly counting on the leaders of Ottawa and Victoria to tame this wild real estate market.
The federal budget tabled earlier this month promises a series of measures to turn the tide, including a two-year ban on foreign buyers, an anti-rollover tax and billions of dollars in new funding to speed up licensing processes and build new affordable units.
However, skeptics were quick to point out problems with these policies, including the shortage of skilled workers and materials that will make the goal of doubling the construction of homes nearly impossible, and the overemphasis on increasing housing supply without properly addressing demand-side issues.
Although federal and provincial housing policies are beyond our local control, we have important but underutilized tools at the municipal level.
This means more than just flooding the market with more units. As we have seen in the Cowichan area over the past few years, large increases in supply have not stopped selling prices from skyrocketing. What we need is adequate provision, meaning housing that the local population can actually afford.
Many cities and towns have started providing free public land for non-profit affordable housing developments. However, these projects are generally dependent on securing federal and provincial funding to move forward.
The Municipality of North Cowichan has partnered with a non-profit land trust to build nearly 120 townhouses and apartments for low- and middle-income families and seniors on two municipal properties. Although obtaining provincial funding is taking longer than expected, recent discussions with Housing Minister David Eby have left us optimistic that this project could be launched in the coming months and open the way for similar projects in the future.
But we should really look beyond federal and provincial funding for affordable housing, which can take years to trickle down to the local level, and start to firmly enforce planning and land use planning powers within the local jurisdiction.
As University of British Columbia professor Patrick Condon pointed out in a recent presentation to North Cowichan Council, municipalities can use zoning and development taxation tools to influence land prices. and provide permanently affordable housing for the middle class.
One such tool is “inclusive zoning,” which are policies that require a minimum proportion of affordable housing in new developments. Typically, cities and towns that implement these policies will require that 10-25% of units be sold or rented below market price. Rather than increasing the final sale price of homes, evidence indicates that inclusive zoning limits the sharp increases in land value that typically accompany increases in density, impacting land speculation rather than builders or home buyers.
Condon cites other examples where zoning is used effectively to build affordable homes. In Portland, Oregon, developers are automatically allowed up to six units on all city land, as long as three of those units are affordable. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, developers have the option of doubling the permitted density in exchange for building permanently affordable housing.
Other municipal tools cited by housing experts include accelerating applications for affordable housing projects, pre-zoning land for increased density subject to affordability conditions, reducing user fees for ancillary suites and waiving development fees and property taxes for non-profit developments, to name a few.
Would these policies be successful in increasing the stock of affordable housing in the Cowichan region? As other communities have shown, they could.
Either way, our current approach doesn’t work for the vast majority of first-time home buyers or people struggling to find a rental.
What we need is municipalities like North Cowichan to be much more aggressive in tackling the housing crisis and ensuring that the market provides housing that is truly affordable for local residents.
Rob Douglas is a Councilor for the Municipality of North Cowichan