B.C. cities must cut red tape for affordable-housing funds

Mike Hager And Justine Hunter, The Globe and Mail

B.C. communities that want to dip into the province’s new affordable-housing fund will have to show they can get construction for such projects approved quickly, says the minister responsible for the file.

Rich Coleman says cities must cut the red tape that he argues is bogging down development if they want some of the $355-million his government has dedicated to building and renovating at least 2,000 affordable housing units over the next five years. Finance Minister Mike de Jong also complained about red tape during this week’s budget launch.

“The biggest piece of this is: How fast can you get it zoned and ready to build?” Mr. Coleman said in an interview. “If your zoning process is three years, then I’m not worrying about matching you in 2016 … because I won’t have a project to build.”

A report published by the Fraser Institute last July found it can take Metro Vancouver municipalities anywhere from an average of five months, in Pitt Meadows, to 18 months, in West Vancouver, to approve housing projects.

Vancouver’s average was reported as 15 months. The B.C. government has also said surging real estate prices in the Lower Mainland are due in part to municipalities charging developers “hidden costs,” such as public-art contributions, rezoning and demolition fees.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said construction could begin soon on some of the 20 sites, mostly vacant lots, that the city has designated for new affordable housing projects. In recent months, rental vacancy rates in Vancouver have hovered around zero.

“We can get shovels in the ground this year and start construction on 500 units right away,” Mr. Robertson said in an e-mailed statement.

“Vancouver and BC Housing partnered effectively on several affordable housing projects in recent years and our staff teams know how to work closely together.”

Earlier this month, the city presented those sites as a $250-million offer to Ottawa, if the federal government could pitch in $500-million in funding for affordable housing.

Mr. Robertson said federal cabinet ministers gave that offer “a very positive response” when he met with them two weeks ago.

“Given the Prime Minister’s election commitment to invest in cities and address affordable housing challenges in urban areas, we are making a strong case to the government that if they want to create jobs and build new homes right away, there’s no better place to start than in Vancouver,” his statement said.

Mr. Coleman was optimistic that B.C.’s $355-million investment – $50 million of which will be doled out this fiscal year – could be leveraged up to $1-billion “in a hurry,” and he predicted that the number of new units built by the province will triple as other partners come to the table.

“Because I’ve already heard from some communities that want to give us some land, which is fine,” he said.

Tony Roy, chief executive officer of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association, said he was pleased the province has earmarked some of this new funding for renovating the existing affordable housing stock. But he doubts the province will start any new projects until the infrastructure program is announced in the upcoming federal budget, which he expects will have a “massive piece” dedicated to renovating existing affordable housing units. Mr. Roy’s organization has assessed the 1,800 buildings providing 60,000 units of such housing across B.C. and found that a minimum investment of $190-million is needed “to keep the current stock viable and livable.”

“The [provincial] budget for the past few years is something like $7-million a year for renos on all the stock,” he said. “As anyone that’s ever been on any strata knows, when it comes to doing a large building, $7-million can disappear in one project. “And we’re trying to maintain 1,800 buildings on that budget – it’s clearly not enough.”

About 5,000 new affordable-housing units would have to be built each year to meet projected demand across the province, with 3,000 needed in Metro Vancouver, Mr. Roy said. Just under a third of B.C. residents and roughly half of Vancouverites are renters, he said.

Mr. Roy said the ongoing rental crisis in Metro Vancouver is being exacerbated as federal government subsidies for co-op housing start to expire, meaning rents are going up and 4,000 low-income tenants across the province could be squeezed out. Housing B.C.’s most vulnerable saves policing, health-care and legal costs, he said. “It’s one of the single-most valuable investments government can make.”

Click here for the full story.