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Coalition Pushing New Housing Solutions for BC

Landlords, non-profits, co-ops and allies unite to make housing an election issue.

By Christopher Cheung 11 Apr 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Cheung reports on affordable housing for the Housing Fix. Twenty-sixteen-2017 funders of the Housing Fix are Vancity Credit Union, Catherine Donnelly Foundation and the Real Estate Foundation of BC, in collaboration with Columbia Institute. Funders of special solutions reporting projects neither influence nor endorse the particular content of our reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this article or other Housing Fix articles, please contact editor Chris Wood.

A coalition of B.C. housing organizations representing non-profits, landlords, renters, co-ops and others have come up with a plan to tackle the province’s housing crisis.

As the May 9 election nears, the B.C. Rental Housing Coalition hopes parties will incorporate the solutions into their platforms and that the next government will put them into action.

“We’re going to go fundraise, use our own equity, use our own land — anything we can do to tackle this crisis, and we’d like to see politicians at every layer supporting us,” said Kishone Roy, director of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association, which is part of the coalition. “That’s how much we believe in this.”

With increasing homelessness, rising rents, a provincial rental vacancy rate of 1.3 per cent and high property costs in B.C.’s urban centres, it is clear that housing solutions will have to address the needs of a broad spectrum of individuals.

The coalition attempts to address the diverse needs in its Affordable Housing Plan for B.C., which proposes everything from smarter renovations to better rental assistance to strengthening the community housing sector.

An estimated $1.8 billion will be required to provide adequate housing to all British Columbians, according to the coalition’s analysis. The cost should be split evenly between the provincial and federal governments and the community housing sector, the report says.

It’s a high price tag, but the coalition estimates it will result in annual savings of $177 million in homelessness-related costs and a $1.9 billion increase in GDP.

Renovating, restocking, reinventing

One of the coalition’s solutions is “SOS,” which stands for “save our stock.”

“It’s far cheaper to save those units that are out there right now that are deteriorating than try and building new,” said Roy, “and building new takes time.”

But more funds would be needed. Right now, $10 to $13 million a year is available to maintain non-profit affordable housing units in B.C. The report says $125 million is needed.

The plan also suggests developing new rebate programs for major energy retrofits for the community housing sector. Upgrades like energy-saving windows and boilers would result in savings that could be invested in improving and providing housing, it says.

The community housing sector, also known as the “third sector” between public and private providers, is growing in B.C. In 2015, the province launched the Non-Profit Asset Transfer Program, selling BC Housing properties to the non-profits that run them.

B.C.’s Auditor General criticized the program in a report last month. The government had sold $500 million worth of provincial land and buildings without a clear understanding of the long-term effect on the availability of social housing, the report found.

But Roy, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, called the sales a “game-changer” for non-profits.

Ownership of the buildings gives them new independence and allows asset transfers and amalgamations between non-profits. They can now consider developing community land trusts, an innovative model which lets individuals own homes while the land is owned by a trust or non-profit. Non-profits will also benefit from the increasing value of the properties.

The coalition’s report notes that much of B.C.’s private sector rental housing, built between the 1950s and 1980s when the federal government encouraged construction through tax incentives, would be too expensive to renovate.

It calls for incentives to encourage private sector construction of rental housing.

“We have not seen the kind of support necessary to really reignite the development of new market purpose-built rental housing,” said David Hutniak, the CEO of LandlordBC, also part of the coalition.

The coalition’s plan suggests municipalities support the “careful” redevelopment of older rental properties and that the province implement relocation policies for those displaced.

The province should also reduce fees for new rental construction and improve tax treatment for the projects, the report says.

Financial help for low-income renters

The report also calls on governments to provide financial help for renters. The provincial government provides rent supplements to elderly renters and low-income families with children.

The plan suggests merging those programs into a single renters grant, increasing funding and making it available to all low-income co-op and renter households.

“This would replace a web of current programs and allow government to deliver effective support to those most in need by stabilizing them in their current housing, rather than building them new homes,” the plan says.

Other suggested fixes to help incomes catch up with housing costs include raising B.C.’s long frozen welfare rates, as well as a higher minimum wage.

For individuals with the greatest housing need, the coalition recommends a “housing first” approach that prioritizes shelter. That might mean using a rent supplement to get a homeless individual into a private market rental unit before social or transitional housing is available.

Alberta has received praise for its adoption of the approach.

“Those individuals are far better served by getting a stable home life right away, then accessing health care and other supports,” said Roy.

A housing first approach in B.C. would also create a more coordinated effort to serve those in need, he added.

The coalition says 6,860 homeless people are homeless in the province. More than half are in Metro Vancouver, according to a new count. That’s up 30 per cent from 2014, and includes a higher proportion of Indigenous people.

The coalition also includes the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC, Vancity Credit Union, the Tenant Resource & Advisory Centre, Ready to Rent BC, UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning, the BC Society of Transition Houses and the BC Seniors Living Association.

The coalition hopes governments at every level will be interested in collaborating too.

“It’s time for all stakeholders to find solutions,” said Hutniak.  [Tyee]

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