A ‘Priority Lane’ for New Affordable Housing?

Based on other cities’ experience, it could cut the time it takes to open doors in Vancouver by more than half.

By Christopher Cheung 24 Apr 2017 |

Christopher Cheung reports on affordable housing for the Housing Fix. 2016-2017 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.

Lii Michif Otipemisiwak Family and Community Services manages a Kamloops rental property for male Aboriginal youth 18 to 24, but the agency wanted to offer housing help and cultural support on a larger scale. The rental could only house four at a time.

“We thought it would be wonderful if we could have youth housing for young men and women,” said Natika Bock, LMO’s Aboriginal youth housing manager, “and it would be ideal if they could be housed with elders.”

As it happened, some available city land was designated for Aboriginal housing. After several meetings in 2016, a project came together.

It would be named “Riel’s House” after famed 19th-century Métis leader Louis Riel: a 30-unit housing complex for urban Aboriginal youth aging out of care (all genders, 16 to 24), with a few units reserved for elders, in keeping with LMO’s desire to foster intergenerational connections.

Provincial funding for the project came through in April 2017, and Riel’s House is expected to open its doors in March of next year.

That brisk timetable owes a lot to Kamloops’ Affordable Housing Developers’ Package. The package is designed to speed up affordable housing projects — a key objective of many housing advocates.

“It’s different in each city hall,” said Kishone Roy, the CEO of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, which represents 600 parties in the sector. “But across the board, there’s a need to fast-track affordable housing.”

Roy believes the solution is for all city halls to create something like a NEXUS lane for affordable housing projects.

“You need to look at who’s being housed and what the needs are in the community. Then you prioritize which projects need to go through. Approve those projects first.”

Beyond Kamloops, other municipalities are also trying to cut the time it takes to greenlight and complete needed non-profit housing. Saskatoon is one. Toronto launched an initiative in February. Vancouver plans to begin a pilot in June or July.

But there’s more municipalities can do for developers of affordable housing than just bumping projects up the line. Some cities are lowering development charges at city hall, taking a more active role to educate NIMBYs, and reducing parking requirements — all to smooth the process of building housing for those who need it most.

City as ‘concierge’

Since 2008, the City of Saskatoon has offered priority review for affordable housing applications. City staff don’t just give those proposals a number and put them in line; they process them as soon as they are received. Those applications stay at the front of the line even as they circulate through various city departments like water and sewer, fire and transportation.

Saskatoon’s prioritized applications go through the same review process as normal projects and must adhere to the same standards and guidelines — they just get to the finish line sooner.

“It especially helps projects that are linked to government funding, which requires a specific timeline to get things done within a fiscal year,” said Shaun Dyck. He is the executive director of the Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership, a consultancy with a focus on affordable housing.

Speed also reduces financing and holding costs for groups with undeveloped land.

Toronto’s fast track works a bit differently. Applications will have dedicated staff to facilitate their approval, but departments will also work together and with applicants to ensure they have everything in order for their application and reviews (missing elements are a common cause of delays).

Sean Gadon, Toronto’s affordable housing director, calls the co-operation a “wrap-around” service, with the city acting as a “concierge” to applicants.

The program, called Open Door, was approved by city council last year. Open Door helps non-profits and private developers of affordable housing with fast-tracking approvals. The program even exempts building and planning permit fees for certain projects that secure long-term affordability.

Open Door will shave about six months off the year and a half to two years that approvals normally take, according to Gadon.

“We wanted a city program not dependent on the province or federal government,” Gadon said. Even so, the city has urged both higher levels of government to release surplus public land, make new affordable housing investments themselves, and increase financial and tax incentives for developers.

“We had 45 councillors unanimously approve [Open Door],” Gadon noted. “We have a big appetite for this.”

But while speed is important, there’s a limit to how much development can be rushed.

“Development is a complicated process. There’s lots of checks and balances,” Toronto’s affordable housing director said. “We’re not a small municipality. With Open Door, we’re going to see projects with anywhere from 100 to 300 units. So they’re not small undertakings.”

Political will from Mayor John Tory helped Open Door get going. The first applicants were received this past February.

Vancouver’s upcoming one-year pilot project to fast-track affordable housing projects is a blend of Saskatoon’s and Toronto’s strategies. Like Saskatoon, individual city departments will give applications with affordable housing priority. Like Toronto, certain city staff will be assigned to an application to see it through the entire permitting process.

The current time it takes for a project to go from rezoning through building permit is 17 to 22 months. The pilot hopes to cut that down to about eight months.

‘No roadblocks’

Back in Kamloops, there’s also a campaign to counter NIMBYism.

Jen Casorso, a social and community development supervisor at the city, said staff have a good relationship with Kamloops’ 15 community associations when it comes to explaining the need for a new project.

“It’s about coming to the public in advance,” said Casorso. “Rather than waiting for the public hearing, we go to the neighbourhood with the non-profit and say, ‘Here’s our project.’”

Kamloops also offers grants, development cost charge exemptions, reduced parking requirements and tax exemptions to projects with affordable housing. “No roadblocks!” boasts Casorso.

“The best advice we have communicated to organizations and developers, is to talk to us right at the start,” Casorso adds. “If you’re thinking about redeveloping, or wanting to get into affordable housing, just have a meeting with us, and we can talk through it.”

Which is exactly what Lii Michif Otipemisiwak did.

“It’s our first time” as developers, said LMO housing project manager Bock, “and we’re building and we’re designing!” Thanks to the advice it got from city hall, LMO was even able to double the number of units they expected to develop, from 15 to 30.

Apart from simply housing youth, LMO also fosters cultural support. A significant portion of Kamloops’ homeless population is Aboriginal or has been in provincial care. (The federal government helped fund Riel’s house too through its Homelessness Partnering Strategy.) Cultural and generational re-connection will be a big part of Riel’s House, with its mix of youth and elders.

“The kids are hospitable, and they’ll make coffee for the elders, lead prayers,” said Bock. “They work really hard because they like that connection, and might not have it in their own lives.”

BC Housing funding was available specifically for Aboriginal affordable housing. The City of Kamloops helped support LMO’s application.

“It changed my whole view of the city,” said Bock. “There are so many things that you naturally wouldn’t know. I never felt like there was a question we couldn’t ask.”

There’s an old saw that “you can’t fight city hall.” But if more city halls join the fight for affordable housing, more projects like Kamloops’ Riel’s House could be opening their doors sooner rather than later.  [Tyee]

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