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Filling in a growing affordability gap Add to ...

British Columbia finance minister Carole Taylor labelled it a "housing budget." While the housing-related spending she announced in February was only one third the $1.5-billion expenditure on an income tax cut, this choice of names for her budget is revealing.

Our province is in the midst of a housing crisis that affects nearly every one of us. Ms. Taylor and her government were compelled to address the factors that now make Vancouver the 12th most un-affordable city in the world, with the dismal additional distinction of having Canada's highest ratio of incomes spent on shelter.

Ms. Taylor's budget focused spending on the two ends of the social spectrum. Its tax cuts benefit middle class and wealthy British Columbians, as do several measures intended to assist seniors wishing to remain in their now astronomically-valued (and property-taxed) homes.

At the other end of budget provisions, innovative proposals to house the homeless, the addicted and the handicapped are to be funded by a forward-thinking $250-million endowment. Just as welcome, welfare rates and housing allowances were bumped up. One nagging worry about the latter initiative is that a dozen and more of the Downtown Eastside's Single Resident Accommodations -- call them welfare hotels -- have changed hands recently at unprecedented prices.

As there is no way Vancouver can absorb that many back-packer hostels or boutique hotels, many new owners may be counting on this $50 per month increase being passed right on to them (most welfare shelter allowances in the area are paid directly to SRA landlords.) Let's hope much of this 15 per cent increase funds needed SRA improvements, rather than simply rewarding speculators.

The housing budget's biggest bombshell is what is not there: social housing. Proposed spending details indicate that twice as many existing social housing units will be converted into privately-run assisted living accommodations for seniors than built as new units -- a significant net reduction. Our provincial government clearly has heard middle class complaints about the indigent, the stoned, and the mentally ill on our streets, with nearly all proposed construction being "supportive housing" for these groups.

The cover of the budget document might as well been a tombstone reading "Social Housing: 1937-2007, R.I.P." Initiated as make-work projects in the Depression, social housing in British Columbia peaked in the early 1970s with the integrated social vision of False Creek South and its rich mingling of income groups and housing forms. Federal and provincial funding has dwindled ever since, and is now concentrated almost solely on housing the poorest of the poor, with far too much of it built solely in the Downtown Eastside.

Ms. Taylor's budget responded to the needs of the property-rich on the one hand and the utterly indigent on the other, but the working poor and the young people who rent rather than own were left out in the cold.

We ignore these groups at our peril. With the social housing tap turned off in combination with the steady conversion of our rental stock to condominiums, there will be more and more British Columbians chasing a limited pool of places to rent. Unless something is done soon, the working poor -- many of them struggling immigrants -- will get poorer with higher rents.

Vancouver talks a big game about attracting "cultural creatives" and the new entrepreneurs of emerging software and digital media industries, but we are fast pricing ourselves out of reach for those wishing to build new businesses here. It's said that one quarter of the condos in downtown towers are held by non-resident speculators who rent them out, making Vancouver's only new source of rental housing over the past decade extremely vulnerable to changes in the market.

Social housing could never deal with all the needs of the working poor and young renters, so let's morn its death for only a moment, then pass on to the urgent issue not addressed by this "housing budget:" radical measures to create affordable housing.

Here are a few ideas that just might work: The province may have no more cash for constructing new social housing units, but it has another potential resource: the under-used land on which existing social housing projects rest.

For example, just west of Main Street between 33rd and 36th Avenues, one of the city's most desirable sites, is a social housing project of 1950s vintage whose low density walk-up apartments are nearing the end of their service lives. Every social housing unit there could be replaced on the same terrain with no drain on the public treasury if increased density allowed private housing beside them. Toronto is doing just this at its once-infamous Regent Park.

The 1960s era low income housing project spread over 11 acres east of the downtown core has had a long reputation for violence and drugs. The city housing agency, Toronto Community Housing Corp., has launched a 12-year redevelopment plan for the site that exploits its prime location, sandwiched between the affluent Cabbagetown and Riverdale neighbourhoods. Demolition began last summer to transform the decrepit social housing project into a mixed-income neighbourhood. The first new homes -- 700 units for rent and ownership, with 300 set aside for low-income families -- are expected to be complete this year. If they can do it in Toronto, why not here?

Housing development standards, permits and processes have now become so complex and time-consuming that they have become a significant cost factor. Some in the urban development industry are calling for an affordable housing "czar" empowered to relax standards and speed up approvals if -- and only if -- these relaxations directly create new affordable housing.

We have large sites available in the federal lands at Jericho and in city-controlled holdings on the False Creek Flats that only await political will to develop them in an affordable way. Vancouver's development industry leads the world in the creation of luxury housing, but needs to be further encouraged to take on affordable urban living.

Our governments need to address the difficult middle of affordability for those of us stuck between extremes of wealth and poverty. Sooner or later, we will get an "affordable housing budget."

 

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