Raphael Lopoukhine. North Shore News. North Vancouver, B.C.: Nov 25, 2007. p. 1

DNV hears region's housing a 'crisis'; Don Peters;

METRO Vancouver's affordable housing strategy will bring little change without senior levels of funding, Don Peters of the Community Housing Action Committee told District of North Vancouver council Monday.

Peters said even though senior levels have "abandoned their mandates," strong actions by the municipalities following Metro Vancouver's newly developed housing strategy could nevertheless spur on their future involvement.

Peters characterized the affordability of housing in the region as a "crisis." According to a Metro Vancouver report, the problem is visible on several fronts. There is a lack of affordable housing, there are too few places to rent and vacancies are at an all time low at the same time that the homeless population has exploded.

As of 2001 (the latest date for which census information is available), in the District of North Vancouver there were 1,335 renters and 1,310 home owners spending more than 30 per cent of their pre-tax income on housing (30 per cent is considered the affordability benchmark to cover core housing needs).

Region-wide, there were 82,000 renters and close to 40,000 home owners -- eight per cent of the population -- spending more than 30 per cent of their pre-tax income. Even worse, more than 56,000 were spending over half of their income on shelter, leaving little for food, school supplies and clothing.

That was in 2001. Since then, things have gotten worse. The average rental price has increased by $100, according to the Metro Vancouver report, while the average home in the region costs nearly $600,000 -- almost double the 2001 price.

Rises in average housing prices needs to be put into context with incomes, said Royal Bank of Canada economist Amy Goldbloom.

The bank uses an affordability indicator measuring not only housing, but related housing expenses as a share of peoples' incomes. For a single family home, considered the most expensive housing option, in 2001 the average Vancouver home owner was spending 52 per cent of their income.

In 2006, housing and related expenses had jumped to 68 per cent of average income. "Housing prices have heated up very quickly," noted Goldbloom, but she believes prices have levelled off recently while wages have risen.

The housing squeeze has been felt the hardest at the lowest end of the economic scale. In 2001, the estimated number of homeless was between 300 and 600 in Vancouver with maybe another hundred in the region. In 2005, the regional number including Vancouver had mushroomed to 2,174, according to the Metro report.

Compared to the United States, Canada does a lot to safeguard the welfare of its citizens, but compared to other developed nations, this country is at the lower end of social spending.

Canada is also relatively unique in its reliance on the market to house its citizens. In a net social spending comparison of 24 developed countries by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Canada was ranked 20th overall. Canada has even received rebukes from the United Nations, the latest coming from the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which characterized our housing situation as a "national emergency."

In the '90s, the federal government downloaded housing responsibility to the provinces by ending the federal Canada Assistance Plan (in 1996), by reducing transfer payments, and by cutting social assistance which the federal government's National Council of Welfare recently described as "punitive and cruel."

In British Columbia, the Liberal government ended direct involvement in creating new social housing in 2001 and cut social assistance.

Both governments justified the cuts because of budgetary constraints, but today the economic picture is different.

In the month of August, the Canadian federal surplus was recorded at $911 million, twice the size as the year previous, but was reduced some by recent federal tax cuts. The province of British Columbia meanwhile has a projected surplus of $1.6 billion. Though senior government coffers are flush with money, major housing funding initiatives are virtually absent on a scale necessary to stave off the worst of the emergency.

The response to the emergency has largely been left to municipalities to handle, who are financially ill equipped. They only garner eight cents of every tax dollar, primarily though property taxes, while the province and federal government take in 42 and 50 cents on every dollar.

One of the main justifications for having a regional strategy is so municipalities have a cohesive voice when speaking with senior levels of government, said Lorraine Copas, senior planner at Metro Vancouver's policy and planning department.

"If we have co-ordinate action at the municipal and regional level, and we are doing what we can within our mandates, then it helps to bring others to the table," said Copas. "There has been huge support across all municipalities for an affordable housing strategy."

The huge support was less evident during review of the previous regional plan to levy new municipal funds for housing. The region estimated it would take $250 million a year to solve the region's housing crisis and wanted the municipalities to raise $50 million to meet an eventual $200 million from senior levels. It died for lack of political support.

In March, the District of North Vancouver gave tepid support to the region's proposal, while the idea was rejected by the City of North Vancouver and the District of West Vancouver.

The District of North Vancouver did pass a motion to create a mayor's housing task force and directed staff to hire a consultant to survey district attitudes towards housing issues. The task force is due to report in 2008, but at council, Peters said there are policy solutions that the district could implement today.

He said the district could legalize secondary suits, replace rental housing units in new developments, increasing residential density and insti-tuting inclusionary zoning policies. Inclusionary zoning requires developers in certain circumstances, usually large- scale projects requiring rezoning, to allocate a percentage towards social housing (usually 10 to 20 per cent).

Monday night, a rezoning application for a 60-unit residential complex on Mount Seymour Parkway came before council. It used district land and contained money set aside for art ($142,000) and a pathway ($284,000). The public amenities were a result of community protests to earlier plans.

Coun. Alan Nixon asked community planner Doug Allan if during the negotiations for the rezoning, the developer had been asked about making a portion of the development affordable or to contribute to an affordable housing fund to be used in other developments.

"In a word, no we haven't." said Allan. "It is certainly not too late to have that discussion."

Nixon also asked Allan to see if the developer would make some of the units available for rental. In a later interview, Nixon admitted that in the past it was convenient cover for municipalities to blame the senior levels of government for their lack of leadership, while not exercising all of their tools.

He said in advance of the housing task force's findings, he will be introducing a motion directing staff to use all policy tools at their fingertips to increase the stock of affordable housing.

Meanwhile Peters also said the regional strategy ignored the connection affordable housing has with the economic sustainability of the region. The report was also too gender biased, ignoring the disproportionate burden women carry, said Peters. Copas said criticisms like those by Peters have been incorporated into the final strategy, which is now before the region's housing board for final approval.

"We need to engage with our community and let them know the extent of the problem, so they have a more complete understanding of who these people are," Nixon said. ". . . there are some wonderful, wonderful people and as we heard the other night, disproportionately female -- older female -- some have lived on the North Shore or in the district their entire life and they are at risk of being homeless."

Credit: North Shore News