Social housing issue has no simple solution

Saturday, January 22nd, 2005

Yes, the disadvantaged need help, but increasing financial burdens on developers isn’t the answer

Bob Ransford

The launch of a new housing development project on Robson Street in downtown Vancouver recently drew special attention because the project will combine in the same complex 46 non-market rental units for low-income tenants with high-end condominium housing (”Well-heeled and homeless to cohabit,” Monday’s Vancouver Sun, page B5).

This isn’t the first time that social housing has been built alongside market housing.

In fact, the development that has transformed Coal Harbour over the last few years successfully integrated non-market housing with luxury housing. Walking through the neighbourhood, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the two.

This housing integration encourages the kind of social interaction that builds healthy, resourceful neighbourhoods where people help each other. These neighbourhoods are the antithesis of the kind of neighbourhood that has been created in the downtown eastside, where a concentration of too much social housing and a lack of non-market housing has resulted in a neighbourhood that does little more than warehouse the lesser advantaged.

There are approximately 29,000 non-market housing units in British Columbia, 21,000 of them in the city of Vancouver. Almost 10 per cent of the city’s housing stock is non-market housing. The experts tell us that in B.C. there is a waiting list with nearly 10,000 households on it.

That means that about two per cent of the households in B.C. can’t afford to pay the going rates for shelter.

Social housing advocates will tell you that governments simply need to spend more money financing non-profit organizations to build subsidized non-market housing. Lots more.

I believe the answer is a lot more complex than that.

There will always be a certain number of people who can’t afford shelter, regardless of the current state of the housing market and government needs to help them.

Particular sub-markets in our boom and bust economy will always be influenced by economic pressures only government intervention can relieve.

For example, resort communities like Whistler that become international destinations and have a limited land base will always have a difficult time meeting the housing affordability challenge for people who need to live and work in the community.

But government subsidies for housing are only one solution to the housing affordability challenge.

Another solution is for governments to take back some of the cost burden they impose on the cost of building market housing. Governments need to control their urge to tax new homeowners with hidden charges.

Housing has become any easy target for hidden taxes. It is a big ticket item. When the market is booming, there’s hardly a whimper when a two- or- three-thousand dollar government charge gets passed on to the consumer in the form of an increase in the selling price.

Today, through direct charges on the cost of development, new homeowners pay for everything from the cost of new infrastructure needed to service new housing developments to public art, child care and, believe it or not, social housing.

Often governments call these contributions “voluntary,” urging developers to pay them when government officials are exercising their discretion at the approval stage for a developer’s project.

The wish list of civic governments grows every day. In rising markets, like the one we’ve just experienced, the appetite is almost insatiable.

Remember the RAV project? We were told that senior governments committed billions to this new badly needed transit project and, with a unique public/private partnership, residents in Richmond and Vancouver wouldn’t directly pay a dime for their new transit line.

Lo and behold, in Richmond developers are now being asked to “voluntarily contribute” to a RAV fund up to $4 per square foot for every square foot of new housing they build in that city’s town centre.

It’s not a tax or a charge, according to the City. It’s a “voluntary contribution” to fund capital works that help to better integrate RAV into the community.

Tell that to the homeowner in search of an affordable home who will be paying upwards of $4,000 towards the Richmond-Airport-Vancouver rapid transit project when they buy a new condo in Richmond‘s city centre.

Bob Ransford is a public affairs consultant with Counterpoint Communications Inc. He specializes in urban development issues. He is a former real estate developer and serves as a director of the Urban Development Institute – Pacific region. Contact him at [email protected]

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

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