North Cowichan Coun. Rob Douglas. (File photo)

North Cowichan Coun. Rob Douglas. (File photo)

Municipalities must ensure the market provides homes that are actually affordable to local people

North Cowichan councillor Rob Douglas’s guest column: Part II

This column is the second in a two-part series.

Home sale prices in the Cowichan region have more than doubled in the last five years, reflecting trends in cities and towns across Canada, where first-time home buyers are being squeezed out of the market. At the same time, our rental vacancy rate is now lower than Vancouver.

This problem is obviously bigger than the Cowichan region, and we rightly look to leaders in Ottawa and Victoria to tame this wild housing market.

The federal budget tabled earlier this month promises a range of measures to turn the tide, including a two-year ban of foreign buyers, an anti-flipping tax, and billions of dollars in new funding to speed up permitting processes and build new affordable units.

However, skeptics have been quick to point to problems with these policies, including shortages of skilled workers and materials that will make the goal of doubling home construction nearly impossible, and the over-emphasis on increasing housing supply without properly addressing issues related to demand.

While federal and provincial housing policies are out of our control locally, we do have important but under-used tools at the municipal level.

This means more than simply flooding the market with more units. As we have seen in the Cowichan region in recent years, big supply increases haven’t stopped skyrocketing sales prices. What we need is the right supply, meaning homes local people can actually afford.

Many cities and towns have started providing public land at no cost for non-profit affordable housing developments. However, these projects typically depend on securing federal and provincial funding to move forward.

The Municipality of North Cowichan has partnered with a non-profit land trust to build nearly 120 townhouses and apartments for low and moderate-income families and seniors on two municipal properties. While securing provincial funding is taking longer than anticipated, recent discussions with Housing Minister David Eby have left us optimistic that this project could break ground in the coming months, and set the stage for similar projects down the road.

But we should really be looking beyond just federal and provincial funding for affordable housing, which can take years to trickle down to the local level, and start applying land use and development powers firmly within local jurisdiction.

As was pointed out by UBC professor Patrick Condon in a recent presentation to North Cowichan council, municipalities can use zoning and development taxing tools to influence land prices and provide permanently affordable housing for the middle class.

One such tool is “inclusionary zoning,” which are policies that require a minimum proportion of affordable homes within new developments. Typically, cities and towns that implement these policies will require 10 per cent to 25 per cent of units to be sold or rented at below market rate. Rather than adding to the final sales price of homes, evidence indicates that inclusionary zoning restrains the big jumps in land values that typically accompany density increases, impacting land speculation rather than home builders or buyers.

Condon points to other examples where zoning is being used effectively to build affordable homes. In Portland, Oregon, developers are automatically allowed up to six dwelling units on all city lots, on the condition that three of these units must be affordable. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, developers have the option to double allowable density in return for building only permanently affordable housing units.

Other municipal tools cited by housing experts include fast-tracking applications for affordable housing projects, pre-zoning land for increased density subject to affordability conditions, reducing user fees for secondary suites, and waiving development fees and property taxes for non-profit developments, to name just a few.

Would these policies succeed in increasing the affordable housing stock in the Cowichan region? As other communities have shown, they could.

Either way, our current approach is not working for the vast majority of first-time home buyers or folks struggling to find a rental.

What we need is for municipalities like North Cowichan to be much more aggressive in attacking the housing crisis and ensuring the market provides homes that are actually affordable to local people.

Rob Douglas is a councillor for the Municipality of North Cowichan.

Rob Douglas is a councillor for the Municipality of North Cowichan