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Robert Barron column: Private developers should not be responsible for affordable housing

Providing subsidized social housing in B.C. is the responsibility of senior levels of government
Robert’s column

It’s hard not to sympathize with developer Guy Bouchard as he and his firm, Top Down Investments, try to move forward with plans to build more than 200 much-needed rental housing units on Price Place in Duncan.

Bouchard told Duncan’s council at its meeting on May 6 that he’d have to consider pulling the project if the city continued to insist that a percentage of the units be affordable housing, as well as a number of other concessions regarding providing family-sized units.

He said Top Down Investments is a small local development company and it simply can’t afford to commit to providing a number of below-market units in the development.

Bouchard said the success of the project for his firm is subject to a lot of the same market costs and conditions that all developers are facing currently.

“We’re barely viable as it is and we’re trying very hard, but the cost of construction is not going down and interest rates are higher than they’ve ever been for a long time,” he said.

“It’s a pretty sad mix when we’re trying to solve the housing crisis.”

In fact, providing subsidized social housing in B.C. is the responsibility of senior levels of government, not private developers.

With more and more people in the province being forced to live on the streets for a variety of reasons, including the fact that many just simply can’t afford the skyrocketing rents and mortgages in today’s housing climate, it seems the province and Ottawa are not doing nearly enough to step in and deal with the issue.

To be fair, some government initiatives are underway, including the province’s recent commitment to spend $950 million and provide $2 billion in low-cost financing to have thousands of rental homes built on under-used public land, which will then be provided to middle-income earners living in those communities.

As well, in December, the province prohibited local governments from holding public hearings for zoning bylaw amendments that are intended to facilitate housing developments as a means to fast track them and get them in the housing mix as soon as possible to help deal with the ongoing housing crisis.

But, with a large number of people still wandering around our communities with shopping carts filled with all their worldly possessions looking for somewhere to lay their heads each evening, a lot more needs to be done.

However, turning to private developers to help fix the problem on their own dime, as many local governments are being forced to do, is not the way to go, in my opinion.

Duncan councillor Garry Bruce pointed out that developers are running businesses and they don’t have the ability or the interest in building projects and making them into affordable-housing developments.

Their job is to develop projects that fill a need, while also making some kind of profit for themselves and their workers.

That’s how capitalism, with all its warts, works.

But I also get the point Duncan councillor Jenni Capps made at the meeting on May 6.

Bouchard’s project would see a combination of 270 square-foot micro-living units, 416 sq. ft. studio units and 675 sq. ft. one-bedroom-plus-den units, with rents ranging from $1,450 to $2,500 per month, and Capps pointed out that while housing for seniors, students and the workforce, which the developer is hoping to cater to, is desperately needed in the city, many will not be able to afford the rents that will be required to make the project profitable for its builders.

“I wish senior levels of government were making this their responsibility and not something we were even having to discuss,” Capps said.

“I wish it were easy and simple and something every developer could afford to do, but I know it’s complicated.”

It’s a situation that apparently has no easy answers, as Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples said.

“Who are the people that are going to be able to access those units and who does that leave out in our community?” Staples asked.

“There should be more programs through the federal government around housing, but I also recognize our responsibility also goes to the community and to the needs of the community. I recognize the conundrum that has been presented to us but I believe it’s reasonable to ask [the developer] to go back and try to work on this further.”

So now the dilemma is back in the hands of Bouchard and Top Down Investments to try to figure out a way to provide the city with an affordable-housing component that is acceptable to the municipality while still trying to make some money at the same time.

Private companies should not have to be saddled with this responsibility without some kind of subsidies from senior levels of government.

Robert Barron

About the Author: Robert Barron

Since 2016, I've had had the pleasure of working with our dedicated staff and community in the Cowichan Valley.
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