"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The direct approach to affordable housing

The top item in the City-produced Coquitlam News in Brief this week is entitled “On the Street Where You Live.” The item reads as follows: “Coquitlam’s Affordable Housing strategy will soon have a new direction. It will replace a five year old document that was prepared long before the new realities of growth and the impact of the Evergreen line on overall development. One of the critical components of the new strategy will be to clearly define the City’s role in affordable housing. The process will begin immediately and be a two phase strategy with several opportunities for public input with Council making the final decision on what the future holds in the months ahead.”

City Centre condo developments. (Photo by Terry O'Neill)

You may read or hear in the coming days that I voted against updating the above-mentioned Affordable Housing Strategy (AHS). But it’s not that I’m against affordable housing. Rather, I’m for a more-immediate discussion of a crucial aspect of affordable housing: rental accommodation.

The rental discussion was supposed to take place this fall but, as I learned on Monday, it has now been cancelled in lieu of the AHS review. For now, the “interim” rental strategy, which council approved in late July and which was supposed to be in place for only a few months, will stretch at least until the end of next spring. And I’m simply not ready to support that. It’s more than just “the principle of the thing.” Rather, the rental strategy we are now stuck with embraces a quasi-prescriptive approach which has the potential to force the buyers of market housing to support folks who choose to live in market rental. And that’s simply not fair.

The forced subsidy would not be a direct tax. Rather, under the now-semi-permanent rental housing strategy, developers can be offered “incentives” to persuade them to build rental accommodation. One incentive would be to waive any Community Amenity Contribution related to new rental floor space.

But, given the fact that community amenity contributions will still be collected from the sale of condos, this means that the cost of new community amenities will fall onto the backs of the developers of for-sale condos, who will then pass those costs onto the buyers of the new condos. Another scenario might see all existing property owners, including the buyers of new condos, paying higher property taxes to cover the costs of the amenities that are needed by, but not funded by, the renters or the developers of rental properties.*

I am not opposed to very-well-targetted programs that would help the very poorest members of our society find a decent place to live, but I certainly do not support more far-reaching programs that benefit market rental. After all, it’s supposed to be “market” rental, and “market” forces should prevail.

On Monday, I had something to say about the general AHS update, as well. I noted that the AHS’s current vision statement is, “All residents of Coquitlam will be able to live in safe, appropriate housing that is affordable for their income level.” I believe this is pipedream – a utopian vision that, if acted upon in earnest, would bankrupt the City.

I simply do not believe that everyone who decides they want to live in Coquitlam automatically has the right to an “appropriate” and “affordable” home. This is dreaming in Technicolor. This is the nanny state saying that it will look after all its helpless little citizens. This is fostering an environment of entitlement. This is simply unworkable.

I pointed out that, rather than mire itself in a complex mishmash of programs and policies surrounding affordable housing, the City might simply recognize that it already has a rather good approach in place—its densification and housing-choices policies, the latter of which frees the way for the rezoning of older single-family lots to classifications allowing second homes, duplexes, triplexes the like. Insofar as the City can improve and refine such policies and continue cutting red tape, it will be accomplishing plenty.

Upon further reflection, I can add that I believe the city should strive to do what it is supposed to do, and that is manage land use and make decisions efficiently as part of that prudent management function.

Part of the problem with affordability is the length of time it takes the free market to respond to housing demand because of the drawn-out approval process. I hear that, in Coquitlam, it takes just under three years from the time a developer acquires a piece of land (that is not zoned for multi-family housing) to see it through the rezoning process, the development permit process, the building permit approval process, the actual construction, and the final inspection. Builders might schedule half of a project’s time for actual construction and the other half for municipal approvals. No wonder costs are so high.

My colleagues and I will, I hope, talk at length about this sometime in the middle of next year, when the AHS update comes back to Council.

*Yet another party may end up bearing the cost of the amenity contributions not be paid by renters or developers of rental properties, and that is the original land owners of property developed into for-sale condos. Their sale prices might be driven down by developers who know that they’re going to have to pay through the nose to cover the costs of community amenities.

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