"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

Monday, January 28, 2013

Towards housing affordability

Well, we were hard at it again this afternoon, talking yet again about affordable housing in response to this report. I had originally planned to deliver a formal speech in response to the report, but the discussion ended up being directed towards six specific questions, so I put my speech aside and dealt with the questions one by one. Much of the content of my address paralleled the speech I had prepared, however, so I've decided to reproduce it here. I should add that I was quite satisfied with the direction our discussion took this afternoon, as it is clear that council supports a move away from the vision statement I critique below, and also embraces the idea that we should focus our attention on "housing affordability" instead of the creation of subsidized "affordable housing." Progress is most definitely being made.
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“The Reformer is always right about what's wrong. However, he's often wrong about what is right.” ― G.K. Chesterton

So here we go again. This is at least the third time we have been asked to have a wide-ranging discussion on affordable housing – albeit, one of those occasions being centred on the more defined issued of rental housing.  We have heard many broad policy philosophies and just as many narrow policy points from staff and from around the council table. Now is the time to refine our discussion even further.
Let’s start by looking at the framework in which we operate. It is important to note that, constitutionally, we are creatures of the Provincial Government, and our particular provincial government has enacted the Local Government Act. In turn, this act says that every community such as ours must have an Official Community Plan, and moreover, that every Official Community Plan must include local government policies for affordable housing, rental housing and special needs housing. [Interestingly, Table 1, on Page nine, the “municipal scan” shows that several municipalities, including our immediate neighbor to the east, do not have Affordable Housing Strategies.] The LGA does not, however, say what those policies must be.
A previous council here in Coquitlam adopted an Affordable Housing Strategy in 2007, and it is that document we are now revisiting. There is much good in that strategy and I congratulate those who came before me – some of whom are still here on council today – for their fine work.
However. …..I believe that the 2007 policy has a fundamental flaw at its very heart – and that is its vision statement, which envisions a community in which, QUOTE, “All residents of Coquitlam will be able to live in safe, appropriate housing that is affordable for their income level.”  The discussion paper before us today asks whether this is still an appropriate vision to have. My answer, in a word: NO.
It is completely unrealistic, wholly untenable, absolutely unreachable – as long, that is, as we living in a free society in which our residents are taxed at a reasonable rate, and in which our desire to serve the less fortunate in our community is balanced with our ability to pay,…. and with our desire NOT to bring havoc to natural market forces that give birth to our economic prosperity and quality of life.
This vision statement is actually dangerous. Dangerous, not only because it would make micro-managing activists of city planners and cash cows out of taxpayers, but also because, in its breathtakingly broad imprecision, it blinds us to more practical, more targeted and, ultimately more attainable goals.
It is clear to me that, as it now stands, the vision statement would have the City enact a strategy that would see the city waste time and energy trying to reach a Utopian goal. Let’s back up for a minute and put this into context: Land prices are very high in Metro Vancouver. Our land supply is limited because of two natural and two man-made barriers, the natural being the ocean to the west and the mountains to the north, the man-made being the US border to the south and the agricultural land reserve, primarily to the east.
The problems associated with our limited land supply are exacerbated by our temperate climate and pleasing geography. Simply put, people want to live here, it’s getting crowded, and land values are skyrocketing because of it.  In a healthy economy, as ours is, this is entirely natural and unavoidable.
Where such circumstances lead to decreasing affordability, I suggest that there are limited actions that a municipal level government can and should embark upon, and one of them certainly isn’t to strive to ensure that, essentially, anyone at any income level who finds themselves in Coquitlam should be able to live in “appropriate housing” – whatever that means.
Moving forward with such a Utopian policy would have many adverse effects: it would surely put upward pressure on property taxes; it would surely divert resources from areas which are a city’s proper field of endeavor; and it would distort the social fabric of our community.
Why the latter? Because, it seems to me that it is inevitable that the burden of paying for an aggressive housing-affordability scheme would be shouldered by average-income property owners. But we know that the property-tax burden is already straining our typical homeowner’s resources. Adding to that burden will only make living in Coquitlam that much more unaffordable for them.  Ultimately, it will drive evermore middle-income families out of Coquitlam.
A further distortion occurs regarding land use. Every parcel of land that we give away or subsidize to allow “all residents to live in appropriate housing” will be taken out of the free market. Those parcels of land that are left in the market will, of course, be that much rarer, and, as a result, their price will rise.
Another way of looking at this is to recognize that if the market is deprived of downward pressure (which would normally be provided by lower-income people, but would have now left the market because their needs would have been met by subsidized housing), then prices on open-market lands will be higher, thus making them even more unaffordable for middle-income earners.
I am also concerned about the diversion of resources away from projects and programs that are more properly in the civic purview. I’m speaking here of such fundamental things as police services, fire protection, parks, recreational and cultural facilities, and maintenance of transportation networks.
Look at our annual Ipsos Reid poll. These are the areas the people of Coquitlam want us to focus our energies on. We should do what we were elected to do, not carry out the schemes of social alchemists.
So what do I see a commonsense Affordable Housing Strategy entailing? The primary answer is already alive and well in Coquitlam, and that is the city’s densification and housing-choices policies. Our recent decision to reduce parking-stall requirements for two-bedroom apartments in rapid-transit zones will also help.  We can do more. We must redouble our efforts to reduce red tape in all areas of civic endeavor.  Time is money, and, for example, the more efficiently homebuilders can do the job in Coquitlam, the more affordable housing will be. Finding ways to fast-track a non-profit agency’s plan for an affordable rental project is a great example of the work we should be doing.
Let’s also take a fresh look at how we can encourage the construction of secondary suites in our community.   We’re already doing a pretty good job of it, but tapping more deeply into this resource could prove to be a bonanza. I support the report’s suggestion to explore “lock off suites”.
At the same time, we can and should continue to help the most vulnerable and needy in our society. Our donation of the property at 3030 Gordon, for a homeless shelter and transition home, is the best example of a well-targetted, well-intentioned, well-delivered action. So too the Como Lake single-mothers’ building being run by the Y.
And this leads to a related point. The city is growing an affordable-housing fund which has now reached $1 million. Yet, this fund remained untouched while the city participated in the two projects I just mentioned. I don’t understand why. Could not the fund have been used to reimburse the city – that is, the taxpayer – for the land it donated to the two aforementioned projects?
It’s also important to note that the discussion paper before us today suggests that even if the fund were to reach $25 million or so, it would be able to make only a very small dent in the affordability issue. Perhaps, then, the best course is to collapse the fund, move the monies into general revenue for the benefit of all citizens, and concentrate our direct efforts elsewhere. I think the time has come to see how this money can be put to better use – in the service of all Coquitlam residents and for the common good.

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