"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, June 2, 2014

Increasing supply makes housing more affordable

Proposed Miller Avenue quadruplex: Helping on housing affordability.
A week rarely passes without the question of affordable housing being raised somewhere in the Metro Vancouver region. One day, it's a story about the ever-worsening "affordability index." The next, it's news of a court decision involving a City of Vancouver plan to provide incentives for the construction of rental housing. 
The issue is almost always on our minds here in Coquitlam, as we slowly work our way through a process to update our Affordable Housing Strategy. The last public iteration of the plan saw the presentation, in committee, of a draft Housing Affordability paper about a year-and-a-half ago. A good summary of the City's efforts to date can be found by clicking here.
But just because there's no movement on the official housing-affordability-update front doesn't mean that the issue doesn't arise in other forms. At last Monday's council meeting, for example, we were presented with two initiatives that both had the potential to ease the housing-affordability crunch. Both issues received majority support from council, but the sad fact is that both initiatives attracted opposition as well.
Before I describe the specific council issues, I want to share a little bit of background about the political landscape surrounding the "affordable-housing" issue. On one side, we see the interventionists and big spenders who favour strong local government financial action to support market rental housing, not just housing for the hardest cases. On the other side -- my side, in fact -- we have the more market-oriented types who understand that the best way to ease the price crunch for market housing and rents is to increase the supply.
And that brings us to last Monday, when Council was presented with two items which had the potential to increase housing supply, thus lowering the upward pressure on price.
The first dealt with a preliminary report for an application to rezone a residential property at 763 Miller Avenue from RT-1 Two-Family Residential to RT-3 Triplex and Quadruplex Residential. Council was being asked to give the bylaw First Reading and to forward the issue to a Public Hearing.
The proposed development would see the construction of four compact homes on one large residential lot, upon which there is currently a single home. The City allows such densification in this area under its Housing Choices policy, which encourages smart densification because it embodies better land use, is more environmentally friendly and, importantly, provides more opportunity for more people to afford to live in this community. (See the illustration, above, for a view of what the four compact homes would look like.)
Under the terms of the bylaw allowing this, each unit has to be accompanied by a minimum of 1.5 parking spaces. Practically speaking, most Council members also look to the surrounding neighbourhood to ensure that on-street parking is available, as well.
Anyway, last Monday, Council voted 6-1 in favour of moving the matter to a Public Hearing. Ironically, however, the lone vote in opposition came from a Councillor who often speaks very passionately and sincerely in favour of the City taking more action on the housing-affordability front. His vote against the Miller Avenue proposal was based on his concern that not enough parking was being provided. Fair enough. But it seems to me that the very important issue of housing affordability should be a major factor in our thinking on this.
Of course, we'll all be keeping our minds open on the issue as we head into the Public Hearing, and we won't make our final decisions until that hearing ends.
The second issue we dealt with last Monday concerned a text amendment bylaw regarding lot-area calculation. This amendment allows developers to build to the full, allowable density on their properties, and not to be penalized in making that calculation by way of the land they lose in building lanes or roads surrounding their property.
It's a complicated issue, but, in some cases, it might come down to a developer being allowed to build a 22-floor condo tower instead of a 20-floor one, for example. During our discussion of the issue at the fourth-and-final-reading stage, I said I supported the amendment because it would have the beneficial effect of increasing housing supply, thus easing upward price pressure. My comments came in response to one of my council colleagues who complained generally about the way the city deals with high-density developments, but whose comments didn't address what I thought was the most compelling issue in support of the text amendment--how it would have the effect of increasing supply, thereby easing upward pressure on prices.
Ultimately, this motion passed by a 6-1 vote as well, so no damage was done.
My final comment on this is to urge everyone on Council, at City Hall and in the community to take a broad view of the housing-affordability issue, so as to recognize that much can be done without using the heavy and expensive hand of government intervention.

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