"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 7, 2014

Towards an affordable housing-affordability strategy

A proposed Bosa project that would replace old rental units.
Last night, Council gave unanimous approval to a draft Housing Affordability Strategy, an action that sends the HAS into the public realm for comment and consultation. I seconded the motion because it is important to hear what the community -- taxpayers, homeowners, renters, activist groups, industry, etc. -- has to say about the issue. 

My vote doesn't mean that I support all possible initiatives spelled out in the HAS. On the contrary. I'll explain why.

The Provincial government says each municipality must have an affordable housing strategy, but doesn’t specify what is in that strategy. Local governments are given a variety of tools to address housing affordability challenges through the Local Government Act and Community Charter.  The City of Coquitlam does not have the mandate or capacity to build and operate affordable housing. 

However, the City does have a role in promoting the creation of affordable housing in the community
Approaches can and do vary. There are essentially two models: One exemplifies activism, expense and something I call “up-grabbing”,  the opposite of downloading, in that it willingly takes upon itself responsibilities that are more properly the federal or provincial governments’.

Activism is exemplified by Victoria, for example, which boasts a Civic Housing Fund, a Regional Housing Trust Fund, a Social Housing Permissive Property Tax Exemption, a Secondary Suites Incentive Program, has issued two development permits for the creation of private sector low income rental suites and signed 11 housing agreements that either limit restriction on rentals (in the case of strata projects) or create rental units and rent restrictions for a prescribed period of time. And it has even bought old motels and converted them to housing. But none of this is cheap. An average of $1.34 million a year for three years ending 2010. That’s about $4.1 million.  

Another model is exemplified by the City of Langley. It issued a paper in 2009 discussing a wide range of possible actions, but in the end chose a responsible, and taxpayer-friendly model  to: 1.      Support Density; 2.  Encourage the creation of secondary suites; 3.  Maintain tough regulations on the conversion of rental stock to condominiums.

Keep in mind: property tax is the least-fair, least-equitable way to tax people. It is not based on one’s ability to pay, but on the assessed value of the home you are living in. Yet, an interventionist, up-grabbing approach to housing affordability has the ultimate effect of putting more of a burden on the shoulders of property-tax payers, instead of on the shoulders of the consumption or income taxpayers—the sort of tax collected by the provincial and federal governments.

There are a great deal of good, common-sense, non-burdensome options lists in our proposed new HAS. See page four of the document for the broad outline and 16 to 26 for details.  For example, the proposed Rental Housing Strategy is, as I interpret it, basically a continuation of existing policies which – while placing quite a burden on developers, also seeks to find a balance with a general public concern to protect displaced renters.  What it doesn’t do is compel a re-developer to replace, one-for-one, every purpose-built rental unit that is lost to redevelopment, which is something that at least one Coquitlam councillor/mayoral candidate is calling for. (And, anyway, every economist and expert that I have talked with, says that buildings in which condos are sold end up having upwards of 40% of their units put on the rental market.)

And so, what are the possible burdens to the taxpayer of Coquitlam? Most come down to the Affordable Housing Fund.  Page 19., 3.1.4. 1.  Many on council want to expand the affordable housing fund, skimming off a portion of density bonus, with no cap. I oppose this; it should be capped.

The draft strategy asks the public to  “consider other options”  to add to the fund. What might those be:  Massive infusion into AHF through other sources such as proceeds of sales of city land, is the leading one.

Thankfully, no one is suggesting hiking property taxes!  I oppose this, and I urge voters to ask each and every candidate where they stand, and further, to ask them, why they think it’s fair to the already overburdened residential property taxpayer to deny them the benefits of such potentially redirected monies, when there are so many other options that the city can and should take. Such proceeds can and should be used for general well-being, such as land-sales reserves or maybe even directly for capital costs of new cultural or sport facilities.

We must also watch closely to ensure that working families, who are just barely able to put together enough money to afford a downpayment on a new condo in Burquitlam, for example, aren’t pushed out of the market entirely because the cost of their unit is hiked as a result of a neighbouring project escaping some civic charges because it is promising to provide cheap housing to low-income families. That’s simply not fair.

On the other hand, 1.2.4 on page 21 – “considering exempting rental floor space form maximum density allowances…” seems a less-burdensome, more-equitable alternative.

There are a great many other options and ideas in this report, and I urge the public to get involved in what I hope will be a full and fruitful discussion about this important such.

We need a grounded, responsible Housing Affordability Strategy, one that is rooted, not in a sky’s-the-limit attitude towards redistribution of public money, but in respect for all citizens – be it the young couple looking to put down roots, the working-class family endeavouring to make ends meet, or the newly-retired homeowner on a fixed income.


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