Sunday, 19 August 2018

Letter to the Editor: Doing the math on building our way to affordable housing

I wrote a letter to the editor in the Peninsula News Review; you can read it as published here, and copied below.  I reference an article available here: “Disputed housing project in Sidney gets go ahead”, February 24, 2016, Times Colonist and a property listing found here

The first completed home in the contentious Markinch Place development in Sidney is now listed for sale. Council voted 4-3 to approve the development; the approving vote appeared to weigh the potential of attracting families with detached housing over all other objections. In 2016, the median 2-bedroom home price in Sidney was $609,450, so the predicted $500,000 average price (“Disputed housing project in Sidney gets go ahead”, February 24, 2016, Times Colonist) for 3 or 4 bedrooms would have been a steal. The listing price of that first house is actually $999,000.
At the wishful $500,000, less than 16 percent of Sidney’s (or the CRD’s) existing population could have afforded it using the widely accepted three times gross household income metric (2016 Census Profiles, Statistics Canada). Fewer than 4 percent of households could afford any house over $600,000. Despite building as fast as the trades can do it, the cheapest single family detached home now listed for sale on the MLS in Sidney as of August 11, 2018 is $639,000.
What other criteria should Sidney be adding to our development approval criteria to get the housing we need? Let’s make the link between housing cost and the earning potential of the local economy explicit, and see how that changes the conversation about what we prioritize building. If we can ask: how many units are adaptable? How many are 3 bedrooms? Then surely we can also ask: and how many are projected to be affordable for the other 96 percent of the population?

Further background on my letter:

When new developments are approved, there are a large number of requirements in the Zoning Bylaw that must be met, for example, setbacks from property lines, percentage lot coverage, number of parking spaces, and roof angles.

For multifamily developments, there are also requirements for number of 3 bedroom units and mimimum floor area that must be included (to provide family housing) and adaptable units (units that have doorway widths, corridor turning radius, and other features that increase accessibility for people with mobility impairments). These additional requirements are intended to help create housing that allows for a balanced demographic and for people to remain in place if they develop mobility issues. But what about a balanced socioeconomic demographic?

Our jobs come in a spectrum of wage or salary potentials, from minimum wage in food service or retail, through to the upper end of trades, manufacturing and professional services. From Statistics Canada census data, we can also see precisely what percentage of our population is in each income bracket.

If we can make requirements for specific numbers of bedrooms or unit sizes, can we ask developers what can be done to meet a spectrum of price points? Having targets for subsidized housing units (non-market units) in multifamily buildings is a common way to go about this, but I worry it is woefully inadeqate to the task when based on actual income data, greater than 90 percent of our population will only be able to afford housing below market rate. What other design efficiencies, alternate building styles, land subdivision and ownership structures, materials, or other cost saving measures could be used within Sidney if the question determining what type of housing to build was not left up to "what the market will bear" and was bounded by "what can incomes from this area afford?"