The question of affordable housing is one that bedevils almost every community in B.C. and across the country.
Last spring Sooke district council responded to years of presentations and anecdotal accounts related to housing affordability by forming an affordable housing committee but, said committee chair Coun. Ebony Logins, it didn’t take long to discover that no simple solutions were near.
“We had lots of people come to council with concerns, but we didn’t even have a strong sense of what affordable housing meant,” Logins said.
“The generally accepted definition comes out of the [Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation] that says housing is affordable if it costs no more than 30 per cent of household income before taxes. I think we have to do better than that.”
In fact, the recognition that the CHMC definition is sorely lacking is acknowledged on the provincial government’s website. It acknowledges “housing affordability is often based on a combination of factors, and every situation is different.”
The fundamental lack of an accepted definition of affordable housing led Logins committee to secure $35,000 at a recent council meeting to hire a consultant to study the housing situation in Sooke.
“A consultant’s report can help us to get the facts. Without those facts, we’re really just stumbling around without really understanding the issue,” Logins said.
She refuses to form an opinion on whether affordable housing is an issue in the community until she has a study of housing needs in place. Council agrees “there is a lot of smoke out there, but are unsure of where the fire might be.”
“We have a lot of options to consider as well. Is the problem based on the availability of apartments, townhomes, single family dwellings? There are so many options, and it’s hard to say where the problems exist. Is there a need for more apartments, mobile home parks, tiny homes? We don’t know,” Logins said.
“We (the committee) actually started falling into the trap of talking about specific types of housing but quickly realized that we didn’t have the information to even talk about these things.”
The lack of clarity on the issue is not unique to Sooke, nor does it reflect a failure on the district council, Logins said.
“This is the same problem we see all over the country. I just think we can do better in Sooke,” she said.
It’s also a problem the B.C. government has acknowledged although it has failed to come up with any solutions.
In a recent move, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs began working with the Union of B.C. Municipalities to develop a three-year funding program to support local governments to meet the new provincial requirement to complete housing needs reports.
Those reports will be a prerequisite for municipalities that hope to access as yet unannounced funding programs to address the issue.
The province announced a $1.9-billion initiative in mid-November but promised even more funds soon.
The $5 million fund currently under discussion will provide support for municipalities to help them collect the data within their communities in the hopes that they and the provincial government can “appropriately target its resources.”
“Another positive thing about doing this report for Sooke is that it gives us the opportunity to consider the findings when we develop our new official community plan,” Logins said.
“Our staff is excited to create a plan to improve our bylaws that affect housing. That will help us to move forward based on facts.”
Logins acknowledged there are issues related to poverty and homelessness that get conflated with the issue of affordable housing but that, again, without full information, it becomes difficult to address those issues or determine whether they have a place in the affordable housing debate.
“There’s an assumption that we’ll make housing affordable for everyone, and I’m not sure that that’s even attainable. We may be talking about different, but related issues,” Logins said.
“For now, let’s find out where the gaps are and what is needed and then we can start talking about how those needs can best be addressed.