I’ve been receiving questions lately with regard to both bike lanes and affordable housing. They go something like this: “Why are you spending so much money on bike lanes and nothing on affordable housing?” And, “Why don’t you use your role as mayor to do something real about affordable housing instead of just asking people to open up their homes?”
The simple answers are, “We aren’t.” And, “I am.” Both of these need some explaining.
By the end of 2018, Victoria will have a 5.6km network of All Ages and Abilities bike lanes in the downtown. This will cost approximately $9 million. By 2022, 75% of Victorians will live within 400m of a complete All Ages and Abilities network. The cost of the complete network has not yet been determined as the design of many components still needs to be undertaken through work with the community. This network, which takes a “complete streets” approach, improves conditions for all road users.
The active transportation network that we’re building, including bike lanes, is funded by gas taxes. These are monies collected at the gas pump and distributed back to local governments. There are restrictions as to what gas tax funds can be used for. They must be used for projects that have a sustainability impact; they cannot be used for affordable housing.
Yet bikes lanes, do contribute to affordability for Victorians. How? According to the Canadian Automobile Association, the cost of car ownership for a compact car is approximately $9500 per year. On average, Canadians spend more per year on owning and operating a car than they do on groceries.
We’re building a city where, in the not so distant future, car ownership might not be a necessity for many people. Victoria’s All Ages and Abilities network, when complete, will connect 75% of Victorians from their homes safely to the rest of the city. That means Victorians who now have to use cars will have approximately $9500 more in their pockets every year. That’s $800 more per month that can be spent on rent, groceries, piano lessons etc. Bike lanes contribute to making life more affordable for Victorians and making the city more liveable too.
As for affordable housing, and how much we’re spending in both time and money, it’s a lot more than on bike lanes. For those who don’t know about all the work doing as city and region on this issue, we’re using every tool in our municipal and regional tool boxes to get affordable housing built.
Right after the last election, Council struck a Mayor’s Task Force on Affordable Housing. The task force was made up of non-profit and for-profit housing developers, housing advocates and others. In five short meetings the Task Force developed detailed and concrete recommendations. After receiving public input, Council quickly adopted these and staff created Victoria’s 2016-2025 Municipal Housing Strategy.
Since adopting the Housing Strategy Council has removed restrictions on garden suites, making it possible for anyone living in a single family dwelling to build a small rental unit in their backyard. It used to cost $4000 and take 12 months for permission. Now it costs $200 and takes four weeks.
We’ve also made it easier for homeowners to build secondary suites by removing restrictions in zoning that limited the amount of exterior changes that could be made to a building containing a secondary suite. These zoning changes increase the number of properties eligible for secondary suites while still maintaining livability, safety and affordability.
We’re fast tracking all new multi-unit residential buildings. And we’re in the process of revamping the City’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund to incentivize the building of larger units, to prioritize women, children and First Nations, and to allow the Trust Fund to be used for affordable home ownership projects.
And all that is just in the city! In the early fall of 2015, myself and two of my council colleagues at the City of Victoria took the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness’s research and turned it into a funding strategy. We proposed – quite boldly and with much initial consternation from the media and some of our colleagues – that the CRD borrow up the $30 million to build new supportive and affordable housing in our region subject to the Provincial government matching with $30 million and Island Health covering the costs of health supports as needed.
We were thrilled in May 2016 when the Province showed strong leadership and matched the Region’s $30 million contribution. The $60 million Regional Housing First Program will build 880 units of affordable housing over the next five years, including 268 units that rent at $375 per month. And, I was recently in Ottawa advocating to the federal government to contribute their $30 million share; with federal funding we will build close to 1400 new units of affordable, and where needed, supportive housing.
Finally, we are ensuring that the monies are well spent and directed to where the need is. A refreshed Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, which I co-chair, is responsible for developing a Community Plan which will guide both new capital spending and system improvements to the existing housing ecosystem. This plan has been developed with a wide range of community members including people with lived experiences of homelessness.
Affordable housing, bike lanes, high-quality transit and compact, walkable land-uses are all key to building a healthy, prosperous and sustainable city. To do so we can’t make “either or” choices, we must take a systems-based and ecosystem-based approach.