Help us develop one possible solution to the rental crisis

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In Victoria in the 1940s during WWII, Times Colonist headlines urged Victorians to open their homes and “Billet Homeless War Workers.” Victorians responded to the crisis and opened their homes to strangers recently relocated to Victoria to help the local war effort. They didn’t call it the “sharing economy”, they didn’t charge anything, they just opened up their spare bedrooms and invited strangers in.

Now we have a different crisis on our doorstep. For thirty years (1982-2012) there were no new purpose built rental buildings built in Victoria. And, in the last five years, nearly 6000 people have moved into the city. We’re facing a rental crisis. What if Victorians responded in the same way to this crisis? What if there was a way to connect people living in vehicles, in motel rooms, on couches, with seniors living in large houses all alone, with retirees with an extra bedroom, or even with families with large houses and extra rooms. Unthinkable? Victorians stepped up to help out their neighbours in the past.

Interested in exploring the idea further? I’m working with a group of citizens and businesses to develop one possible solution. We need three people currently living in vehicles, on couches, in woodsheds (yes I have heard that this is true in more than one case) AND three people who might be willing to open their homes.

We’d like these six people to join us for a short focus group session. There is no commitment required other than sharing ideas. We want to build a solution for the people who will use it – for those looking for a place to stay until the rental crisis subsides and for those wiling to billet someone.

Please email mayor@victoria.ca if you’d like to help us out. And please share this post! To read more on the current rental crisis and its causes please head here.

City takes giant step to encourage more rental housing

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Last night, City Council voted to allow garden suites outright in single-family zones across the City. With 6,744 single family dwellings in the City this move has the potential to substantially increase the city’s rental stock in a very tight market. Until now, garden suite applications have been evaluated by Council on a case-by-case basis through the rezoning process. This change will make it significantly easier and less costly for homeowners to build new garden suites.

I’m thrilled to see Council take this significant step to implement the work done by the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability. While we won’t see the potential fulfilled overnight, with this change we are significantly reducing the red tape involved in building a small backyard rental home.

Before the changes Council made last night, it cost homeowners around $4000 in fees and took about six to eight months to go through the process. With the changes it now costs $200 and takes three to four weeks. For those interested in building a garden suite, you can find the guidelines here. These small rental homes cannot be used for short term vacation rentals; they are meant to house Victorians.

Prior to adopting these changes, we consulted with a wide range of stakeholders and the public. In order to address privacy concerns, we added a section to the guidelines to optimize privacy between neighbours, including recommendations for windows facing away from neighbouring properties and no rooftop outdoor space allowed.

This change is part of the City’s ambitious Victoria Housing Strategy 2016 – 2025, which is the City’s plan for improving housing affordability over the next decade by:

  • Increasing the supply of housing for low to moderate income households
  • Encouraging diversity of housing types, tenures, and prices across the city and within neighbourhoods
  • Building awareness and partnerships for affordable housing through communication, education and advocacy

This significant change won’t solve the housing crisis. As Eric Swanson, Executive Director of Generation Squeeze said last night, speaking in support of the changes, “the housing crisis requires a ‘yes and’ approach.” The move to allow small rental homes in backyards is a big yes. To read more about what’s up next in the City’s plans head to the Victoria Housing Strategy 2016 – 2025.

 

Housing Challenges? Housing Solutions.

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Everyone is aware of the low rental vacancy rate in Victoria right now. We’ve heard about the challenges this is creating for working people, people living on low incomes, seniors on fixed incomes and others. Many people are experiencing this first hand. This housing crunch is also creating a challenge for the business community – affordable workforce housing was a key concern I heard at a recent breakfast of local CEOs.

Yet there’s little understanding of why we’re in this situation. And there’s little understanding of the solutions we’re working on at City Hall and at the CRD; we know that housing is key to a healthy, prosperous and sustainable city.

Let’s look at the data. Between 2011 and 2016, 5775 new people moved to the City of Victoria. In that time only 2802 new housing units were built. In Victoria, the average number of persons per household is 1.8 (compared to a national average of 2.1 persons). This means that between 2011 and 2016, the population of the City grew faster than the number of housing units needed.

The City’s Director of Planning estimates that we probably built about 800-900 fewer units than we needed. Since the population still went up, those 800-900 additional housing units were found somewhere else in the City’s existing housing stock. The difference between Victoria’s vacancy rate in 2013 of 2.4% and today’s 0.5% is about 800 units.

The good news is that there are over 1000 units of housing under construction in Victoria right now, and there are more rental units being built than condos.

The even better news is that we’re taking the housing challenge seriously as a City and a region. The City has begun to implement its 2016-2025 Municipal Housing Strategy. We’ve started by increasing the amount of Housing Trust Fund subsidy to larger rental units, fast-tracking all rental buildings, and working to make it easier for people to build garden suites and secondary suites. And this is just the beginning. The plan can be viewed here.

Even less celebrated (maybe because it is last year’s news?) is the historic $60 million Regional Housing First Program. This will see at least 880 new rental units built in the region over the next five years. The rents will range from $375 per month to 85% of market. The first two buildings have already been approved for funding, including 50 units to be rented at $375 per month.

With all this work underway and all the units currently under construction, we’ll start to see some relief over the next couple of years. In the meantime, and as a community, we need to do two things. First, we need to come together and to support those who are struggling. Second, we need support development projects that add new housing stock in line with the vision in the Official Community Plan where we see traditional neighbourhoods preserved and more density along major roads and in village centres.

This piece was originally published in the Victoria News here.

Megaphone – Change that works, one newspaper at a time

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Last week I had the pleasure of standing with Megaphone vendors during their annual “Big Sell” event in downtown Victoria. I joined the vendors on Douglas Street and saw first hand how hard they work and how vulnerable you have to make yourself in a business like street vending.

“Can we interest you in a Megaphone by donation?” I’d call out. Most people would just simply keep walking, sometimes without even acknowledging that we’d addressed them.  I wonder how it feels to experience this day in day out?  It felt so good when someone would stop and buy a paper and offer a kind word and a smile. Participating in the Big Sell event gave me a deep appreciation of the courage and tenacity of Megaphone vendors.

Megaphone is a magazine sold on the streets of Vancouver and Victoria by homeless and low-income people. Vendors buy the magazine for 75 cents and sell it for $2, keeping the profit and earning a sense of pride and dignity.  To start a business as a Megaphone vendor, low-income and homeless individuals need to complete a sales training session and are then provided with 10 complimentary magazines and the necessary gear to get started. Megaphone staff provide any necessary support to ensure vendors run a successful business.

Vendor Week

The Big Sell event was part of the International Network of Street Papers Vendor Week celebration. It’s an is an annual celebration of the 10,000 street paper vendors around the world. Each one of these men and women – in 35 countries – is using their local street paper as a way to work themselves out of poverty.

During the first week in February, the international program of events, activities and social media action pays tribute to their hard work, as well as challenging perceptions of poverty and homelessness.

You can find out where Megaphone vendors sell in Victoria by using the mobile vendor finder app Please support them!

 

Affordable Home Ownership Key Priority

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I’ve received emails recently asking for Victoria City Council to implement a 15% foreign buyers tax. Council cannot do this. What seems to be missing from public understanding is that the foreign buyers tax was implemented by the Provincial government for all of Metro Vancouver. And that it’s Provincial legislation. The City cannot enact the tax.

Council could lobby for the tax to be implemented here, but where exactly is here? The Finance Minister created the tax for Metro Vancouver not the City of Vancouver. If the Province implemented a foreign buyers tax here it would be for the entire Capital Regional District.

That fact changes the nature of the City’s lobbying efforts. At a recent meeting, Council postponed until April a motion to ask local governments from across the region, and the CRD itself, to request the Province to introduce legislation mirroring that passed for Metro Vancouver in the summer – a 15% foreign buyers tax and vacancy taxation authority.

If we have any hope of a foreign buyers tax in the Capital Regional District, the request has to come from the CRD Board.  And, in order for CRD directors to consider such a request they’ll likely need a bit more data. By April, we’ll have eight months of data since the tax was implemented in Metro Vancouver.

If implementing a foreign buyers tax is beyond municipal and regional authority, what can we do to address affordable home ownership?

The City of Victoria recently held a workshop on affordable home ownership programs from Calgary, Canmore, and BC Housing. The Canmore Community Housing Corporation delivers one to four bedroom townhomes and condos from between $145,000 and $400,000. That is affordable home ownership. Calgary has a similar program, as does Toronto. And BC Housing provides low-cost financing to developers to help with affordability. The workshop was packed by both for profit and non-profit housing developers wanting to be part of the solution.

The good news is that when faced with a crisis, the regional government can respond swiftly. Last year, the CRD acted quickly to set up the $60 million Regional Housing First Program to build affordable workforce rental housing and supportive housing for those who are chronically homeless.

We must now act quickly as a region on affordable home ownership. We need to look at what’s working elsewhere and design a made-in-the-CRD solution to address local market conditions. The affordable home ownership solution we implement must not further burden already burdened taxpayers.

And then we need to implement quickly. What’s at stake if we don’t make affordable home ownership a top priority? The wellbeing of our citizens and the economic prosperity this region is currently experiencing. In order to keep the economy strong, working people and their families must be able to afford to live here.

Originally published in the Victoria News.

 

Affordable Community and my Homelessness Action Plan

As you see from watching the above video, I prefer talking about what I will do going forward rather than looking backwards, but it has come to my attention that throughout this election campaign my commitment to poverty prevention and affordable housing is being called into question.

Today, before tonight’s Our Place Mayoral candidates’ debate, I want to correct this misinformation by outlining my history of work on these issues. With that done, I can then share my concrete plans for the future.

I completed a master’s degree on the history of homelessness in Victoria from 1871-1901. I then went on to start a Ph.D. on the history of housing, homelessness and the governance of poverty in Victoria and San Francisco from 1930-1970. This Ph.D. work was funded by the Trudeau Foundation, which awards 15 scholarships in Canada each year for the study of ideas that can actually make change in the world.

At the same time as I was working on my Ph.D. I was a volunteer board member at Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group where we built, together with our neighbours, 10 units of affordable housing for families.

During my Ph.D. research I came across a story from the Times Colonist in the Depression where neighbours came together and helped each other out. When I read this in late 2008, current Times Colonist headlines were predicting ‘Next Great Depression on the Horizon.” Inspired by the action Victorians had taken in the past, I, with others, created Community Micro Lending – Canada’s first peer-to-peer micro lending program. As Executive Director of that organization I’ve literally walked alongside people as they walk out of poverty.

I’ve done strategic planning and visioning work with AIDS Vancouver Island, The Oasis Society, and Bernie Pauley’s “Street Stories” group some years back. For three years I was chair of the Bread and Roses Collective which produced the Victoria Street Newz sold by low-income people to supplement their income. More recently I’ve been working with a group called Moms Like Us to establish an internationally accredited Clubhouse in Victoria, a wrap-around care centre for people with mental illness and addictions.

I’ve studied and taken action on poverty and homelessness. As your mayor, I commit to continue to take action on these issues, with you.

How? Six concrete ideas:

  1. Continue to invest in the City’s affordable housing trust fund to help build affordable and supportive housing. Each year the City invests $500,000 in the City and the Region’s Affordable Housing Trust Funds. These funds are accessed by non-profit housing providers which get $10,000 per unit for new affordable housing units. Each $10,000 the City invests leverages $1.4 million in investment from other levels of government. In year three of my term I will look with Council to see if the amount we put in the Housing Trust funds can be increased.

  2. A recent study released by the Coalition to End homelessness revealed that the biggest need for affordable housing is for people who simply need an affordable place to live so they don’t become homeless. We need fresh ideas and creative solutions to get more units of affordable housing into play right away. I propose a small pilot project with 10 building owners who would commit to designating 10 percent of their units as affordable (i.e. not more than $550 per month for a one bedroom) for a period of 10 years and receive a corresponding property tax exemption that offsets the lost rent. The current mayor and others running will say that this is a bad idea and that they don’t want to give money to private sector landlords. Yet the City has a heritage tax exemption program where every year the City gives millions of dollars of tax exemptions to private sector landlords who own heritage buildings. This helps to get these old buildings restored. Surely affordable housing deserves the same attention as heritage.

  3. The Community Social Planning Council recently launched a Community Investment Fund. People can now invest their money locally to build affordable housing. I was involved in the early stages of the creation of this fund. As mayor, I will champion this new investment tool as a way to finance the building of more affordable housing. Again, a new, creative idea that can lead to more affordable housing.

  4. Cities cannot address homelessness and poverty alone. 2015 is a federal election year. In 1989 the federal government invested $115 per capita in affordable housing. In 2014 the federal government invests $58 per capita in affordable housing. Simply going back to the 1989 funding would cost $4.5 billion per year. Sound like a lot? It currently costs $7 billion per year, in Canada, to take care of people who are homeless. I have chosen affordable housing as my 2015 federal election issue and will work with mayors across the province and the country to advocate for federal investments in affordable housing.

  5. Poverty isn’t solved by affordable housing alone. I will work with Island Health and other partners to help ensure that those with mental health and addictions have access to services with dignity including a safe consumption site, harm reduction supplies, supportive housing and treatment and will work to establish an Internationally Accredited Clubhouse. I would also like to see a Committee convened, as proposed by Stephen Andrew, to inform how we address these issues, that includes those in recovery.

  6. Finally, many people who are poor often are ‘working poor’ and simply need a better paying job. City Hall has a huge role to play in increasing the number of well-paying jobs in Victoria. This is a top priority for my first term as mayor. Read more about my full action plan here.

Housing Ends Homelessness

Last week, both the Chamber of Commerce and the Victoria Foundation’s Vital Signs Survey identified homelessness and housing as top priorities. When business and community come together and identify a common priority, we need to take action.

Risk of Homelessness Increasing

Since 2008 when the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness was founded, we’ve made some progress in the City and the region. Yet according to a recent study on Patterns of Homelessness in Greater Victoria between 2010-2014, more people sought temporary shelter in 2014 than in 2010. And shelter capacity went from 86% in 2010 to 112% in 2014. (See Figures 1 and 2 below.) We’ve still got a lot of work to do.

The most striking finding of the study is that the vast majority of people who used shelters between 2010 and 2014 are not chronically or episodically homeless. In the four-year study period, 655 people stayed in shelters experienced ‘episodic’ and ‘chronic’ homelessness (see Figures 4 and 5 below). Just over 3600 people experienced temporary homelessness. They just need an affordable place to live.

The report concludes, “The sheer number of individuals who resorted to accessing emergency shelter indicates a lack of homelessness prevention services and emphasizes the need to address low income and affordable housing issues in Greater Victoria to prevent homelessness.”

Innovative Pilot Project 

Today, I announced a plan for a pilot project that would work with willing private sector landlords to designate 10% of rental units in 10 buildings as supportive and affordable housing units for 10 years.

The pilot project would see Victoria City Hall work with willing building owners to immediately address the urgent need for supportive and affordable housing in the City of Victoria. In exchange for designating 10% of units in their building as affordable and supportive housing for 10 years, property owners would receive a property tax exemption that would offset their lost revenue and leave a bit of money in their pockets at the end of the day as an incentive to participate in the program. There are a few private sector landlords who rent units at an affordable rate through various existing programs. The proposed pilot project would provide an incentive.

Half of the units would be designated as affordable housing to help address homelessness further “upstream”. With cost of living on the rise, the need for affordable housing is growing every year. If the pilot project proves successful, City Hall would pursue opportunities for expansion.

Moving Victoria Forward

In order to move Victoria forward and to create opportunities, we first need to make sure that people can afford to call our city home. This project is a result of months of working with stakeholders, and one willing landlord has already expressed interest. Everyone agrees that the growing need for affordable and supportive housing is a top priority so I am eager to champion greater collaborative action.