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.