Budget discussions are underway at City Hall. And the first reports are hitting the newspapers: Victoria’s Budget Reduction Plan targets Housing. At Governance and Priorities Committee meeting last week, a slim majority voted to reduce the City’s yearly contribution to affordable housing from $600,000 to $500,000. I voted with the majority and I’ll say more about why below.
First I want to say how difficult Council’s budget deliberations and decisions on the 2013-2015 budget will be. And that this Council will need to have the courage to make those decisions. Between July and October, I met with 185 people in five citizen budget workshops where I asked for ideas and input about how the City of Victoria could spend less money while still providing quality services. A majority of participants lauded Council for voting unanimously in April to cap property taxes at an increase of no more than 3.25% per year over the next three years.
But as one senior in James Bay said, “3.25% per year, that’s great. But what am I supposed to do? My pension won’t increase by 10% over the next three years.” This is Council’s conundrum and it is what lies at the heart of our job: How can we make decisions that contribute to creating an affordable city for everyone, a city where everyone can thrive?
Now moving onto the housing decision. There were three separate votes. One, I voted to increase Victoria’s contribution to the Capital Regional Housing Trust Fund from $250,000 to $350,000 so that Victoria can be a leader in that regard and encourage other municipalities to contribute more to the Regional Housing Trust Fund. Two, I voted to keep Victoria’s contribution to the Coalition to End Homelessness at $100,000. And three, I voted to reduce the amount that Victoria contributes to its own Housing Trust Fund by $100,000. This is why:
1. By adding money to the CRD Housing Trust Fund, housing is more evenly spread throughout the CRD and much-needed housing projects and a variety of housing types for a variety of people can be built.
2. As I said in the Governance and Priorities Committee meeting where the discussion took place, if this were 2007, I would certainly not have voted the way I did. But it is five years later. The Coalition to End Homelessness is doing good work. The City of Victoria has done good work. And the housing situation is getting better.
3. The vacancy rate is better in Victoria than it has been for years; there is more rental housing opening up and more rental housing being built.
4. Finally, keeping the cost of living in Victoria affordable for everyone is part of what I see as a key part of my job. The City has been spending too much money on too many things over the past 10-20 years. The City’s main source of revenue is property taxes. And property taxes are paid by people who live in Victoria, 65% of whom are renters. If we continue to raise property taxes, landlords will continue to raise rents to cover their property tax bill. This makes all housing less affordable.
There are difficult decisions ahead. And not all of them have to do with how the City will save money. We need to get more creative and also have the will to look at new sources of revenue. I have the wisdom of conversations and ideas from the Citizens’ Budget Workshops I held over the summer, the wisdom that keeps pouring in from citizens and local business owners, and a vision of a city where everyone is thriving as my guide.