A wide-ranging program of strategies and solutions for Victoria’s multifaceted housing emergency.
VICTORIA HAS A HOUSING CRISIS. More precisely, Victoria has a number of distinct housing crises, plural. House prices and even condominium prices in Victoria’s over-heated real estate market have soared to prohibitive levels, shutting thousands out of the market who in the recent past would have been comfortably able to buy a home. Renters are stuck paying exorbitant rents far above what’s affordable for them and are unable to move because of a rental market vacancy rate of effectively zero. Working people with steady incomes sleep in vehicles and tents because with a zero vacancy rate, they just can’t find anywhere to live. And those with addictions and mental health needs languish for months and years on waiting lists for social housing while governments grudgingly purchase dilapidated, unsafe old pest-ridden motels, hotels and seniors’ homes for them to live in. Protest camps come and go with nothing more than a small fraction of the need they represent ever being met, and always in the cheapest way possible when it is. Our community has not one housing crisis but a number of different housing crises occurring side by side. These different crises require different strategies and call for different solutions. We’ll come back to this point in a moment.
Not only has it been making it impossible for a lot of people to find a place to live, Victoria’s housing emergency is also having a strong negative effect on the City’s business community. In an interview on CBC radio on January 4 2018, Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce CEO Catherine Holt identified attracting and retaining workers as the foremost challenge for Victoria businesses in 2018. Victoria’s housing crisis has been identified repeatedly as a major obstacle in this regard: people who would like to move here for work aren’t able to find a place to live, and given Victoria’s low unemployment rate, positions go unfilled. In fact, one Victoria restaurant closed altogether in the summer of 2017 because it was unable to hire staff. http://victoriabuzz.com/2017/07/north-48-modern-diner-close-july-29/; https://www.facebook.com/northfortyeight/
One recent study concluded that the majority of Victoria businesses have difficulty finding employees in the first place, and when they do, those potential employees often can’t move here because they can’t find a place to live, let alone one they can afford. Out of a sample of 250 Greater Victoria businesses, 57 % reported that hiring is difficult, with 28 % describing that difficulty as “extreme.” And maybe not surprisingly, the problem is most severe at the lowest pay levels, among those who simply can’t manage the going rate for rent in Victoria: over three-quarters (78 %) of the 28 % of businesses that described the situation as extreme said difficulty in hiring was extreme for entry level employees, while nearly a quarter (24 %) saw it as extreme at the managerial level.
MAYOR AND COUNCIL HAVE BEEN SLEEPING ON THE JOB
Another element in the hiring crisis for Victoria businesses, in addition to housing, is childcare. Both the unavailability of childcare spaces and the prohibitive cost of childcare on the open market pose severe challenges for Victoria parents. Victoria’s childcare crisis is addressed Rob Duncan’s policy platform in the Beyond the Housing Emergency document, which can be reached through the Other Policies link on this website.
SLEEPING ON THE JOB AGAIN?
NOT ONE CRISIS BUT THREE. It has already been pointed out that Victoria’s housing crisis is not a single problem but instead a number of different problems. Victoria’s housing emergency can be seen as having three parts, as consisting of three distinguishable but inter-related crises: (1) a social housing and homelessness crisis, (2) a rental market crisis, and (3) a real estate market crisis.
A comprehensive, all-inclusive program of solutions to Victoria’s multifaceted housing crisis is needed that guarantees that all people at all income levels have access to housing that’s safe, appropriate to their needs, and affordable – that is, no more than 30 % of their income goes to housing.
>> SOCIAL HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS – Supported Housing and Subsidized Housing
Canada is a wealthy country – the 21st-richest country in the world, right between Finland and Belgium. Is it really possible that, in a community with one of the strongest local economies in that wealthy country, we’re not able to provide a home for everybody? Homelessness can be ended in our affluent society, but this obviously can’t be done without the POLITICAL WILL to do it. Homelessness is a reflection of POLICY CHOICES and PRIORITIES on the part of those in power. THE FIRST STEP TOWARD ENDING HOMELESSNESS IS SETTING IT AS A GOAL. The only thing that’s guaranteed is that without that first step, it’ll never happen. It’s not something that’s going to just happen by itself.
The RIGHT TO ADEQUATE HOUSING is recognized by the United Nations as a BASIC HUMAN RIGHT, and it’s a human right that OUR COMMUNITY DOES NOT RESPECT. http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/FS21_rev_1_Housing_en.pdf
Homelessness is a violation of human rights, and the City of Victoria is a human rights violator.
To deny someone’s human rights is to deny their humanity – to treat them as something other than human. At present, this is occurring daily in the City of Victoria.
IT’S TIME FOR VICTORIA TO GET SERIOUS ABOUT MEETING THIS BASIC HUMAN STANDARD. TIME TO STEP UP, VICTORIA.
Earlier this year, in the first NDP provincial budget in many years in BC, the provincial government committed to spend $6.6B for affordable housing over the next 10 years, representing a substantial infusion of funding and creating potential for substantive change. The provincial budget clears the way for using Municipal and Regional District Tax (MRDT) revenue for creation of affordable housing. Another new revenue source provided in the 2018 provincial budget is business licenses and taxes on short-term rental businesses such as Airbnb. Among the commitments in this year’s BC budget are 14,000 units of affordable housing and 2500 units of supported housing.
There has also been a commitment to create 1500 units province-wide of supported transitional housing for women and children fleeing violence.
A few months later, the provincial government announced a four-year $90M plan (with $30M being contributed by the federal government, the provincial government, and the Capital Regional District) to build 2009 units of social housing rental units, including 1000 affordable housing units and 400 supported housing units priced at the shelter rate (that is, with rents matching the shelter component of provincial assistance cheques) of $375/month.
While at first glance, this may seem like a lot of housing, a couple of thousand units barely puts a dent in the need that exists in Victoria, and it won’t increase Victoria’s rental vacancy rate at all because these units will all be snapped up as soon as they become available. What is needed in Victoria is a program of policies that will ensure an ongoing supply of new rental units for a sustained period of time, not a few hundred units a year for a few years. The praise these plans have received since being announced only serves to illustrate the widespread underestimation of the need and the misevaluation of the extent of the problem in Victoria.
Given, on the one hand, that the projects funded under this umbrella must be under way by the end of the year 2021, and given, on the other hand, the current Mayor and Council’s record of meeting deadlines and adhering to timelines in the case of the Johnson St. bridge project, it would clearly be in the community’s interest to replace these personnel with others more attentive to considerations of this kind.
By a conservative estimate, the Victoria area needs at least a thousand units of basic supported housing as soon as possible, and likely several times that number, in reality. And if the past is any indication, the large majority of whatever supported housing is created will be located within the boundaries of the City of Victoria rather than in the surrounding municipalities. (Homeless shelters aren’t discussed in this platform because shelters don’t constitute “housing” and because they’re not what Victoria needs more of. Victoria needs more housing, not more homeless shelters.)
In February 2016, when the Super InTent City homeless camp was in process behind the courthouse on Blanshard St. and creating an unprecedented community discussion about the homelessness in our midst, a coalition of seven community, government and academic collaborators conducted a one-day count of Victoria’s homeless population (https://www.crd.bc.ca/docs/default-source/housing-pdf/pitcount-report26apr2016.pdf). This study produced an estimate of 1387 homeless individuals in the Greater Victoria region, a number which is certain to have been an underestimate because it didn’t include people couch-surfing (“staying at someone else’s place,” in the study’s terms) or many people sleeping in cars, among others. The researchers concluded “that the region requires a focused, and nuanced investment in housing and a range of service interventions to support individuals experiencing homelessness.”
INSTEAD OF MORE SLEEPING ON THE JOB
When the Liberal provincial government went to court in 2016 seeking an injunction allowing it to close Super InTent City down, it presented to the Court a package of newly created supported “housing” of various kinds amounting to a total of 275 “units” (let’s call them “spaces” to have a general term that’s more accurate) which it argued were adequate to meet the needs of those in tent city. This included 38 spaces on one floor of the (condemned) Mount Edwards Court building, 147 spaces in the (condemned) seniors’ residence on Johnson St., 40 tents in the gym for a few months at the former Boys and Girls Club on Yates St., and 50 spaces – including 40 units in repurposed detention cells and 10 campsites in the courtyard, for a few months – at Choices in the repurposed youth detention centre in View Royal. Later, an additional promise of 51 units in the to-be-repurposed Super 8 Motel building on Douglas St. brought the projected total to 326 spaces (although the Douglas St. site didn’t actually open until well over a year later).
The judge deemed this response on the part of the provincial government sufficient to warrant issuing the injunction closing the camp.
Nearly three-fifths (57 %) of these units were in CONDEMNED BUILDINGS, and more than 15 % were actually TENTS and not homes at all. NO ONE IN POWER HAS EVER TAKEN HOMELESSNESS SERIOUSLY IN VICTORIA.
The thumbnail estimate of the need for more than a thousand units of supported housing in Greater Victoria was calculated by subtracting the number of units created to end the Super InTent City protest (326 units) from the number of people identified as homeless in the February 2016 count (1387 people), with a difference of 1061. Again, this has to be regarded as a conservative estimate.
Residents of the Burnside-Gorge neighbourhood have voiced concerns for years regarding the growing concentration of supported housing sites in their neighbourhood. This concentration is a direct result of government reliance on conversion of old motels and hotels (also concentrated in that area), to serve as supported housing. There are numerous problems with the policy of repurposing former tourist accommodation for use as supported housing, some having to do with the age of the building (for instance, no cold water because of building-wide deterioration of water pipe insulation, such that uninsulated cold water pipes are warmed up by adjacent uninsulated hot water pipes, just for one specific example) and others having to do with the way the buildings were designed in the first place. In some high-profile cases (including Mount Edwards Court in a former seniors’ residence on Vancouver St. and the Portland Hotel Society Residential Outreach Building in the former seniors’ Central Care Home at 844 Johnson St.), supported housing sites were – as has already been pointed out – created in repurposed buildings that had already been condemned as unsafe (both these examples are red brick construction, which crumbles during an earthquake, which is the reason the seniors were moved out in the first place). (Can you say “double standard,” boys and girls?) Mayor and Council should advocate vigorously for creation of supported housing through NEW CONSTRUCTION of PURPOSE-BUILT sites that (1) can be distributed around the City instead of being concentrated in the area where re-purposable old buildings happen to be located, (2) avoid the numerous costly chronic problems arising from the use of old buildings built many years ago for other purposes, and (3) make more efficient, more appropriate use of the high-value land they’re built on.
In order for the usefulness of supported housing to be optimized, there should always be a small number of vacancies in the community’s supported housing stock, to facilitate moving individuals around, from one kind of site to another, as their needs change. Someone being discharged from a detox program, for example, might benefit immensely in terms of probability of longer-term abstinence from immediately being relocated upon discharge to a different housing site with less drug culture or no drug culture. Being placed back in the same social environment that had been sustaining an addiction is notorious as a route to relapse. This kind of flexibility requires both a sufficient number of units of supported housing (and vacancies) to allow for moving individuals around as needed, and also a sufficient number of different supported housing sites to include dry or near-dry sites as well as low barrier sites. Making effective use of the community’s stock of social housing requires that there must be a sufficient amount of it available. There are many reasons for having an ample stock of supported housing. In this instance, the effectiveness of detox programs depends on it.
Homelessness CAN be ended.
Medicine Hat, Alberta, a city with a population of 63,000, ended homelessness in 2015. The approach taken in Medicine Hat was based on getting people without anywhere to live into existing market rental housing with rent subsidies. It didn’t involve building new social housing, nor repurposing existing buildings. Everyone identifying as homeless in Medicine Hat is housed within 10 days of coming forward, and the damage deposit and first month’s rent are paid by the City’s homelessness program, to provide new tenants with a solid start. 885 individuals were housed in the first two years of this program.
The comparison between the communities of Medicine Hat and Victoria isn’t a straightforward comparison though, and given the important differences between the two cities, the Medicine Hat case may not constitute a model for Victoria to emulate. With a population of 86,000 at the core of a region that has a population of about 370,000, the City of Victoria is a very different kind of city than Medicine Hat, which isn’t surrounded by a dozen other municipalities but instead is more or less free standing, with a three hour drive to Calgary, the closest bigger city. Whereas a strategy based on housing people in units available on the rental market clearly has been effective in Medicine Hat, this is unlikely to be the case in an inner city setting like the City of Victoria, and especially when the vacancy rate for rental units is effectively zero. In Victoria, the population of people without homes is much larger, and one might imagine that if such a housing-for-all program was implemented here, the number housed during the first two years would be many times the number housed in Medicine Hat. This obviously wouldn’t be even remotely possible in Victoria if the program relied on housing available on the rental market. In Victoria, ending homelessness will require a commitment to building publicly-funded social housing. Maybe the most important point that we in Victoria can draw from the Medicine Hat experience is the basic point that HOMELESSNESS CAN BE ENDED.
HOMELESSNESS ENDED IN MEDICINE HAT IN 2015:
AND TWO YEARS LATER, STILL NO HOMELESSNESS IN MEDICINE HAT:
Vienna, Austria, with a population of 1.8 million, is another city that, like Medicine Hat, has ended homelessness. Vienna provides a better, more feasible model for Victoria (and British Columbia, and Canada) to look to over the longer term than Medicine Hat (where it has been possible to end homelessness using market rental housing). In Vienna, 60 % of the city’s population lives in subsidized social housing, with an emphasis on attractive developments that bring together people of different income levels. The most successful social housing takes this kind of integrative approach, rather than simply warehousing or ghettoizing the working class and people in poverty. The goal of this kind of broad-based approach is to ensure that as many renters as possible are paying affordable rents — that is, no more than 30 % of their income goes to rent.
***While the integrative approach taken in Vienna offers a model for the long term future, the immediate need over the shorter term in Victoria is for low-barrier housing and other social housing that will alleviate homelessness.***
THE FIRST STEP IN ENDING HOMELESSNESS IS TO SET ENDING IT AS A GOAL. The only thing that’s guaranteed is that without that first step, it’ll never happen.
The City should have FIRST REFUSAL ON PURCHASING MULTI-UNIT RESIDENTIAL BUILDINGS WHENEVER THEY GO UP FOR SALE, to enable it to expand the existing woefully inadequate stock of social housing. Mayor and Council should persuade the provincial government to facilitate this through legislation.
The provincial government has announced funding for MOBILE MODULAR HOUSING and invited municipalities to apply.
This is prefabricated housing that can be put together with an electric drill, and is designed to be taken apart and moved. People who are not construction workers or carpenters can put it up and take it down, making this kind of project suitable for low-income residents to both get some work and acquire job skills, as well as creating an opportunity for a kind of stewardship or custodianship of the housing that residents built themselves.
Because it’s designed to be taken apart and moved easily, mobile modular housing can be erected on vacant land for which other future uses are being considered, while land use decisions are being hashed out, and then moved elsewhere when the time comes for other uses of the land.
The City of Victoria should identify sites where this housing can be located (I have compiled a long list of potential sites which is included below) and obtain funding from this provincial program as quickly as possible. The Province has already been building modular mobile housing in collaboration with local governments in Terrace, Prince Rupert, Surrey, Kelowna and Kamloops as well as Vancouver, but for some reason, not in Victoria, where this is evidently not a priority. Why isn’t Victoria on this list? Municipal government negligence and complacency. MORE SLEEPING ON THE JOB?
The City of Victoria should utilize MINIATURE HOUSES for homeless people, as in Seattle, Olympia, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Jose, Denver, Portland Oregon, Eugene Oregon, Newfield New Jersey, Madison Wisconsin, Austin Texas, and many other locations. This approach BOTH SAVES MONEY AND REDUCES HOMELESSNESS, in some cases by as much as three-quarters.
The typical approach involves arranging tiny homes in villages of anywhere from 10 to several dozen. In Victoria, this approach could involve clusters of 10 or 12 houses on ordinary residential lots, in industrial-commercial areas such as northern Government St., or in unused spaces such as the SJ Willis school field at Hillside and Blanshard. Another site that would be ideal but that is actually located in Saanich, not Victoria (homelessness is, after all, a regional phenomenon), is the former Mayfair Lanes site. Involving homeless people in building the houses alongside unionized carpenters could provide practical job skills experience and make for feelings of stewardship.
The City should also establish a MUNICIPAL CAMPGROUND, administered by the City of Victoria or by the CRD, to alleviate the need for camping in parks in the Greater Victoria region by providing a safer, healthier, more convenient place to camp. The City will work to increase the availability of affordable social housing in the region in a timely manner, but there is an immediate need for at least one safe camping site in the meantime. In addition, there’s a very small minority among Victoria’s homeless population who don’t want to live indoors and prefer to camp outside; a municipal campground might be able to meet these individuals’ needs as well.
A site like a municipal campground can function as an important POINT OF CONTACT for homeless people to ACCESS SERVICE PROVIDERS and outreach programs.
There are numerous possible locations for a municipal campground, potentially adjacent to (and sharing some facilities and services with) a miniature house village, including northern Government St., the SJ Willis school field at Hillside and Blanshard, Cuthbert-Holmes Park in Saanich, and the former Mayfair Lanes site (also in Saanich).
Portland, Oregon has had a highly-organized City-authorized homeless encampment, known as Right 2 Dream Too, since 2011. A 24-hour security desk at the camp’s entrance is staffed by camp residents, and sleeping bags used in the camp are laundered weekly.
The City of Victoria should refrain from altering and gentrifying public green spaces (such as Reeson Park and Pandora Green) to prevent homeless people from camping there.
The City of Victoria should establish a facility where homeless people can store a modest amount of belongings for a limited period of time, for a small weekly fee.
The City of Victoria needs SUBSIDIZED HOUSING FOR LOW-INCOME SINGLE PARENTS AND THEIR CHILDREN, with support services available on site as needed. According to the most recent statistics, the rate of poverty for children living with a single parent in BC is an alarming 48 %. Another acute need, identified and targeted for funding in this year’s provincial budget, is housing for WOMEN AND CHILDREN FLEEING VIOLENCE, housing that makes it easier for women and children to get out of threatening domestic situations.
SENIORS’ HOUSING. A household is said to be in core housing need if its housing fails to meet at least one of the three criteria of affordability, adequacy, and suitability, and it would have to spend 30% or more of its total before-tax income to pay the median rent of alternative local housing that is appropriate (that is, meets all three criteria).
By this standard, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 42 % of BC senior households are in core housing need. Victoria in particular has a long-standing CRITICAL SHORTAGE OF AFFORDABLE SENIORS’ HOUSING. The City needs to work with the province and with non-profit agencies to alleviate this face of Victoria’s multifaceted housing crisis as well.
LOCATIONS. Although a large number of potential sites for social housing developments have been occupied in the last few years by condominium projects, there are still plenty of sites remaining. These include, for instance, the field at the intersection of Hillside Ave. and Blanshard St. and the gravel parking lot on the west side Victoria High School (which would be suitable for family housing) – both of which are currently school board properties – the Yates St. fire hall site (once the fire hall is relocated to the old Boys and Girls Club site, a relocation that will displace the My Place tents-in-the-gym supportive “housing” currently located there), two vacant lots in the 1700 block of Birch St., a lot in the 1200 block of Johnson St., a lot next to 840 Cormorant St., a large lot in the 1100 block of Yates St., 1580 Cook St., the Royal Athletic Park parking lot (parking can go underground, right?), beside 1111 Caledonia St., the parking lot on Caledonia to the east of the White Spot restaurant, the parking lot on Quadra St. to the north of the Victoria Curling Club (again, parking can go underground), 3 or 4 parking lots on Caledonia across from the Memorial Arena, a lot between 929 and 919 Caledonia, a lot beside 2721 Fifth St., a vacant lot beside 220 Wilson St., a car lot at the intersection of Tyee and Bay, and several car lots on Cook St. between View St. and Johnson St. and also on Douglas St. north of Hillside. (It’s really not clear, when you think about it for a minute, why we’re devoting so much surface-level space downtown to parking and selling cars.)
While other aspects of Victoria’s multifaceted housing emergency are also urgently in need of attention from policy-makers, it is those without housing at all, those whose basic human right to a home of some kind is violated in and by our community day after day, whose needs are the most critical.
>> RENTAL MARKET POLICY
60 to 70 % of residents in the Greater Victoria region rent their homes, rather than purchasing. The rental market crisis is, then, the aspect of Victoria’s housing emergency that directly concerns the largest number of residents.
A solution to the rental market crisis will need to involve a combination of social housing, on the one hand, and working with developers to get more of the kind of affordable rental units the community so badly needs, on the other.
Market forces on their own – “development,” as it were – won’t resolve the crisis. In recent years, a substantial number of condominium towers have been built or are being built in Victoria, whereas very few rental units have been built and only a handful are currently under construction, at a time when the rental vacancy rate is effectively zero.
This situation is partly a reflection of high land values which make it unattractive to build rental stock because of lower short-term returns on investment, clearly illustrating the limitations of relying on the market alone to meet the community’s needs. For this reason though, simply requiring that private-sector developers build rental buildings instead of condominiums may not have the desired effect of stimulating the construction of rental stock but may instead result in high-priced property simply going undeveloped.
A number of other strategies are available, though, and the fact that Victoria’s rental market has deteriorated to the point where the vacancy rate is effectively zero and employers can’t even hire because there’s no housing is a reflection of complacency, negligence and inaction on the part of a place-holder Mayor and a passive Council with a record of approving and encouraging one after another condominium development while completely ignoring the acute need in the community for new rental stock. Mayor and Council have been completely negligent in this regard, and Victoria needs a Mayor who will assert the public interest in decision-making and in working with developers, investors and builders in our community. Many regard Victoria’s incumbent municipal government as catering to the desires of those looking to maximize short-term profits by building more and more condo towers. Unfortunately, many prime locations for badly needed market rental stock and social housing are now occupied by new condominium developments.
One residential tower after another has been going up all around the downtown area and yet the rental vacancy rate has been effectively zero for years. How is this possible? What exactly is going on here? MORE SLEEPING ON THE JOB?
There are a number of critical measures the City should actively be pursuing both to INCENTIVIZE and to REQUIRE creation of affordable rental stock on an ongoing basis, including ways of influencing the mix of different kinds of units included in new residential towers.
To address the rental market crisis, the City of Victoria should implement a program consisting of 6 POLICIES, as follows:
(1) Requiring that at least 20 % of the units in all multi-unit housing development applications are affordable rental units;
Incentivizing inclusion of more than 20 % affordable rental units in multi-unit housing developments…
(2) with a framework for fast-tracking applications that include a higher percentage (maybe 30 or 35 % instead of 20 %);
(3) by allowing greater density in the form of additional stories;
(4) by offering property tax reductions (as suggested in this year’s provincial budget);
(5) Incentivizing construction of secondary units (including construction of backyard units and conversion of suitable outbuildings such as garages, as well as basement units, attics, and other kinds of secondary units) with (i) modest subsidies toward construction costs, in the form of reduced property tax, and (ii) tax holidays on the added value of the newly constructed units of 5 years per unit (that is, the additional value of the property accruing from the new units won’t be taxed for 5 years in the case of one new unit, 10 years in the case of two new units, or 15 years in the case of three or more). This policy could be combined with a review of regulations regarding construction of secondary units, with an eye to relaxing these regulations somewhat, where feasible, in order to further promote their construction;
(6) Requiring that any rental housing that’s demolished must be replaced with at least as many units of new rental housing (potentially as part of a larger development with greater density that includes some condominiums as well as the required number of rental units).
It could take some years for a 6-point program like this to result in a substantial increase in the rental vacancy rate, whereas the rental market crisis is acute and urgent. With this in mind, after a period of maybe a year (or less) from the introduction of the 6–point program, the City could conduct a preliminary evaluation of this set of policies, if not in terms of its effect on actual rental vacancy rates (since data regarding the actual vacancy rate may not be a valid indicator because not enough time will have passed for the effect of the policies to be evident), then in terms of the number and characteristics of development applications to the City. If the desired effect turns out to be absent, then Council should consider, as a further measure to encourage rental construction, a short-term temporary MORATORIUM ON APPROVAL OF APPLICATIONS FOR CONDOMINIUM DEVELOPMENTS until the rental vacancy rate increases to some specific criterion, such as 5 %. Another measure that should also be considered if the greater availability created by this gentler 6-point program turns out to be insufficient to bring rental costs down to an affordable level (taking 30 % of the median income for Victoria households as the benchmark for ‘affordability’) is a RENT FREEZE.
In a market where rents are high and the vacancy rate is low, landlords will often try to get around regulations on rent increases and bring in more rent by evicting current (often long-term) tenants, carrying out some (often very minor) renovations or repairs, and then putting the property on the market again for a much higher rent. As one might expect, such so-called ‘RENOVICTIONS’ have the effect of driving up rents across the board. The City should persuade the Province to enable municipal governments to DISCOURAGE RENOVICTIONS THROUGH TAXATION, through a new tax on renovictions unless there’s an increase in the number of rental units. In the context of a market rental housing emergency, renovictions and demolition of rental stock should obviously be closely regulated by municipal statute.
The City of Victoria will work with the provincial and federal governments to establish a HOUSING SECURITY FUND (as in Thunder Bay, Ontario: http://www.tbdssab.ca/files/3214/9866/2012/HSF_pamphlet_25feb17_-AS_JL_2.pdf). This fund will be created to assist people at risk of homelessness to keep their housing and to assist homeless people with finding and retaining housing.
City staff will assist in the formation of a TENANTS’ UNION (as in Vancouver, in Seattle, and numerous places in Australia – including Victoria) to protect the rights of tenants and enhance the ability of renters to protect themselves from unfair landlord practices.
TENANT POWER – Vancouver Tenants Union
>> REAL ESTATE MARKET POLICY
Greater Victoria needs several thousand new single-family houses every year, a rate which, if it was maintained for a decade or more, might be sufficient to start driving down both real estate prices and the cost of rent. Over the last four years – a period coinciding almost perfectly with the current Mayor and Council’s term in office – the median price of a house in Victoria has increased by nearly 50 %, from $500,000 to close to $750,000. As difficult as it may be to imagine such a market becoming even more super-heated, the Real Estate Investment Network predicts that Victoria is on the verge of a real estate boom. Clearly, the time to act is now, and swift and decisive action is required if further escalation of Victoria’s real estate crisis is to be avoided.
The real estate market crisis is the most difficult of Victoria’s three housing crises for governments to influence, especially at the municipal level. While other causes have also been identified, many observers believe Victoria’s runaway real estate prices are driven largely by wealthy foreign buyers who in many cases are mainly motivated by a desire to acquire Canadian properties as overseas investments. The most effective tools for addressing this circumstance are taxes of various kinds, and earlier this year, the provincial government moved in this regard with expansion of the Foreign Buyer’s Tax, and a Speculation Tax. (The only alternative to a taxation strategy would seem to be to greatly increase supply, an approach that would entail a significant escalation of the rate of urban sprawl.)
More tax-based measures and stronger tax-based measures are possible, though, and Mayor and Council should focus on working with the provincial government to facilitate 4 in particular:
(1) The provincial government has extended the Foreign Buyer’s Tax previously limited to Vancouver to other areas (Victoria, Nanaimo, Kelowna), and increased this tax from 15 % to 20 %, to reduce foreign demand for BC real estate. This tax was increased because at 15 %, its effect wasn’t strong enough, but if it was ineffective at 15 % it will also be ineffective at 20 %. Mayor and Council should work to persuade the Province to levy this tax at the rate of 30 % instead of 20 % in Victoria (or potentially throughout the entire Capital Regional District), with the additional revenue going to fund policies addressing homelessness in Victoria (or the CRD, as the case may be).
(2) Mayor and Council should work with the Province to make it possible for local authorities to introduce an annual Foreign OWNER’S Tax in Victoria (or potentially throughout the CRD), partially refunded depending on income tax paid by the owner(s) in BC (indicating participation in the BC economy). Revenue raised with this tax would go to fund programs addressing homelessness.
(3) Mayor and Council should also work with the Province to facilitate an Empty Homes Tax for Victoria (or potentially for the CRD) on homes that are not occupied, regardless of whether the owner is a BC resident or pays income tax in BC (a condition stipulated in the provincial Speculation Tax) and regardless of whether the property is empty as a result of speculation or flipping, or for some other reason. The proceeds of this tax will also go toward funding programs aimed at getting homeless people housed. In the context of a housing crisis, keeping homes unoccupied should be strongly discouraged, and owners who persist in doing so should make a special contribution toward the cost of housing people without homes.
(4) The provincial government recently increased the Property Transfer Tax on properties worth $3M or more from 3 % to 5 %, in order to discourage speculation by making it slightly less profitable. Mayor and Council should work to persuade the Province to increase the transfer tax to 10 % instead of 5 % for Victoria (or the CRD), and to apply it in Victoria to homes selling for $2M or more. Again, revenues would go to fund policies addressing homelessness.
Another policy an energetic city government can adopt in the face of a real estate crisis is to actively encourage renting, to reduce runaway demand in the real estate market and the market distortions this causes. Because of its prohibitively pricy real estate market, Victoria is something of an exception in this regard (this point will be revisited momentarily), but generally speaking, home ownership rates are much higher in Canada as a whole (68 %) than in many comparable industrialized countries, like Germany, Switzerland and Austria. In Victoria, the prohibitive real estate market itself has in effect already been tending to encourage renting, and Mayor and Council can contribute by publicly promoting the advantages of renting and dissuading renters from pursuing entry into the real estate market as a goal.
CRISIS CALLS FOR ACTION. In its budget earlier this year, the provincial government committed to spend $5M on housing need assessments. Assessments are great of course – certainly nothing wrong with evidence-based decision making, right? – but many specific needs are plainly obvious and the City needs to act immediately on these. Victoria’s housing crisis is severe and acute and calls for decisive action on a large scale, without delay.
GOVERNMENTS COULD CHANGE. The situation is all the more urgent when we consider that it’s quite likely the present socially benevolent provincial government could fall at any time, to be replaced by a government much less inclined to implement policies that don’t directly serve the explicit interests of society’s elite. The same could be said about the current relatively extravagant federal Liberal government, which could conceivably be replaced next year by a miserly Conservative one, or by a Liberal minority government with much less freedom to spend on policies like social housing or even supporting the creation of market rental housing.
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY. We may presently be in a narrow window of opportunity during which new progressive initiatives with regard to social housing, market rental housing and real estate markets are possible. Because this window could well close at any time in the near future, the City of Victoria needs a Mayor prepared to act quickly and energetically while the opportunity exists to pursue policies, projects and sources of funding to ease our community’s multifaceted housing crisis.