There was a time when even low-income earners could sustain their basic needs and enjoy a good quality of life, unfortunately that is no longer a reality.
Unaffordability of housing, having insufficient access to sustainable quantities of nutritious food and being unable to easily utilize alternate forms of transportation are all interconnected and create a situation where one’s quality of life is reduced and the ability for low and mid-income earners to sustain their basic needs is at greater risk. Many are one paycheck away from homelessness.
Along with the many negative social and health effects that result from unaffordability, there’s business ramifications as well since less money is able to be spent towards discretionary goods and services, and as people in the workforce move to places which are more affordable, labour shortages occur. In the end it all becomes a vicious cycle where nobody benefits.
There are many good steps we can take at the municipal level that will help make life more affordable and sustainable in our community.
- Develop long-term policies for food security and local area gardening including an inventory of City-owned land for food production and improved coordination of food systems resources and initiatives in the city.
- Allocate existing resources in parks and other departments to implement food security initiatives.
- Strengthen the relationship between the city and school district to maximize the benefit of school lands and facilities.
- Facilitate new partnerships and initiatives with citizens and groups to increase food cultivation on public and private land.
- Create a collaborative neighbourhood process with a “complete streets” lens to better address active transportation aspects of development projects within neighbourhood localized areas.
- Prioritize further development of our sidewalk infrastructure and cycling routes as per the transportation master plan in order to assist with measures that reduce reliance upon individual vehicle transportation and increase mobility aspects for residents to reach amenities.
- Support extended route coverage, rapid routes and frequency improvements prioritized by usage during RDN transit service planning.
- Initiate continuation of planning towards the downtown multimodal transportation hub project which was previously identified as a priority.
One of the most pressing issues in our community currently in regards to affordability is the lack of affordable housing and it affects both low and middle income brackets. Often when the subject of affordable housing is brought up, there are assumed connections to homelessness and their struggles, but to be clear I am approaching this issue in a broader scope (I will address homelessness and supportive housing further down).
There are many people who need affordable housing; economic conditions have changed – housing costs have dramatically increased, while wages, pensions, and other fixed incomes have not.
Housing affordability is primarily measured by the percentage of income one spends on housing, and the broadly accepted sustainable amount is 30% or less of one’s income. To put this in perspective, this is how Nanaimo measures up to that number:
- 48% of renters in Nanaimo are spending more than 30% of their income towards housing costs.
- 23% of them actually spend more than 50% of their income towards housing
- 17% of homeowners are spending more than 30% or more towards housing costs
- Based on stats and census data that means approximately 6,101 renter households and 4,490 owner households (over 10,000 or around 25% of all households in Nanaimo) are experiencing a housing affordability problem
There is no one size fits all solution for such a wide spread issue. Recognizing the influencing factors, committing to solid action and being innovative towards addressing this in a variety of ways is what will begin to solve the problem, bit by bit. This problem is being faced – and has been successfully addressed – all over the world, and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to step out of the box and get to work – and we have a strategy to get started with.
Our recently released Affordable Housing Strategy takes some solid steps forward towards addressing housing affordability here in a variety of ways. It contains five objectives, which are to:
- Increase the supply of rental housing
- Support infill and intensification in existing neighborhoods
- Diversify housing form in all neighborhoods
- Continue to support low income and special needs housing
- Strengthen partnerships
Within those objectives in the strategy, there are policy directions, key measures and priority ranges of 1-2 years, 3-5 years and 5-10 years. Overall, I am very much in support of this strategy, and all it entails. My primary concerns exist in the prioritization aspects – specifically in the 1-2 year and 3-5 year objectives. I think we can, and should, begin certain aspects in the 1-2 year timeframe, rather than the 3-5 years.
- Raise the priority of the following policy direction items, where possible, so that rather than beginning work on them at the 3-5 year mark, work begins within the 1-2 year mark towards:
- Expanding the secondary suites policy
- Supporting infill and intensification in single detached neighbourhoods
- Reducing barriers to tiny homes
- Introducing an adaptable housing policy
- Increasing community engagement and education
To move this affordable housing strategy forward in solid ways that can really assist households that are struggling to make ends meet and begin to close the gap, Council needs to be prepared to provide solid direction and oversight to ensure that the resources are available to develop the policy changes required to put the affordable housing strategy into action.
As well, a systemic barrier needs to be removed to encourage innovation that can respond to the different pieces of the puzzle that are required – that the municipality and builders work with rather than against each other towards finding solutions. That creates opportunities that benefit everyone.
- Establish an Affordable Housing Strategy Task Force with a focus on collaborating with planners, developers, other stakeholders and related expertise, and the community to draw out and explore new opportunities and concepts which can contribute towards addressing the policy directions of the Affordable Housing Strategy objectives in various ways.
- Consider whether the Affordable Housing Strategy Task Force could also be assistive towards the Community Planning and Development Committee in relation to the Affordable Housing Strategy aspects by adding focused capacity and assistance towards the research, analysis and formulation of initial drafts for affordable housing policy direction items to be advanced further by the Community Planning and Development Committee.
From a prioritization perspective, since the Official Community Plan (OCP) is up for review and is bound to be receiving various updates – I believe we should place extra weight in prioritizing measures of the Affordable Housing Strategy which are related to the OCP and the zoning bylaw so that prospective changes that are ready can be applied at the same time.
A direct example of why I think now is the time to explore opportunities and prioritize measures of the strategy related to the zoning bylaw, associated policies, and the OCP that’s up for review is this:
One of the concepts I have been formulating is one that tackles a piece of the puzzle within the subject of supporting intensification. It’s mostly OCP, zoning bylaw, and policy related, and it’s all about increasing housing density and the availability of affordable housing units through the provision of smaller lot sizes and small homes. Smaller lots yield more units per hectare and can lower costs for single family dwellings.
These smaller lots and smaller homes can be quite beautiful – those that simply want to reach their dream of home ownership with a little piece of land – to have a place of their own they can be proud to call their home – this gives them an avenue of opportunity. It’s a market that cannot be activated here until these base changes are made. It’s an opportunity that benefits residents, developers, investors, owners and the community as a whole.
But remember, this concept isn’t intended to address everything – it’s just to give an example of how we can, and need to, move forward on the pieces of the puzzle because each piece addresses a different set of needs. It requires leadership to apply vision, initiate direction, and provide oversight – and to see it through to its completion.
I would like to see the Affordable Housing Strategy Task Force flesh out this initial concept among other intensification efforts, and work with the Community Planning Development Committee to accomplish the following:
- Initiate dialogue around tackling the challenges of addressing intensification objectives and small lot home developments within this segment and with a broader scope in mind.
- Discuss OCP related aspects and work towards a plan to develop a new DPA (Development Permit Area) designated specifically for Intensive Residential Small Lot Development, of which the entire city will be designated. This helps keep things flexible, and it only applies to specific zoning measures. This would be done pursuant to Section 919.1 (1) (e) of the Local Government Act for the purpose of establishment of objectives for the form and character of intensive residential development. This is where the overarching goals and base objectives of developments of this nature would be detailed – small homes – we don’t want to go too deep here or we risk stifling innovation. The rest goes into the zoning bylaw and policies, and as varying needs arise and new ways of accomplishing intensification that is of this nature, the complexity and time required to introduce specific changes can be reduced.
- Begin drafting a new zone and associated policy which would allow much smaller single-family dwelling lot sizes than what are currently permitted in our R2 small lot zoning. The base requirements would already be defined within the OCP as described above; for zoning of this nature, an automatic inclusion into the new DPA would occur, and the specific bounds around what the new zone would permit, would be regulated through the definition of its zone and associated policy development.
- Produce the completed works and proceed towards final consultations, potential revisions, and implementation.
Whether or not the concept example I have provided resounds with you, the important point I’m trying to make here above all is that there are many pieces to the puzzle in what people need and want from housing – none of it is all encompassing and most of the changes that need to be made to enable affordable housing at a larger scale come down to policy development, bylaw updates, OCP amendments, and embracing innovation – and we need to start that now, in my opinion, not years down the road – so that it can begin to build traction.
To close on this piece, I’ll just point out one last thing. Our close neighbour – Victoria – has done well with this in their OCP and zoning bylaw implementation. They have zoning which allows very small lots and homes. Nanaimo can too. We don’t need to, and shouldn’t, entirely reinvent the wheel here as we so often see happen.
Here is how Victoria has done it:
OCP changes which encompass small lot development
Zoning for small lots
Small lot house rezoning policy package
Homelessness and Health Crisis
I am very thankful for the hard work and effort that the Nanaimo Homeless Coalition has put towards their action plan focused on addressing homelessness and the related health aspects. They have produced an excellent strategic action plan for 2018-2023, which offers solid direction and 10 strategies to help tackle the problem. There’s a lot of work to be done, and I support the strategies that the coalition has recommended. We need to begin implementing the recommendations that the city can help with.
In the Greater Victoria area, they have made a significant impact on addressing the many facets of homelessness – since 2016 they have reduced their homeless count by 18%, and just this year they secured $90 million in funding through a regional partnership with the provincial and federal government. They are well on their way towards reaching their goals.
Here in Nanaimo, the homeless population has greatly increased – the most recent point in time count shows that the minimum number of individuals experiencing absolute homelessness in Nanaimo on April 18, 2018 was 335, which was before Discontent City was established.
The need for increased supportive and supported housing and specialized health services has already been long established. There’s a lot that needs to get done and we cannot afford to delay things further – the longer we do that, the worse the problem gets for the entire community. Things are unraveling at an increasing speed and we cannot just stand by and watch it grow. We need to lead and take action, and the city as a whole will benefit as a result.