Thursday, November 12, 2015


There has been a good facebook discussion on affordable housing prompted by Wolfgang Duntz's Rezoning Proposals for Parkview Slopes.  This development proposal is for a couple of lots on Cates Hill below and west of Rivendell and Artisan Square.

A feature of this proposal is affordable housing of different kinds, including housing intended to be affordable to own through a leasing arrangement.  There are a number of issues with land leasing (including what happens if the leaseholder ever goes bankrupt, because there can be liabilities for municipalities in these cases).  But in general ANYTHING we can do to provide affordable housing option on Bowen is a good thing.

However, that doesn't mean we can't be strategic.  And that means understanding our context.  As I see it we have two kinds of affordability challenges on Bowen.  We require housing for people that live and work on the island as low wage employees, making something between minimum wage and say, $20 an hour.  These are the people that staff the bricks and mortar businesses on the island and make it possible for us to be more than a bedroom community.  In general these people rent housing and are unable anywhere in the Lower Mainland to develop equity in property.  They are island-based renters, although they are increasingly commuting from cheaper digs on the east side of Vancouver.  Several of your favourite people on Bowen make that reverse commute every day. Currently the on-island renters are living in the few apartments we have around Bowen, or in basement suites or shared houses.  Their housing situations are not secure or stable, and the rents are essentially set at the level that allows the owner to cover the costs of the building: mortgage and taxes.  They get kicked out when the market spikes and the owner wants to sell.

The other kind of affordability need we have is for affordable ownership.  This is a Lower Mainland problem and because of that it creates a special problem for our first class of renters.  Whenever an "affordable" home comes on the market (and I'm talking less than average, let's say $3-500,000) it gets snapped up immediately by folks looking for affordable home ownership.  These are people capable of paying a downpayment, which in general is not your labourer, cashier or retail staff person.  The result is that we could build 1000 "affordable" homes that would do nothing to create any new housing stock for on-island renters.  It would just bring 1000 new people to Bowen who previously were struggling to make ends meet in Vancouver.  Belterra is a recent example, and although several islanders moved there, several more also arrived to be a part of the co-housing development (and don't get me wrong, they're awesome!).

So how to fix this?

Well, there are a number of things that we could try but they would be counter cultural on Bowen Island.  One major reason for this is that they have to operate outside of the market, and that makes these proposals a non-starter for some people.  Some of these things include:

  • Subsidized social housing
  • Trailers owned and rented out by a housing authority
  • Restrictions on AirBnB and VRBO rentals which take available housing out of the rental stock in order for owners to rent their places out on weekends.  (San Francisco is already confronting this)
  • Allowance for liveaboards on boats. 
  • Encouragement and perhaps subsidy of some kind for business owners to build apartments above their businesses to house their employees.

It is just not going to be enough to build more houses that are smaller and cheaper than the existing stock.  We need low rent housing that is protected for on-island workers.  This is so totally out of the box in BC right now that I expect lots of push back for an idea like this.  But it is common in many other parts of the world, and perhaps our new federal government will have a different and progressive take on addressing affordability in market-bubble zones.  Not all housing has to be market based.  And part of ensuring that your own home has a high value is that you live in a community with the kinds of amenities that can only be provided by the folks that serve your coffee, beer and sandwiches, that fix your roof, repair your boat, clean your house look after your kids and take care of your elderly neighbours.

What do you think?