July 13, 2016 - 6:30 AM
HOMELESSNESS JUST ONE FACET OF RENTAL HOUSING CRISIS, SAYS MAYOR
KELOWNA - Mayor Colin Basran says he’s hearing plenty from residents affected by the rental housing crunch in Kelowna which is why he thought it necessary to release a "guest column" to local media last week.
“I have received emails from residents in our community who are having a hard time finding housing,” Basrans admits. “I think it’s important to get the message out in regards to what the city is doing to address the situation.”
Kelowna has been suffering from a razor thin rental vacancy rate of .7 per cent, leaving people scrambling to find decent accommodation in a competitive market.
Basran argues local governments have limited means to deal with sociai issues but can influence housing development and says Kelowna has responded in many ways to what wasn’t much of a problem just four years ago.
“This is cyclical. It was only four years ago where we had a lot of vacant homes, condos in particular, and there wasn’t enough renters to fill them. We had a high vacancy rate,” the mayor says.
“I would dare say with all the approvals of units set to come on line in the next couple of years, we will see a rise in the vacancy rate,” he predicts.
Basran suggests those approvals amount to a seven-per cent increase in the rental housing supply in 2016. Kelowna has about 14,000 rental units of all kinds, including secondary suites, condos and carriage houses.
What his column doesn't address is the timing. Basran admits he’s not even sure when the 300-plus rental units approved in 2015 (the majority of them micro-suites) will become available, let alone those approved this year.
“The timing is unfortunate and this won’t be resolved quickly. This happens to be one of those perfect storms and it’s unfortunate there’s been lots of people affected by this,” Basran concedes.
He says the problem is multi-faceted and includes dealing with the city’s homeless population, a constant source of complaints for Basran from residents and visitors alike.
B.C. Housing recently announced the conversion of a local motel into 55 low-income units for people in addictions recovery, adding to 300 transition housing units Basran says Kelowna has, along with 1,000 supported living units, another 1,334 with subsidized rent plus 400 units under rental agreements or assisted ownership.
But Basran also includes bylaw enforcement as part of the strategy, though he denies they are there simply to move the homeless along.
“A lot of people see bylaw as riding around on bikes ticketing the homeless but just getting them to move on just pushes the problem into other neighbourhoods,” Basran says.
“We’re moving to a different model. Sometimes that means working with local agencies to place them in housing, sometimes that means lobbying for a mental health strategy because the majority of the homeless have mental health issues and yes, sometimes that means working with bylaw to ensure public safety.”
Here’s the text of Mayor Basran’s column:
“A lot of people want to live in Kelowna, which is good because it brings new energy to our city and leads to a more diverse population. As an open and inclusive city, we work to make sure people from all walks of life can find their place in our community.
One of the fastest growing and most attractive places in Canada to call home, we have welcomed thousands of new residents in recent years and we constantly work to keep up with demands for more services and housing options.
But like every other growing city in Canada, it can be a challenge to accommodate our residents’ variety of needs as market conditions change.
With direction from City Council to develop policies and practices that encourage and enable more people to live here, the City of Kelowna is succeeding in keeping its doors open to people of diverse cultures, interests and incomes.
Local governments have limited control over the economy and limited resources to fix sociological issues, but housing is one area where we can try to influence development to address our community needs. Rental housing, in particular, is always in demand and is an important factor in attracting and retaining a diverse population.
In recent weeks, we’ve had welcome news that BC Housing will convert a local motel into affordable apartments for rent and that an expansion of the Conservatory development will see more rental accommodation built.
To encourage more rental housing stock in Kelowna, the City offers property developers financial incentives to build. The Rental Housing Grants program provides up to $320,000 in annual grants to offset Development Cost Charges for purpose-built rental housing projects. Last year was the first time we exceeded our annual 300-unit target for purpose-built rentals, with a total of 329 units receiving grants.
This trend has continued into 2016. Counting all purpose-built rental housing projects recently completed, projects with building permits issued, and projects in the development approval process – it adds up to 1,048 units of purpose-built rental housing to be completed or underway in 2016.
With more than 14,000 homes that form part of Kelowna’s rental inventory, the addition of 1,048 homes represents a seven per cent supply increase.
In addition to the grant incentives, purpose-built rental projects across the city can also benefit from 10-year tax exemptions. These two incentive programs have helped spur development of a variety properties to meet the needs of the 28 per cent of the local population who currently rent.
For the first time ever in Kelowna, multiple-family residential development permits outnumbered single-family permits in 2015 – 59 per cent to 40 per cent. Compare that to 2011, when the number of single-detached units developed accounted for 78 per cent of permits, compared to 21 per cent for multi-family units.
The ever-changing, cyclical nature of real estate and the economy means the supply of available housing options always fluctuates and is rarely in sync with current demand. Right now, Kelowna’s rental vacancy rate is 0.7 per cent. Less than four years ago, it was four per cent.
In the next few years, as the development community reacts to current market conditions, the vacancy rate will probably go up again as more purpose-built rental properties come on the market.
Simplifying the application process for secondary suites has also increased the stock of this form of affordable rental accommodation. Nearly 350 fully licensed suites came on the market in 2015, compared to 100 units in 2012 before the application process changed. An additional 25 carriage houses were also built in 2015.
Looking at the whole continuum of housing needs in Kelowna, the City, BC Housing and our community partners also work to meet more specific needs. There are currently more than 200 beds for the homeless, nearly 300 beds/housing units for those in transition from homelessness/addictions, more than 1,000 units dedicated to supported living, more than 1,334 housing units with subsidized rents, and another 400-plus units with affordable rents or assisted home ownership.
The community agencies operating these facilities – many of them on a small scale spread throughout the city – are experienced and well-respected service providers that work cooperatively with the City.
Council and the city’s administration believe that having a safe place to live is a fundamental first step toward stabilizing lives and building the capacity to move on to bigger and better things in life.
While we advocate and plan for housing options to meet all needs, the city also works with community partners to assist those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
It takes a multi-faceted approach – sometimes that’s bylaw enforcement when required, other times it’s collaborating with a community agency to provide our homeless population with resources and amenities they need.
A new Social Development Manager for the City of Kelowna will continue this work and bring a focus to gathering research, collaborating with partners and developing strategies to address our community’s unique challenges and needs.
I hope this information is helpful to show how seriously the City takes the issue of housing and how it is always looking for opportunities to expand our stock of housing options for a spectrum of incomes.”
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