SHOULD local government be in the social housing business?
As the City of North Vancouver prepares to take possession of six apartments obtained though a 2008 development deal, several councillors aren't convinced.
In return for some additional density, DMRC Properties gave the city six free basement units in its Kimpton condominium project at 210 West 13th Street.
With the building almost complete, the city has issued a request for proposals to non-profit housing societies interested in taking on management of the suites. The RFP calls for the units to "be provided on a rent-geared-to-income basis for low to moderate income households. The city expects that the units will be rented at affordable levels to occupants who meet current housing income limit guidelines published by CMHC and BC Housing."
This means a household with a gross annual income below $33,500 would be eligible for the lone studio apartment, and those with incomes below $37,000 would qualify for one of the five one-bedrooms.
The city invites non-profits to identify any target populations such as seniors or people living with disabilities, and also asks them to explain how they will work to give city residents priority.
"I think this is pretty momentous step for the city to get involved in the direct management of suites," said Coun. Guy Heyood at a March 26 council meeting, "and it's pretty obvious from the requirement of going to RFP that this is not something in the normal course of business."
Heywood called for staff to study whether the city would be better off selling the suites and using the proceeds - estimated to be $2 million - for other housing initiatives.
The units for sale in the Kimpton start at $376,900 for a one-bedroom, and two-bedroom homes range from $679,900 to more than $1 million.
"If the objective is affordable housing, is the direct ownership of new suites the best way to proceed?" he asked. "In rough numbers, these suites were going to cost about $420 a square foot. My understanding is the retrofitting of existing rental stock that might be moving towards obsolescence is perhaps half that. So if the objective is to recapitalize affordable housing as a way to make it more affordable, I think there are better ways to do that."
Heywood also asked if municipalities should really be moving into this field, traditionally a senior government bailiwick, given the number of other capital costs facing the city.
"I think this particular approach lacks a really good rationale in terms of efficiency," he said.
"The fact that we are taking possession of brand new units that are being marketed as relatively high-end, I don't quite understand how that can address our most needy residents' housing needs," said Coun. Pam Bookham, who questioned if the Kimpton's strata fees might preclude genuinely affordable housing.
She also asked why the city hadn't already identified who ought to live in the suites.
"I think there's a problem when we don't have a target group in mind," she said. "The nebulousness of the situation concerns me."
Bookham also urged council to be cautious in taking on new responsibilities for the city.
Coun. Rod Clark noted there may be a legal dimension to obtaining the suites at below market value and then selling them. He also pointed out that any decision on the Kimpton units would be an important precedent if social housing is proposed as part of Onni's plans to redevelop the large Safeway property at 13th Street and Lonsdale Avenue.
"Personally," said Mayor Darrell Mussatto, "I think we need to get more units, and this is a great way to get units. If you look at the City of Vancouver, 20 per cent of their non-market units are in strata buildings. They get them in there as part of the rezoning."
Mussatto said he was willing to join the unanimous vote to commission the staff study, but said he worried about moving towards the sale option, which he didn't think would help create new social housing units.
"We are already in the property business," he said. "We own houses that we rent out."