OTHER VOICES: Transportation key to housing affordability

David Hutniak is quite right when he says we can no longer ignore the rental supply crisis across the Lower Mainland. And, it will likely get worse.

The CEO of Landlord BC explains (in his Oct. 23 letter to the editor) very clearly why the City of North Vancouver is no exception: it’s a municipality with little room to grow but up, where the vacancy rate is 0.2 per cent in and around Central Lonsdale, and where more than 90 per cent of the existing rental stock is at least 35 years old. What’s a municipality to do?

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Enter applications such as that of Hollyburn Properties, whose proposal before the city barely passed (4-3) on Oct. 17. Yet, here is a project that adds 144 rental units where there are none, on a site where no residents are evicted, and as Mr. Hutniak mentions, the project increases the number of three bedroom units by 50 per cent. So, while the Hollyburn building does add significantly to the rental supply in the city, it does so only for those earning household incomes in the $75,000 to $100,000 range – what Metro Van calls the “above moderate” income group. Still, we need this supply.

But, we need more rental units all along the housing continuum, where many residents are having to pay too much for housing, sacrificing those other needs that many of us take for granted. At the centre of this continuum (which ranges from emergency and supportive housing, through non-market rental to purpose-built and secondary market rental), lies that central part that the market is unable to provide. The Hollyburn building is purpose-built market rental. And, it is located right where it should be – at an important transit nexus. As rents go, these units will not be particularly “affordable,” ranging from $1,600 (one bedroom) to $3,000 for three.

But, if you get to live in this building, you can sell your car (and maybe save about $900 a month!) and, after locking your door, arrive at YVR, or Horsehoe Bay, New Westminster, go skiing up Grouse, or get to work by SeaBus – all by transit – and quite cheaply and quickly. This housing transit connection might make buildings like Hollyburn just a little more affordable – even for those working renter households earning around the city (and district, too, for that matter) median income of $60,000, who tend to depend on transit the most. As Metro points out in its Regional Affordable Housing Strategy: good locations for affordable housing should be located near frequent transit; that is, within walking distance.

Importantly, in 2015, Metro Van published “Metro Vancouver Housing and Transportation Cost Burden Study” that set out to answer several questions about housing affordability: what is the effect on affordability when transportation costs are added to housing costs? Do working owner and renter households have different cost burdens? And, are transit-oriented locations more affordable for certain households when the housing and transportation cost burdens are considered together? The study paid particular attention to households earning less than $75,000 a year – the so-called low and moderate income bracket who, notably, comprise 37 per cent of owners with mortgages and a whopping 70 per cent of renters.

Housing costs include mortgage payments or rent, taxes, utilities, and various fees. Transportation costs include everything from car payments, fuel, parking, tolls, transit passes, and the like. So, the cost burden refers to the combined household expenditures on housing and transportation. These working renters and owners (with mortgages) represent about three quarters of all working households in the Metro region, so these are important questions – not only for residents but also for municipal councils and planners.

The study concludes that this housing and transportation cost burden “is weighing down many working households, leaving families with difficult choices about what to spend on food, clothing, child care, and other expenses.” In particular, the study reveals that low and moderate income households shoulder a heavy housing and transportation cost burden that is beyond their financial capacity. Renters are feeling it the most, significantly more than owners; living near frequent transit can make it easier.

The good news in all of this is that some sub-regions in Metro – such as the North Shore – are paying attention to this problem and are achieving some improvements in relative affordability, improvements due partly to being served by frequent transit service.

But, Metro braces itself as all 21 municipalities are struggling to find housing types and locations for the additional one million people coming to the region by 2040; transit, too, must plan seriously for this tsunami. Where will all these people live? Where will they work? How will they get around? Where will there be affordability, and for whom? These questions must be faced by us all, including residents who fear changing, rising neighbourhoods.

Mr. Hutniak doesn’t mention the transportation piece, but it must now be part of every affordability conversation – certainly as far as rental is concerned.

 

Don Peters is a housing advocate and chairman of the North Shore’s Community Housing Action Committee.

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