Easing the Squeeze – Housing Affordability

A recurring theme across our region is lack of housing affordability  


Media reports, the Victoria Foundation’s annual Vital Signs Report and story after story on homelessness and poverty all point to one undeniable reality — Greater Victoria’s housing is expensive, pushes up the overall cost of living and creates real barriers, not just for those on lower incomes or living in poverty, but also for younger families, middle income earners, students, those planning to retire and the retired.

In a Vancity Credit Union report released this week, titled “Falling Behind:  Retirement Realities in BC’s Two Largest Cities,” it warns that because of Victoria’s high housing prices and related higher cost of living, “without a significant change in this trend, retirement may be out of reach for many young British Columbians, especially in Vancouver and Victoria.”  Using Stats Can statistics, the Vancity report shows that “23% of Victorians contributed to a RRSP in 2012, well behind other major cities such as Montreal and Calgary, where about 30% of earners put savings into RRSPs.”  While the number of Canadian earners making contributions to RRSPs has declined across the country, the decline is especially “steep in Victoria, dropping 11 per centage points among earners age 45 and under.  This adds to another trend that shows that the annual amount that Victoria residents contribute to RRSPs is dropping faster than the national average.”

The Vancity report also comes on the heels of a recent announcement by the University of Victoria (UVic), that student housing fees will increase by 13% this fall.  The university reports that it had over 5,000 applications last year for just 2,300 on campus spaces.  Housing affordability is identified as a major concern for students, one that should concern all of us in this region.  The university is not only a key educational asset but also helps drive our local economies.  Post-secondary education is significant to our future as a region, a province and a country; barriers to accessible and affordable student housing should therefore be reduced for students wanting to attend UVic, one of the top ten among Canadian universities.

My suggestion to begin addressing student housing affordability is to develop a partnership between UVic, the CRD housing authority, the municipalities of Oak Bay and Saanich (UVic is located in both municipalities) and the province, to focus on the need for affordable accessible student housing and to implement a strategy to address this challenge.  I am certain such an initiative would also have the support of the University of Victoria Student Society (UVSS), an important student voice on campus.

The issue of high property values and housing costs in this region are not new, especially in some of our individual municipalities in the CRD.  Two communities come to mind, North Saanich and Oak Bay, where property values have been consistently higher for a number of years.  Having served on Municipal Council and bought and sold homes in both communities within the past 5 years, it’s clear that high housing prices and their impact on increases to the cost of living, suggest that this scenario is not sustainable for the long term.  Affordability was in fact cited by last year’s Vital Signs Report as one of the leading concerns of survey respondents living in Greater Victoria.

We know that not only does affordability affect ordinary citizens, we see it starkly played out among our most vulnerable residents.  For example, while the CRD announced this past week new grant approvals to build affordable rental housing, we know that the region is still approximately 1,500 beds short of meeting housing needs for the homeless.  Below market rental housing and single family housing are not easily accessible in Greater Victoria.  But hats off to Langford, a community that continues to make a real effort to reduce housing costs and open up the community to young families, singles and seniors seeking more reasonable affordable housing costs.

So what are the answers to this growing problem of affordability?  How do local, provincial and federal governments work together in making affordability and lower housing prices priorities for the future?  Provincial and federal governments can start by developing and implementing an Affordable Housing Policy that will establish a variety of strategies to reduce the associated challenge of high housing costs and cost of living.  It will take real political will and the cooperation of public and private sector organizations to commit to a collaborative action plan.

We have talked a lot about affordability during recent years and through partnerships between governments and other key stakeholders, I believe answers can be found to “ease the squeeze.”  It won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight but the future of local communities, economies and quality of life depends on our ability to work on this together.

Postscript:  In response to my article, the Victoria Residential Builders Association sent me a breakdown of fees that are hampering housing affordability.  You can read it here: http://bit.ly/1yNo4Ei 

I also had a response from Camosun College, suggesting that they should be included in this article.  I did not reference Camosun College students because there is no on-campus student housing there.  But I agree that housing affordability is an issue for students across our region and Camosun College is another post-secondary asset in Greater Victoria that needs safe and affordable housing for its students.