Housing is fundamental to health. This should come as no surprise, especially in a country with Canada’s climate. The health impacts of being homeless or living in poor quality housing are well understood and should be obvious to everyone.
But it’s not just homelessness that’s of concern – there’s a much bigger issue of affordability. Lack of affordable housing can significantly affect people’s physical, mental and social well-being.
In a July 2021 report commissioned by the City of Victoria, local housing and homelessness researcher Nicole Chaland noted, “Homelessness exists in the context of the affordable housing crisis. Shortages of affordable housing for the lowest income groups drive new flows into homelessness and prevent exits from homelessness.
She reported that according to 2016 census data, 10,480 CRD households with incomes below $23,536 met the definition of extreme core housing need by spending half or more of their income on rent. Another 2,500 households with incomes between $23,536 and $44,456 were also in extreme core housing need.
The situation is particularly serious in the city of Victoria. An October 2020 report by the CRD noted that 61% of Victoria households are renters, vacancy rates are low, rental costs have increased over the past 15 years and there have been “ little development of new units on the main rental market”.
The problem is simple and not new: there is not enough affordable housing for low- and middle-income families in this region.
Much of the blame must be placed on the federal government, which dropped support for social housing in the early 1990s. This resulted in “drastic reductions in the number of affordable housing units available,” notes the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. .
In Canada, the right to housing has finally been given legal recognition in the National Housing Strategy Act of 2019, notes the National Housing Rights Network. The network adds, “It means recognizing that everyone has the ‘right to live somewhere in safety, peace and dignity,’” as the UN puts it.
The law “requires the government to implement reasonable policies and programs to ensure the right to housing for all as soon as possible. It also means prioritizing vulnerable groups and those most in need of housing,” and it establishes a National Housing Council and a Federal Housing Advocate.
But guaranteeing the right to housing is not only a national problem; it’s also local, as University of Washington professor Gregg Colburn and his colleague Clayton Aldern point out in a recent interview with Seattle’s Sightline Institute about their book. Homelessness is a housing problem.
“Homelessness should be understood as a problem related to the lack of access to housing,” they say. “It’s a market failure. People are forced out of stable housing or are unable to access it when housing markets do not provide sufficient and affordable options.
Simply put, an insufficient increase in the housing stock drives up prices, which is particularly problematic for low-income households.
So it’s good news that the City of Victoria’s Rapid Affordable Housing Development By-law will go to a public hearing on April 14th. and increases costs and makes it difficult for nonprofits to deliver homes to the most vulnerable people in our community.
It therefore proposes changes to streamline the process specifically for the relatively small number of proposals each year for “housing wholly owned and/or operated by a registered non-profit residential housing corporation or government agency.”
Essentially, proposals for such development that meet design guidelines, fit within existing residential zoning, and do not exceed the density permitted by the Official Community Plan could be approved by the Director of Sustainable Planning and Community Development, and not be submitted to the council. Together, these changes will result in “a time saving of three to nine months”.
This addresses a key aspect of affordability and will help improve the well-being of the most vulnerable and low-income people. This will be followed by policies for ‘villages and corridors’ and the ‘missing link’, which will help further. More on that soon.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior researcher in the School of Public Health and Social Policy at the University of Victoria.