Prince Rupert Mayor Lee Brain and councillor Barry Cunningham.

Housing Series Part 2: City council tackles the affordable housing shortage

The City of Prince Rupert is preparing a foundation to address the crisis in the limited ways that it can

The lack of social housing in the city may be a Province of B.C. issue but the City of Prince Rupert is preparing a foundation to address the crisis in the limited ways that it can.

In Prince Rupert, residents who apply for affordable housing are placed on a waitlist that is dependent on how desperate their situation is. Applicants could wait for an unpredictable amount of time. BC Housing confirmed on Aug. 19 that Prince Rupert has 399 affordable housing units and 67 people are on the waitlist.

In conversation with Mayor Lee Brain late August, he stressed that the city isn’t responsible for housing but council is becoming more involved in the issue.

“Technically we control land use and we own land. In one way, how can we support housing. We have identified as council different lots available for potential affordable housing units,” Brain said.

When the City of Prince Rupert prepared the Planning for Major Projects report it discovered that more than 42 per cent of household renters expect to move for involuntary reasons in the next year for reasons including unaffordable rent increases and unsafe conditions.

The need to address zero vacancy, rising rents and waitlists for affordable housing is apparent and the city and Mayor Brain are developing three plans within their means.

Plan One: Work with the province

The city owns 3,000 lots but not all are zoned as housing plots. Earlier this year, council toured all the lots and decided what they would do with each one. They identified six lots the mayor said are perfect for affordable housing.

“We’re willing to give land in exchange for someone willing to build affordable housing on it. Us not charging for the land is what is going to help subsidize the cost to make it affordable to build,” he said.

Council invited the BC Housing assets team to Prince Rupert to consider developing on one or more of the lots. In March, BC Housing also visited their housing units and conducted some much-needed maintenance including power washing all sites, removing 16 abandoned vehicles, doing minor repairs on playgrounds, graffiti removal and other means to improve the appearance of the housing complexes.

The assets team also took stock of what units needed to be torn down, which is why some units are empty and remain in a state of disrepair. In August, BC Housing spokesperson Laura Mathews clarified that there are no affordable housing projects under construction but they are “currently working with stakeholders to assess the community’s existing housing stock and new development opportunities.”

In Prince Rupert, the affordable housing units are owned by BC Housing and managed by M’akola Group of Societies. The group is responsible for maintenance, repairs and tenancy. “Recently the society asked the province for extraordinary funding to complete renovations on some of their units. The province will be providing $50,000 for renovations,” Mathews said.

The province pledged $335-million for affordable housing in February. The funding will be spread over five years to construct and renovate more than 2,000 affordable housing units across the province. The mayor of Prince Rupert hopes that some of that new money will go towards construction of more units in his city.

“Our rule is when you want to build we’ll donate the lot,” Brain said, adding he’ll follow up with the province this month.

Plan Two: Affordable housing fund

As discussed in the previous article in this series, any housing project is welcome in Prince Rupert where the vacancy is next to zero.

Council passed a rezoning application for a multi-family residential development on Drake Crescent in August, and in 2015 they approved to rezone the former Baptist Church on India Avenue to be an executive accommodation.

“We’ve green lighted every project that’s come to our table,” Brain said.

Another more direct method the city plans to apply is asking that any housing project with three or more units to pay $1,000 per unit. The money will go into an affordable housing fund. For example, if a condo has 90 units, the developer will pay $90,000 to the housing fund. The city will donate the money to a non-profit housing group, such as M’akola.

“This isn’t technically law yet, but it’s our intention to go there,” Brain said.

Plan Three: Private renters

The city also plans to offer private home owners incentive to rent out a suite at a more affordable rate. If they already rent a secondary suite or they are planning to renovate a separate suite in their home with the intention of renting, the city asks they do so at a reduced rate.

“Rather than charge $1,200 a month maybe charge $800 a month and we’ll incentivize you somehow to do that. We don’t know what that looks like yet, we don’t have the framework,” Brain said.

This plan is in the early stages but the incentive may be in the form of a tax break or support for the renovations to develop a secondary suite. Stay tuned for where council goes with this plan.

What the mayor sees as the ultimate solution for the city is to create a Prince Rupert housing society. Terrace is ahead of the game with its own umbrella social housing organization — Ksan Society.  The organization runs most of the affordable housing programs in the city.

The mayor used Ksan as an example of what he wants in Prince Rupert where there are several groups who deal with various aspects of housing without the coordinated approach that an overseeing entity may bring.

The series will continue next week with an investigation on homelessness and what the North Coast Transition Society intends to do about it.

See Part One in this series here.