As governments manoeuvre to battle the affordability crisis in and around Vancouver, social and non-profit housing projects are emerging as key tools in their arsenals.
In the past two months, the province announced $500 million in funding for affordable housing and the City of Vancouver vowed to build 650 below-market rental homes on municipal land. This summer, Ottawa earmarked an extra $150 million over two years for affordable homes in B.C.
That may all sound like a lot. But as international experts will show at next week’s city-ledRe:Address housing summit, it’s far from a world-class effort.
Consider the case of Vienna, the capital of Austria and home of Kurt Puchinger, a housing administrator and one of the scheduled speakers at next week’s summit. About 60 per cent of Vienna’s 1.7 million residents live in subsidized housing, according to the city’s government. In comparison, about nine per cent of Vancouver’s housing stock is social, supportive or non-market co-op (not counting shelters).
Vienna’s social housing includes more than 220,000 city-owned flats and a fleet of subsidized, owner-occupied homes. The subsidies are financed in part through taxes and other revenues that amount to about $650 million per year. The city tops that up with its own funds as needed and based on housing demand.
A big part of new social housing in Vienna is delivered by the city’s non-profit housing associations, which number around 200. They collectively own and manage more than 135,000 apartments (growing by roughly 15,000 each year) and manage another 650,000. The associations receive tax breaks and re-invest their profit into housing.
Kathleen Llewellyn-Thomas, Vancouver’s general manager of community services, said that based on what she’s observed, non-profits “can play a huge role” in delivering housing — not just for people with very low incomes, but moderate earners as well. The city is in the middle of a rethink of its housing and homelessness strategy and looking at a range of ways to boost its supply of affordable homes that include non-profit partnerships.
“I’m in a very open-minded, and almost discovery mindset to see what others are doing and what is the best use of the city’s resources in terms of creating the community that we want to have here,” Llewellyn-Thomas told Postmedia News, adding that “we want it to be a diverse community. We don’t want it to just be the very rich.”
Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira Property Management, a non-profit housing provider in Vancouver, said she believes organizations like hers could bring even more to the housing sector in the coming years. While the city has been piloting its own affordable housing ideas in recent months, she contended that non-profits are better suited than government to innovate and partner with the private sector.
“We’d certainly like to be bigger and more involved partners,” Abbott said of Atira.
When asked if she thought Vancouver could become more like Vienna, she said: “Can it happen? Absolutely. Should it happen? Absolutely.”
But she said it was key that governments support non-profits in owning their own sites. When they do, non-profits are able to leverage the sites they own to build new homes in times when public funding dries up, she explained.
For Paul Kershaw, an associate professor at the University of B.C.’s school of population and public health, and the founder of Generation Squeeze, more subsidized housing can certainly help. But he said that even if governments were ambitious enough to double the stock of below-market housing, most people would still need to rely on the market to provide homes.
“We ultimately need the market to remind itself that its first purpose is to provide an efficient supply of suitable homes that are in reach for what people can earn,” Kershaw said. That is not happening in Vancouver, nor is it happening in surrounding cities, where housing prices are overextending renters and buyers alike, he added.