Opinion: Province should give cities the authority and resources they need to build housing faster

Opinion: Cities should be empowered to use the Federal Housing Acceleration Fund to meet the needs of each community, including hiring staff, updating permit systems and acquiring land to make the work

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People who work in our cities cannot afford to live there. Young people cannot buy houses. Families live in spaces that are too small for their needs because that is what they can afford. The students live in vans. Too many people are homeless. All this is not new, it has been in the making for years. And now is the crisis.

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Our province is home to four of the fastest growing communities in Canada, with over 100,000 people migrating to British Columbia in 2021. That year, only 47,607 new homes were started. Keeping up with this rate of growth is putting a strain on municipalities. For example, in a few months, rents in Victoria and Vancouver jumped 20% between the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022.

The recent federal budget and guidance from the office of provincial housing minister David Eby, taken together – and in partnership with cities – could begin to solve the real crisis that is upon us.

The 2022 federal budget pledges to double the number of new homes built over the next 10 years. The federal government’s rallying cry that “this must become a great national effort and will require a new spirit of collaboration” can only be achieved with cities as partners. With the right tools, resources and powers, our municipalities will achieve these ambitious goals.

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As mayors, we see too many of our residents still experiencing homelessness. And we hear about the impact of people living in public spaces on our small businesses. The local, provincial and federal collaboration developed during the pandemic, where the Federal Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI) enabled the rapid construction of supportive housing in nearly all of our communities, is the foundation to build on. The 2022 budget shows good intentions that must be followed by concrete actions to succeed.

We are pleased to see an additional $1.5 billion investment from RHI to continue to address homelessness, and we will work hard to help ensure BC gets its share of funding in this round. We are also grateful for the continued doubling of funding for Reaching Home. This is a direct federal investment in our communities to address homelessness and deliver much-needed programs and services to the most vulnerable.

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We are concerned that there is not more funding for urban Indigenous homelessness: $300 million over five years is insufficient to meet the needs of Indigenous people displaced from our streets by the effects of colonization and of the residential school system. More needs to be done to properly house Indigenous people who are disproportionately represented, and that housing needs to be Indigenous-led.

The housing cornerstone of Budget 2022 is the $4 billion Housing Acceleration Fund; this is where we can really take action. To be effective, the program must be easy to access and as flexible as possible. Cities should be empowered to use the funding to meet the needs of each community, including hiring staff, updating permit systems, streamlining processes, acquiring land, and other solutions that will enable get the job done faster and see more homes built. There is no shortage of housing requests, we just need the capacity and the resources to expedite them.

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Housing Accelerator funding should flow to local governments without the need for provincial matching funding or project approval in advance. By working with the provincial government, as municipal leaders, we can leverage this funding ourselves.

David Eby recently made headlines with the need to see local governments approve more housing faster. We are ready to take up the challenge. In 2019, the provincial government passed a law requiring local governments to conduct housing needs assessments every five years. The province should introduce legislation requiring us to build the number of homes we need in our communities. They should provide the additional authority, resources and tools needed and, with investments from the Federal Housing Acceleration Fund, leave it up to us to figure out how to get there.

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This “great national effort” of a post-pandemic housing boom will require commitments from all of us. The federal budget signals that cities are key partners in meeting this challenge. The BC Urban Mayors Caucus is ready to do just that, for our residents and businesses now, and for generations to come.

Mayors Colin Basran, City of Kelowna; Henry Braun, City of Abbotsford; Malcolm Brodie, City of Richmond, Ken Christian, City of Kamloops, Jonathan Côté, City of New Westminster; Lyn Hall, City of Prince George; Fred Haynes, District of Saanich; Lisa Helps, City of Victoria; Mike Hurley, City of Burnaby; Leonard Krog, City of Nanaimo; Doug McCallum, City of Surrey; Richard Stewart, City of Coquitlam, Kennedy Stewart, City of Vancouver

Letters to the editor should be sent to provletters@theprovince.com. The editor of the editorial pages is Hardip Johal, who can be contacted at hjohal@postmedia.com.

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