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Evolving nature of our neighbourhoods

Affordable housing, densification to be hot election topic

It's early days in the civic election, but already affordable housing and the nature of neighbourhoods is gathering traction as a hot election issue.

Council candidate Carol Day launched first with an attack on the concept of coach houses and granny flats - an idea the city is looking at as a way to increase rental and affordable housing options.

While some applaud her concern about densification in Richmond neighbourhoods, others have taken serious issue with it.

De Whalen, also a council candidate, calls Day's resistance to densification a serious case of NIMBYism (not in my backyard.)

Whalen and incumbent councillor Linda Barnes, who along with Harold Steves share the Richmond Citizens Association slate, have being honing their platform, a large plank of which is the notion of "complete neighbourhoods."

A complete neighbourhood is one that has a blend of high, low and middle income groups, as well as a mix of generations and a diversity of cultures, said Whalen.

"One of the models that work is the co-op model. The way they're set up, they're required to have a mix of incomes and suite sizes, from bachelor suites to three-or four-bedroom units. If a family gets smaller, they can downsize and someone else can use that unit. That allows space for seniors, as well as families and young people."

This concept of integration needs to be incorporated into whole neighbourhoods, Whalen argued.

While most of the funding for affordable projects comes from BC Housing, there is still much municipalities can do, she added.

"There are policy tools. That's something that was talked about at the housing forum we had last year."

Last October, the Richmond Poverty Response Committee hosted a housing forum, featuring a number of speakers who focused on the role the city and grassroots community can play in creating affordable housing. A theme that emerged was that of multiple housing options.

Not only does the city need to support at-risk groups who require shelters and subsidized housing, there also needs to be a range of housing options for middle and lower income families and individuals.

This, in part, was where the idea of granny flats, coach houses and legalizing suites in single family houses has come in.

The city should also think about ideas such as establishing a "rental bank" that helps people with first and last month's rent, Whalen said.

"They've tried it in Maple Ridge and it's worked really well. It has a higher pay back rate than regular loans at the bank."

As well, the city needs to free up the reserve funds it has been collecting from developers for affordable housing.

This is something Coun. Greg Halsey-Brandt argued for ardently in the last civic election.

As part of the city's affordable housing strategy, it requires developers to build a certain number of units to be rented out at "affordable" rates.

However, if building such units is not feasible, for whatever reason, developers have the option of contributing money to the city's affordable housing program instead.

In a vast number of cases, developers take that second route. As a result, the city has accumulated significant funds, but still no more affordable housing.

At the time, Halsey-Brandt argued that the city needed to start putting that money to work. And that's happened, but the progress has been slower than he had hoped.

"We really need the provincial government to partner with us on these, but they just won't come to the table."

Nevertheless, he noted, some of that money has been used: A shelter for women dealing with homelessness and addiction is expected to open by the end of the month; a project is planned for a subsidized housing complex at Granville Avenue and Buswell Street; a parcel of land has been set aside for affordable housing on the Oval waterfront lands; and, despite a spectacular fire last May, the Remy Project, with it's mix of 438 market and non market units, is still expected to go ahead.

Developer Dana Westermark, who's Remy Project embodies the concept of mixed income housing, spoke at last year's housing forum. He talked about some of the challenges developers face when building affordable housing due to municipal red tap.

Halsey-Brandt agrees, the city needs to create a conducive environment for developers, but without the involvement of higher levels of government, it's still a struggle to create new stock.

The women's shelter, for example, was originally envisioned as a place for homeless women, however the city couldn't get an operating agreement with the province so turned to Turning Point, who's focus is addiction recovery. Hence the home is not just for homeless women, but homeless women recovering from addiction.

Nevertheless, it's being built and that's a good thing, according to Halsey-Brandt, although not all neighbours are on board, he added.

Again, the issue of neighbourhoods and their evolving nature is contentious. The Richmond News will continue to explore the positions of the various candidates as they bring their ideas forward in the upcoming civic election.