Lower Columbia housing woes addressed in ten year plan

Andrew Bennett
By Andrew Bennett
May 16th, 2012

Two years of work by volunteers, funders, and a consultant have recently culminated in the release of the “attainable housing needs assessment” (pdf) and the “strategic planning project,”(pdf) by the Attainable Housing Committee of the LCCDT (Lower Columbia Community Development Team).

The documents lay out a ten-year path for local governments and other interested parties to meet the housing needs and goals of the Lower Columbia Region.

Committee chair Janet Morton said both reports give insights into the condition of the region’s current housing stock, covering the gamut from issues of homelessness and affordable rentals to market housing for seniors and young people.

“As a community—by which I mean the Lower Columbia Region—we’ve tended to be a little complacent about our housing,” Morton said. “We tend to compare it to Vancouver’s housing and we think, ‘There’s tons of housing!’ But that’s not really the case in terms of suitable housing.”

Morton said the report makes it evident that much of our housing stock is older than the BC average, and old “even compared to neighbouring communities.”

“Some are well-maintained, and that’s wonderful,” Morton continued, “But what typically comes is houses that need repairs and have dated designs that don’t meet the expectations of today’s house buyers.”

A big theme in local housing is the “lack of diversity,” Morton said.

“A very large percentage is single family housing, but that does not meet all the needs in our community,” she said. “We have an increased need of small homes and condos that younger people buy as house starters, or seniors look for when they move out of their houses but want to maintain their independence.

Morton said the reports ask and answer the question, “How do we get greater diversity and address aging housing stock from a market point of view?” The reports also give a detailed analysis of “the need for housing for special groups.”

While there is “some need” for more supported or rent-assisted housing for seniors, Morton said, “there’s a much bigger need for market housing for seniors, for individuals who just want to get out of their homes and into something more self-contained.”

She said a large and aging senior population wants to leave their big yards and high maintenance houses behind for units that are more compact and modern.

Younger people are also left cold by the lack of diverse housing options. For example, Morton said, “There’s clearly a need for more rental housing for people at the lower income scale. Forty per cent of people who are renting in our region are in what’s called ‘core housing need.'”

Core housing need is defined—”somewhat arbitrarily,” Morton conceded—as renters who spend more than 30 per cent of their gross income on rent, excluding utilities. Although 40 per cent is “slightly below the BC average,” Morton said, “there are bigger issues in Trail and in Rossland [relative to the rest of the Lower Columbia.]”

“We also need to address the issue of what’s referred to as ‘homelessness,’ or what’s better described as ‘hard to house’ people,” Morton continued. “These are people who have difficulty keeping a place. Perhaps they do lots of couch surfing, or live in marginal digs with a lot of other people.”

“These are individuals who often have accompanying issues such as drug and alcohol abuse, mental health problems, relationship abuse, and so on. These are typically people who need support,” Morton said.

Although Morton volunteers for the Attainable Housing Committee along with seven other dedicated volunteers—Craig Adams of Community Futures, Donna Dean of the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary, Gail Labery of the Trail Fair Society, Gina Ironmongo of Keystone Appraisals,  Patricia Marshall-Thompson of Rossland’s Sustainability Commission, Sue Flagel of the Canadian Mental Health Association of the Kootenays, and Bert Kniss of Fruitvale’s council—Morton’s job is executive director of the Community Skills Centre in Trail.

“The centre [in partnership with Trail Career Development Services] has just been awarded an 11 month contract from the federal government to dig into the whole issue of homelessness,” Morton reported. “We’ll come up with a community plan specifically related to homelessness, and over the 11 month period we’ll have staffing available to directly work with people who are tough to house, and we’ll deal with some of those barriers.”

Some individuals may have mental health issues, for example. “In many cases there is support we can get to that person,” she said, “and very often that person doesn’t know support is available. Staff will go out and find housing options, and put the supports in place.”

On the one hand Morton is thrilled these resources will be made available for 11 months for people who really need it, “but at the end of those months we won’t have those resources any more; the program will expire. But we’ll have a better handle on it,” she said.

Other programs on the horizon that will also help the region work towards attainable housing goals include a recent call for proposals from BC Housing in partnership with the Columbia Basin Trust (CBT) to increase the availability of affordable rental housing.

“One of the big challenges we face is that all of this is being done by volunteers,” Morton said about the Attainable Housing Committee’s work. “The reports were contracted, but the implementation is volunteer driven. Clearly in the long run we need to address that.”

Morton will bring these issues to Rossland’s regular council meeting on July 16.

The attainable housing needs assessment (pdf) and strategic planning project (pdf) can be downloaded as pdf files through these links.

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