"Complacency is not an option"—Attainable Housing Committee presents findings that demand action

Andrew Bennett
By Andrew Bennett
July 25th, 2012

The times they are a-changing and housing in the Lower Columbia region needs to meet new demands on several levels, Attainable Housing Committee (AHC) chairperson Janet Morton told Rossland’s council on July 16.

Last year the AHC—a committee of the LCCDT (Lower Columbia Community Development Team)—hired consultant Matt Thomson of Gibsons, BC, to  conduct interviews and review existing data and literature to study the entire spectrum of housing needs in the region, from publicly and government-funded housing at one end—such as emergency shelters and special needs housing—to market housing at the other end, both rented and owned.


Based on the needs assessment and strategic plan prepared by Thomson, Morton told Rossland’s council, “Complacency is not an option.”


She cited a few key statistics to support her sense of urgency, highlighting three “priority populations”: seniors, low income households, and the homeless or hard-to-house. Each of these groups faces particularly vexing housing challenges in the LCR.


Demographics tell part of the story. In 2006, about 19 percent of the LCR’s population was over 65; by 2021, it will be more than 25 per cent. Compare that to BC as a whole: in 2006, only 14 per cent of BC’s population was over 65.


The demographic bulge is the opposite for populations younger than 45 years of age. In 2006, only 48 per cent of LCR’s population was 44 years old or younger, compared to 56 per cent for BC as a whole.


The AHC predicts that the LCR will have to increase the number of housing units dedicated to seniors by 41 per cent before 2021 to meet the needs of people in their golden years.


The problem is heavily compounded by the available housing stock. By and large, houses in the Lower Columbia region (LCR) are too large, too old, and in need of too many repairs to satisfy the demands of this rapidly aging population who prefer modern, low maintenance homes with little yard if any at all.


Instead, LCR’s housing stock consists of 80 per cent single detached family homes, complete with multiple rooms, levels, a yard, and likely outbuildings as well. BC’s housing stock as a whole is only 49 per cent single family homes.


Single family homes are also more expensive to buy and pay tax for than smaller units. The average price of a single detached house in the LCR in 2010 was $229,000. 


Worse, housing in the LCR is much older than the average in BC, and older even than nearby Castlegar. About 66 per cent of LCR homes are more than 40 years old, and 90 per cent are more than 25 years old. By comparison, those numbers are  31 per cent and 62 per cent respectively for BC, and 44 per cent and 76 per cent for Castlegar.


Older homes typically need more repairs, and the numbers bear it out.  About 45 per cent of LCR homes require either major or minor repairs—compare that to 32 per cent for BC as a whole, and 42 per cent for Castlegar.


It’s not just our elders who will increasingly face difficulties getting a roof over their heads in this region. New families moving to the region face similar difficulties, and Morton reported that lack of appropriate housing has been dissuasive for some people. In general, Morton said, young home buyers want modern, low maintenance houses too.


Morton also suggested that families may be attracted out of the LCR by the relatively young houses available in Castlegar.


Supporting this possibility, Castlegars’ population increased at more than double the rate of the LCR’s between 2006 and 2011—the LCR’s population increased by 3.3 per cent and the number of households increased by 3.8 per cent; ove the same period, Castlegar’s numbers increased by 7.3 per cent and 8.1 per cent respectively.


Low-income households have problems in the LCR much as they do across BC. Morton explained that “core housing need” is used to measure the notion of housing affordability. Briefly, a household is in core housing need if more than 30 per cent of the household’s total income would have to be spent to pay rent for acceptable housing—i.e. a house with enough rooms and not in need of major repairs.


Approximately 17 per cent of all LCR households—some 1397 households—are in core housing need. Some 40 per cent of rental households—645 households—are in core housing need.


Worse off again are the “hard to house.” Although some of the region’s homeless live in the woods, the majority are couch surfers in questionable conditions, Morton said, and the majority gravitate to Trail.


Morton advocated a “housing first” approach as a cost effective strategy to reduce the social ills that homelessness perpetuates.


Rossland has made great progress in recent years towards addressing the issues Morton raised.


Recent zoning changes approved by council favour “infill” development and higher densities close to the urban core, encouraging smaller, modern, more affordable homes. Council has also consistently approved minor modifications to land title and zoning variances to allow home owners to increase the housing capacity of their lots.


The Sustainability Commission and FortisBC’s Energy Diet initiative has already helped at least 135 households (and more to come) to access funding to modernize their homes for energy efficiency.


Nevertheless, these changes also face opposition, sometimes even from people within the groups these changes are intended to help.


At the same council meeting that Morton presented the AHC findings, for example, senior citizen and Rossland resident Beryl Davis rose at the public input period to criticize council for their approval of the very bylaw changes intended to increase Rossland’s stock of small modern homes.


“You are changing a single dwelling area into a multiple dwellings,” she said about a recent bylaw change. “There will be congestion of parking.”


Rather than benefits to senior citizens in town who would like to move into smaller, lower maintenance, modern units, Davis saw the profit motive at work: “It seems you’re bending over backwards to accommodate an entrepreneur,” she said.


Ultimately, in addition to municipal-level changes, Morton advocated for regional responses to these regional issues, and a “coordinated” approach to trying to secure funding opportunities for the benefit of everyone from the hard-to-house to home buyers looking for more (or less) than a single family miner’s shack.

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