The amount of money that should be allocated to support affordable housing initiatives in Coquitlam was the subject of a tense debate Monday as council voted to adopt its new housing affordability strategy.
The plan calls for using one third of the proceeds of sales of three city-owned properties on Burke Mountain to jumpstart an affordable housing reserve fund, which would be leveraged to produce new residential units.
The land was designated by a previous council to be used for affordable housing but was deemed too inaccessible to transit and amenities to be suitable for low-income families.
That prompted a question from Coun. Chris Wilson: Why would the city only allocate one third of the money when 100% of the land was set aside for low-cost residential use?
Referring to the city as “Scrooge,” he noted that the loss of 700 rental units in Burquitlam due to development related to the coming Evergreen Line means council has to do more to ensure that housing is replaced. “The ratio is way out of whack,” Wilson said. “How can we ever provide affordable living if we are only putting one third of the value from those funds?”
Wilson’s comments drew criticism from several councillors, including Brent Asmundson, who said the contribution is part of a larger compromise.
Paying for affordable housing through one-time land sales and density bonusing is problematic, Asmundson added, because the funding is not consistent. A more sustainable option would be through a levy on taxpayers that would clearly show how much was being spent.
“I want to make sure the public understands that there is a cost to affordable housing,” he said. “We seem to be doing this in a way that people feel they don’t have to pay for it… We are just moving the numbers around.”
Mayor Richard Stewart said he also took exception to Wilson’s comments, noting that the was part of a larger compromise that included using property for a homeless shelter at 3030 Gordon Ave., land the city leased to the province for 70 years. “I get offended when you suggest I am Scrooge because I gave a piece of land that is much more appropriate and three times the value of the one we are selling,” he said.
A suggestion to refer the funding arrangement back to committee for further deliberation was shot down by council.
Noting he was initially against using any of the land sale proceeds for affordable housing, Coun. Terry O’Neill cautioned his colleagues about tinkering with certain aspects of the housing affordability strategy. Changing one area of the agreement could lead to a re-opening of the entire document, he said.
“Be careful what you wish for here,” O’Neill added. “This is part of a package. If you take out that piece, you might end up with less than what you got.”
While funding issues dominated the council discussion, it is only one aspect of the housing affordability strategy.
The document calls for creating incentives to create more purpose-built residential, noting that developers make between $6,000 and $10,000 when they can sell their units. Relaxing some regulations may be required to facilitate more rental and low-cost housing development, the report notes.
The strategy also calls for promoting more affordable living by locating high-density developments close to transit while building partnerships with organizations and the province in bringing more affordable units to Coquitlam.
With the strategy in place, Coun. Teri Towner said council will now have to commence the difficult step of implementing some of the tasks in the document. She noted the importance of innovation, including options such as secondary suites, smaller square footage and lock-off units. These innovations may require a change in attitude around the council table and in the community when it comes to parking requirements and density, Towner added.
“We as a council are going to have to figure out what we want,” she said. “What’s our priority here? A range of housing? Or parking requirements?”
Despite the heated debate, the housing affordability strategy was unanimously supported by council.