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Despite council comments, Kelowna can do more for housing

Kelowna can do more

Kelowna city council has thrown its hands up in defeat at the ever-increasing cost of housing in Kelowna.

Two councillors, when presented with a report from city staff earlier this week outlining how housing continues to become increasingly unaffordable stated “I don’t know if we could have done more” and “We pulled every lever to improve affordability.”

Council, to its credit, has made headway in modernizing the way Kelowna is tackling the affordability crisis in recent years by helping to facilitate the construction of a wider variety of housing types and developing its Journey Home program. Without the actions of council, such as helping create more rental properties, we can only imagine how much higher rents would be today.

Council has also tried some methods favoured by urban planners and affordability advocates alike that haven’t worked as well as intended. RU7 lots were created throughout Kelowna to address the issue of the “missing middle” housing, however it can be argued the city inadvertently worsened the affordability of those properties. Properties that were previously home to one small house have been either redeveloped as fourplexes, where each unit sells for more than the previous home under the old zoning, or remain with small homes, which now sell for a much higher price due to the possibility of converting them into fourplexes in the future. The flip-side to this is, of course, that this increased desperately needed supply.

Councillors also aren’t wrong when they say there are many levers out of their control and this is an issue facing municipalities across the country, not just Kelowna.

However, to say they’ve done everything possible is not true.

During the 2021 budget deliberations, the City of Kelowna adopted a priority two item at the urging of one councillor to create a meagre $75,000 per year fund to acquire land for the purpose of creating affordable housing.

Mayor Colin Basran and some of his councillors begrudgingly agreed, with Basran stating he was voting for it so as not to appear as he was voting against affordable housing. While the fund is better late than never, it is too little and very late.

In previous columns, I’ve advocated for the city to leverage its authority to up-zone land to require the provision of affordable housing units, renting out the 34 properties it already owns at a below-market rate, rather than at the market rate it currently uses and invest the profits from the sale of its properties into affordable housing projects.

The City of Kelowna could also explore waiving development charges for non-profit and affordable housing projects. This could even be extended by examining the possibility of deferring development charges for purpose-built rental projects, which are harder to finance since they don’t receive money from perspective residents until the units are occupied, unlike traditional ownership apartments.

These changes may require support from provincial lawmakers but, as is often the case, crises require all hands on deck.

While there are a variety of other means municipalities can use tackle affordability, it is important to keep in mind when one councillor stated: “The reality is that the market forces are just so big that we can’t out-policy the market,” they weren’t entirely wrong.

Municipalities have many levers to tackle affordability, but not all of them. Truly improving affordability will require collaboration between all levels of government.

During the 2022 City of Kelowna budget debates, the mayor repeatedly said affordable housing is not a municipal priority, justifying his position by highlighting housing is technically a provincial responsibility, not municipal.

However, if the province isn’t doing what’s needed, we need to step up and meet the demand for action as a municipality, while still demanding provincial action.

The spiralling increase in home prices and rents is a generational challenge and it needs to be a top priority of all levels of government.

Tackling the affordability crisis requires new ways of thinking, new investments and previously unseen levels of collaboration between all levels of government.

Saying we tried our best is simply not good enough.





Would an audit of Kelowna services find much-needed savings?

City service audit?

The city of Kelowna has approved a 3.64% tax increase this year, while the City of Vernon approved a 6.88% increase and the City of West Kelowna is on track to approve a 4% increase.

Now bear with me, but Kelowna’s tax increase is acceptable given the circumstances. Would it be nice to not have an increase and give everyone a break? Yes. But keeping the budget increase below inflation is a win for the community.

Inflation is at levels not seen in over a decade—to date pegged at 4.7% for 2021.

At the same time, due to a nation-wide RCMP collective bargaining agreement, municipalities are on the hook for millions in retroactive pay to their police officers. Kelowna’s retroactive pay obligation is a substantial $8.3 million.

Kelowna also finds itself in the middle of the pack when it comes to its municipal property tax rate when compared to other municipalities in B.C.

But, since 2014, property taxes have increased a total of 29%, the total number of city employees has grown to more than 1,030 from 716 employees and we have seen the average home price soar to nearly $1 million from $428,000, drastically increasing the property tax collected from each home.

Given these realities, I’m confident if we were to look for savings in our municipal budget, we could find some.

While I was working for the Government of Ontario, we launched a program called the Audit and Accountability Fund.

That program was designed to provide funding to large municipalities in order to conduct independent reviews of municipal budgets and programs to see if there were any savings to be found for taxpayers, through modernization or better use of funding to achieve the same results, without cutting services.

The reviews were most often conducted by large accounting firms, such as KPMG, Ernst & Young or PwC.

The funding each municipality received was not made public, but Ontario’s 39 largest municipalities and three school boards received a portion of the $8.15 million fund (approximately $194,000 per review if divided equally).

For example, the City of Richmond Hill (population of 200,000) found $3.77 million in savings and the City Thunder Bay (population of 110,000) found $8 million in savings.

To say that there was a return on investment would be an understatement.

If these cities, both smaller and larger in terms of population compared to Kelowna, can find savings, why not us?

Given that we’ve seen a staggering total 29% tax increase over the last eight short years, perhaps it’s time we fund an independent financial review of our services to see whether we can find efficiencies within our municipal government’s finances and save everyone a little bit of money.



Kelowna missed an opportunity to get more affordable housing downtown

City missed an opportunity

Leveraging surplus municipally-owned properties for the delivery of public goods should be encouraged and applauded, but the City of Kelowna recently missed a massive opportunity.

Surplus properties are lands the government owns and no longer uses for their original intended purpose. The properties are often in sought-after locations and are highly valued.

The municipality (or government entity) could sell them to the highest bidder, develop them into a public good themselves, or even sell (or lease) the land to a high bidder with the requirement of developing a public good.

While working for the government of Ontario, we did a number of these deals. Surplus provincially-owned properties were designated for either new long-term care homes or affordable housing. The properties were sold to developers, who in addition to actually paying for the properties, were required to build a contractually obligated number of long-term care beds or affordable housing units.

One surplus property in Kelowna is the former RCMP site at 350 Doyle Avenue. It fits all our prerequisites—it’s no longer needed for its former purpose, it’s in a highly desirable location and it’s valued at a high price. It’s also not protected under the so-called “Simpson Covenant.”

In January 2020, the City of Kelowna entered into an agreement with RISE Commercial Developments to lease the land for 99 years for $7 million over the first 80 years and then fair market value for the remaining years (when most of us will be long gone).

RISE, after paying $7 million, will build a 13-storey residential tower with 316 rental apartments and office and retail space, all be leased at market value (currently an average of $1,600/month for a one-bedroom). In addition, RISE will build 6,000 square feet of empty space to give to the city.

The city will then spend $4.3 million to extend the existing ArtWalk and turn the empty space into what is being dubbed the “Creative Hub” for creative production and arts programs—after which the city will net a meagre $2.7 million.

It’s important to note that the decision to build apartments rather than condominiums was made by the developer not the city. RISE also owns The Shores, rental development on Lakeshore, which essentially functions as an AirBnB hotel where you can rent nightly rooms using AirBnB or big hotel websites such as booking.com, expedia.ca or hotels.com.

RISE also asked for variances from council regarding “floor plate” sizes. These floor plates are essentially how many square-feet each floor can take up. The bigger the floor plate, the more space the building takes up. RISE asked to increase the permitted size of each floor between the third and seventh floors by nearly 50%, nearly triple the size of each floor between the seventh and 12th floors and double the size of the top floor.

This is a significant variance, more than doubling how large the building whould be under its existing zoning and therefore doubling the rentable area for the developer.

Previously, there was considerable pressure placed on the city by a group called Legacy Kelowna, which asked for a pause to any deal, and instead to use the lot and three other city-owned properties to build a new Kelowna Community Theatre, cultural space and retail outlets through public-private partnerships.

Imagining for a minute that building something legacy-setting was not in the cards, is a 13-storey market rent/AirBnB condo tower, double the size of what’s allowed under the previous zoning with 6,000 square feet of empty space for the city to renovate the best deal for taxpayers?

Even if the city was adamant that the future of this site needed to be another condo tower with arts space, why couldn’t it include affordable housing to help address our most pressing need?

The city says it cares about affordable housing, but in this prime opportunity to mandate affordable units as a condition of the deal, there are none.

From experience, developers can make affordable housing as a condition of purchase work and still maintain profitability. There is no reason that, if this site has to turn into a condo tower, a deal couldn’t have been put together that extended the ArtWalk, facilitated creative space and developed something more for the community, such as construction of new affordable housing. And all that while allowing a developer to build lease space and market-rate apartments to make a sizeable enough profit to proceed.

We can create all the arts space we want but if artists can’t afford to live there, what’s the point.





Veterans' homelessness is one of many social issues our cities need to address

Veterans' homelessness

Veterans make up approximately 4.4% of our homeless population, and yet only 1.7% of the Canadian population are veterans.

The overrepresentation of veterans in our homeless population is a tragic reality that requires innovative solutions to address.

While this week’s column isn’t dedicated to the goings on at City Hall, given that it is Veteran’s Week, it’s a topic that we should take the time to explore.

Locally, according to the Kelowna Gospel Mission, there are anywhere between four to 10 homeless veterans using the shelter each year. While nationally it is estimated there are anywhere between 3,000 and 5,000 homeless veterans.

According to a 2019 study by the House of Commons, many of the causes for homelessness amongst veterans are the same as those for non-veterans, including poverty, lack of affordable housing, lack of stable employment, addictions and more. Homeless veterans have also noted a struggle with adapting to civilian life and its associated social isolation as a contributing factor in their homelessness.

While I was working for Ontario’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, we partnered with an organization that aims to address many of the root causes of homelessness for veterans, including those causes unique to veterans such as social isolation.

The Homes for Heroes Foundation builds “villages” for veterans, which consist of 15 to 25 individual tiny homes. These homes are less than 300-square-feet, but include all the features of a regular home. At the same time, the “village” incorporates a resource centre, counselling office, community garden and other amenities.

The homes are inward facing to each other and the green space, which facilitates interaction and community amongst the veterans.

Now the term “village” makes this seem like a much bigger space than it really is. The project that the ministry partnered with Homes for Heroes to build will be located on only an acre of land in Kingston and will be home to 25 individual tiny homes.

You can learn more about Homes for Heroes by visiting it website at homesforheroesfoundation.ca

While this is a very specific example of innovation, I believe there are broader lessons we can apply to solving complex issues we face here in Kelowna.

Our community and our country are filled with individuals, not-for-profits and other experts who the City of Kelowna can lean on for their knowledge and ideas. Whether it be addressing rising crime, the lack of affordability, keeping graduating students in our community, protection against flooding or others, we have local experts on these topics who can, and are willing to, help find solutions.

Striking community task forces, creating local expert panels, partnering with national and local organizations and more, are all ways we can look outside the box and try to address our most pressing issues.

Our residents want to make this the best community it can be and they’re more than happy to lend their time and resources to make a difference. We just need to ask.



More Wilson on Water Street articles

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About the Author

Adam Wilson is from Kelowna and has an educational background in urban planning, where he published his research on the politicization of cycling infrastructure in the Journal of Transportation Geography. 

Adam was named as one of Kelowna’s Top 40 Under 40 in 2017 for both his research into cycling infrastructure and a number of political interviews he had done with Macleans, the National Post and CBC News. 

He previously worked as a lobbyist in Toronto where he focused on provincial and municipal issues. Adam then joined the office of Ontario’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, where he worked as the Issues and Legislative Affairs Manager before becoming the Minister’s Director of Communications. 

Adam has since moved back home to Kelowna where he lives with his partner and French bulldog in south Kelowna. 

[email protected]

 



The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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