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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.



Municipal tax hikes make housing less affordable

A city of taxes

Taxes in Kelowna might be going up again.

While this may be good for services (if used appropriately), the only guarantee is that this increase would increase the cost of housing.

The City of Kelowna only has two major means of collecting taxpayer dollars to pay for services — taxes on the construction of new housing and property taxes.

Let’s start with property taxes. Under Mayor Colin Basran, municipal property taxes have increased approximately 22%. Property tax increases cost homeowners more money each year, and it costs renters more money as these increased costs are often passed on to renters from landlords. However, property taxes are essential in ensuring we have the kinds of services that residents rely on.

On the other hand, new development is a cash cow for local government. The city receives tens of thousands of dollars from each new home through various charges (taxes) to offset costs of increased service requirement. While these taxes are needed to fund transportation, sewage, water and more — new development is also a critical step to increasing the affordability of housing. Canada has some of the least affordable housing in the world and coincidentally has the lowest number of homes per capita in the G7.

One of the new development taxes utilized in Kelowna is a parks development charge. This tax is used to secure new park space throughout the city. However, in 2019, Mayor Basran and council voted to double the existing parks development charge from $7,000 a unit to $14,180 a unit. However, whether the city needed a substantial increase in parks funding given their existing holdings is likely debatable (see ‘City is a real estate mogul’).

The most recent proposed tax increase is to development cost charges (DCCs). The proposed increase varies depending on the development type and its location within the city ranging from 7% to 32%. To put this into numbers, a new single-family home’s DCCs in the north of Kelowna would increase about $10,000 and in southwest Mission it would increase about $7,000 under this proposal.

So how does this make housing less affordable? It’s well-established that these tax increases are put back onto homebuyers and reflected in the cost of a new home. Increase DCCs or parks charges by $10,000? The price of that new home just increased by $10,000.

This means that if the proposed DCC increase goes through that the price of a new home north of the inner city will have increased by $17,180 over the last two years just due to tax increases, without accounting for increases in land costs or building materials. Overall $43,344 of the price of that home will be made up of DCCs, parks charges, water charges, wastewater charges, and drainage charges. This also doesn’t include the cost of applying for getting a zoning amendment if required, which comes at an additional substantial cost that will be passed on to the buyer.

The point of this column is not to argue one way or another on the proposed DCC increases. DCCs play an important role in building a sustainable and well-serviced city. However, often absent from the public discussion is who pays for these increases. At the end of the day, these are taxes paid by homebuyers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with increasing flat-rate taxes as inflation changes over time, however, to do so without being upfront on the impacts to the cost of housing during a housing crisis would be disingenuous.

In order for the city to justify increasing taxes on new developments and thus increasing the cost of new homes, municipal officials must be positive that the revenue they’re currently collecting is being spent efficiently and effectively — without waste — and yet is still unable to cover costs of adequately servicing new developments.



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To combat vandalism, ban election signs on public property

Sign of the times

My sign was cut in half. My sign was stolen. My sign was graffitied.

Every single election, whether it be federal, provincial or municipal we hear the same complaints from candidates. It’s almost a race to see whose sign gets defaced first, because each media outlet will write one story on it — so if you’re first, you get the article and can play the victim, get the free coverage, and then move on.

As much as we can say it’s illegal to damage signs, at the end of the day with the number of signs scattered across the city and the heightened political animosity we see in elections, we can’t monitor the signs to arrest people for defacing and damaging them.

The City of Kelowna, like many Canadian cities, allows political signs on public property and on private property.

The one thing you’ll learn if you ever work on a local political campaign is the mantra that “signs don’t vote, people do”. Nevertheless, you’ll then be told there’s a sign team of 10 people who will go out every day putting up and repairing those same signs that “don’t vote”. You then end up with a streetscape littered with signs of the various party colours, which are simply an eyesore.

But I will admit that I do like signs sometimes. They do help you memorize the candidates in whatever election it may be. This isn’t as big of a deal in our federal and provincial campaigns when there’s usually no more than four or five people on the ballot. However when it comes to local municipal or school board elections - that ballot can have forty people on it.

So I’ll admit that having the signs placed around town does help you memorize some of the candidates, and may remind you to go home and google them. They can also make you think that certain candidates have large community support, whether not that’s actually true or not.

Okay, so signs are an eyesore, they get damaged, but they are kind of useful in a way. There must be a better way right?

Well, there is. Some municipalities in Canada only allow political advertising signs on private property.

In this case, you can’t put up your signs on public property, but if you can convince the family down the street from you that you’re the best candidate and that they should put a sign with your name on it in their front yard - go for it.

If we only allow signs on private property, when you see the signs around town it will actually show support. It will also drastically reduce the number of signs we see, reduce the number of environmentally unsustainable signs that get made, and likely lower the amount of sign vandalism since private property is better watched than public.

Many candidates would likely support this change since it frees up campaign money and volunteer time. But until signs are actually banned on public property, they’ll keep putting them up, because even if a candidate opposes them, they don’t want the only signs on the street to be their opponents’.

Let’s ban signs on public property, and make our city a little bit prettier and a little bit more environmentally-friendly come the next election season.



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]

 



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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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