Housing now tops council agenda for action says mayor

Kelowna mayor on housing

Kelowna continues to attract new residents from across the country and around the world.

Encouraging the development of more housing to accommodate everyone who wants to call Kelowna home is a challenge council has embraced and it has propelled Kelowna into a leadership role among municipalities in Canada. Meanwhile, the number of people experiencing homelessness in our city has more than doubled in the past year.

City council is focused on finding solutions to both these challenges and it works every day to encourage actions that move us forward and makes Kelowna a model for other communities to emulate.

Statistics Canada data found the Kelowna Census Metropolitan Area’s population grew by 14% between 2016 to 2021—the fastest rate of growth in Canada. Indications are that pace will continue. Our city’s population is projected to increase by 40,000 in the next 17 or 18 years.

Our well-diversified local economy, international airport, large university and college campuses, beautiful natural environment, Okanagan Lake, the spectacular parks, beaches and recreation facilities we’ve developed, ski resorts, golf courses and more than 200 wineries in the region all combine to explain why so many people want to live here.

With Kelowna’s pace of population growth, the city’s challenge is to accommodate new residents with diverse housing options, while maintaining attainable housing for families who already live here, our senior citizens and those with low to moderate incomes.

According to data published by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Kelowna recorded 1,853 housing starts as of July, almost 85% of which were townhouses or condominiums. That housing construction pace puts Kelowna ahead of the entire province of New Brunswick (1,685) and is behind only Canada’s largest cities. The city has topped the $1 billion mark for the third consecutive year in terms of the value of construction projects underway in 2023.

Market housing is strong, but when we talk about housing at the municipal level, we most often focus on what the city can do to encourage more affordable housing, more purpose-built rentals, more supportive housing, managing short-term rentals, advocating to the province for more complex care housing and more shelter space and other forms of housing outside the regular real estate market.

Since council members were sworn in 11 months ago, we have prioritized the development of a variety of housing types, including affordable housing and finding solutions for the critical need to better support our homeless population. We are doing this in a number of ways:

• Allocating $1.5 million of surplus to the city’s Housing Opportunities Reserve Fund to buy land to meet the most urgent housing needs of our community.

• Providing city-owned land to build affordable housing, as we did with the 75 homes at Pleasantvale 2, with housing for seniors, low-income families and people with disabilities, along with the 68 new homes at Hadgraf-Wilson Place on city-owned land on Bertram Avenue. These housing developments support another council objective, to increase number of rental units with below-market rents.

• We continue to advocate for additional Complex Care Centre, including a model similar to the Red Fish Healing Centre.

• Staff continue to work with partners to identify a site that is suitably located and zoned for Kelowna’s first purpose-built shelter.

• I have met numerous times with Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon, most recently at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, to advocate for increased BC Housing investments and supports for shelter, supportive and affordable housing in our community.

• Work progresses on solutions to provide transitional housing, with details of this year’s approach to be shared with residents shortly.

• Applying for funding through the federal Housing Accelerator Fund to accelerate housing in Kelowna through adjusting regulations, investing in land and infrastructure and updating systems.

Last Thursday, Kahlon joined me in Kelowna to announce a partnership that will see the addition of 120 units of transitional emergency shelter at multiple sites in the coming months. This marks a significant step forward in our collective commitment to tackling homelessness. The city will provide land and the province will provide capital and operating investments and supports for this and other solutions into the future.

Kelowna will be the first location in the Interior to use a tiny-home solution, which features small single-room units that are quick and easy to install. The first 60 units will be a “Pallet village,” which is just one example of the city’s ongoing efforts to explore all options for people experiencing homelessness.

I travelled to Everett, Washington with city staff members earlier this year to visit the Pallet warehouse and village. We saw first-hand how these transitional, modular, single-occupancy and double-occupancy housing units are constructed and operated for people who would otherwise have no roof over their heads. Each shelter can be assembled in under an hour.

I can assure you, we are all working hard to get these units ready to welcome people as soon as possible. Continuing on the path of partnership, BC Housing and the city willprovide more detailed information in the coming weeks as plans are finalized.

I also thank the province for providing Homeless Encampment Action Response Teams (HEART) for our community. HEART is a new multi-disciplinary regional program designed to rapidly respond to encampments and better support people sheltering outdoors to move inside.

Getting back to affordable housing side of things, our latest housing needs assessment found affordability challenges, smaller household sizes and shifting preferences have led to increased demand for smaller units in multiple-dwelling buildings. There is a need for a significant increase in the delivery of subsidized rental housing, which will require unprecedented collaboration and partnership.

City staff is currently working on a housing strategy to ensure Kelowna has the breadth of housing required to meet the varied needs of our residents.

That is a big reason why we are moving into the next phase of our infill housing for urban centres. Efficiently using city infrastructure by adding new housing to central neighbourhoods is vital to the long-term health of our community.

The city is working to ensure infill housing is high-quality and designed to complement surrounding neighbourhoods. This form of housing is more financially attainable and it is far more financially and environmentally sustainable compared to suburban development.

The City of Kelowna has demonstrated we can approve housing quickly enough to meet demand, but it is the pace of housing construction that needs to increase. Based on permitting trends and our engagement with the development community, we know the sector is experiencing challenges in terms of sourcing labour, along with supply chain issues, rising costs and interest rates.

Finally, I want to say the city is looking closely at short-term rentals. After a preliminary report to council this summer, council directed staff to return with an approach that is more restrictive moving forward. Short-term rentals have had a negative impact on our long-term housing stock and, in part, has contributed to the raising costs of both home ownership and rentals.

Housing and shelter needs are not unique to Kelowna. We certainly feel the pressure more because of our rapid population growth but I know from speaking to mayors across our province the housing crunch is a provincial and national crisis.

I want to assure you the city is exploring every opportunity to alleviate the housing pressures our community is experiencing, and I hope this information contributes to the conversation about how we can move forward together.

Council understands more people are going to move to Kelowna for the same reasons many of us live here —the quality of life we enjoy. Council is committed to balancing growth and the related future infrastructure needs to ensure we are a healthy community with quality-of-life investments in parks, recreation, transportation and opportunities to enhance our housing stock.

Tom Dyas is the mayor of Kelowna.

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