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Affordable housing forum seeks solutions

The lack of affordable housing is a growing crisis on the Sunshine Coast, but there are ways for the community to tackle the problem. That was the consensus at last Saturday's forum on affordable housing, entitled Looking for Home.

The lack of affordable housing is a growing crisis on the Sunshine Coast, but there are ways for the community to tackle the problem.

That was the consensus at last Saturday's forum on affordable housing, entitled Looking for Home.

"We're all part of solving this problem," said Jean Bennett, dean of Capilano College's Sunshine Coast campus, in her opening remarks.

The forum considered many groups who are particularly affected by the lack of housing: seniors, families, people with disabilities and youth. And Bennett said this issue is not just about the so-called "needy." Anyone might be faced with a housing crisis when parents get older or someone in the family becomes disabled or loses work.

"We can all see that we, too, could be there," Bennett said.

More than 100 people attended the all-day forum Jan. 15 at the Seniors' Activity Centre in Sechelt, organized by the Social Planning Council, the Coast Housing Society and Sunshine Coast Community Services. The forum included local government representatives, charity organizations, health and social service workers and ordinary people who are concerned about the growing housing problem.

The conference began with a panel of local experts describing the reality of the housing crisis on the Coast.

Paulean MacHale, a realtor, gave a graphic description of a real estate market "gone completely berserk."

On average, housing prices on the Sunshine Coast went up 15 per cent last year and 58 per cent over the past five years. One house currently listed at $235,000 had sold for $157,000 the August before, MacHale said.

"I, as a single mother, squeezed myself into the real estate market 25 or 30 years ago, at a huge cost," she said. "There is not that opportunity now."

MacHale said first-time buyers who don't have the 25 per cent down payment for a conventional mortgage pay much more for high-ratio mortgages. With entry-level houses priced at $180,000 to $209,000, a conventional mortgage would cost $850 a month. A high-ratio mortgage for the same house, with its required insurance fee, would cost $1,400 a month.

"You would need an income of $60,000 a year," said MacHale. "Single people or the marginalized cannot get anywhere close."

MacHale said there are still some opportunities for people with modest incomes to afford a home through a group purchase of, for example, an eight-bedroom house. But if real estate prices continue to rise, she predicted even those limited opportunities will be gone by next fall.

"It is, to me, inconceivable how this can continue, and I work with it every day," said MacHale.

MacHale proposed one solution would be spot zoning to allow two- or three-suite residences.

Vicki Dobbyn, executive director of Sunshine Coast Community Services, said there is a critical shortage of rental space, especially at affordable prices. "Affordable" housing is generally considered to be 30 per cent of a family's income or less.

Many women who come to Yew Transition House to escape family violence cannot find an affordable place to live when their 30-day stay is up, said Dobbyn.

"Women are buying tents and campers to live in, even in winter, or moving in with roommates they don't know," said Dobbyn.Other women may return to a violent relationship because the alternative is dire poverty, she said.

Dobbyn described how the lack of housing affects other people on limited incomes, such as the mentally ill, seniors and teenagers or young adults who don't have family support.

Nicholas Simons, who runs social services for the Sechelt Indian Band, said the housing crisis is as troubling within the band as it is for the wider community. The band currently has 135 families waiting for homes, he said, and many of the older houses are badly constructed and mould-contaminated.

"Housing has taken a back seat to other social issues," said Simons. "Underlying health and education is safe, secure, adequate housing."

Art Phillips, a development consultant, said the community would need to "buy in" to the concept of affordable housing."As soon as you mention the word affordable, people who own their home at $210,000 or $260,000 say, whoa, not in my backyard," he said.

He proposed "thinking beyond the standard single-family lot" to provide affordable housing, possibly by building on unused road rights-of-way or putting multi-family projects on small lots. Local governments could help, he said, by giving developers financial breaks on things such as development cost charges and parking space requirements.

A second panel discussed the funding available from federal and provincial governments and other agencies. Several of them bemoaned the passing of the "golden age of social housing in Canada," when the federal government provided annual budgets for building new housing. Now, the money available is much less, but a number of housing programs still are available which might help the Sunshine Coast's situation, the panel said.

In the afternoon, the forum broke up into working groups to examine different aspects of the housing problem and propose solutions. A follow-up meeting, open to the public, is scheduled at Capilano College Feb. 19 from 1 to 3 p.m. That meeting will focus on action, carrying forward the ideas developed during the afternoon workshops. Following are some of those ideas for action: An emergency shelterMany people at the forum agreed there is a need for some kind of emergency shelter on the Coast. Currently, the only emergency housing available is transition housing for women and children fleeing violence.

Front line workers at the food banks, Salvation Army and needle exchange described their first-hand view of increasing homelessness. That homelessness takes several forms, said Lee Ann Johnson, one of the organizers of the forum.

Seniors' housingThere are several groups that aim to provide more seniors' housing on the Coast. The Abbeyfield project in Pender Harbour is closest to becoming a reality.

Family housingHabitat for Humanity is working to build its first home on the Sunshine Coast, possibly to be located on municipal land in Gibsons.

Habitat homes are appropriate for people with some steady income, who are able to contribute to a mortgage and to the actual building of the house.

There is also a potential for new federal funding for housing for women and children fleeing violence. This would require cost-sharing by provincial and local governments.

Government actionSeveral proposals for local government action were discussed. The idea of making municipal land available for housing is getting support from the town of Gibsons.

Other suggestions were waiving or discounting development cost charges for affordable housing developments and requiring a percentage of large developments to be affordable units.

"We are hopeful local governments are finally acknowledging there is, indeed, a problem and exploring ways they may be providing assistance," said Johnson. "We have to keep holding their feet to the fire."

ResearchTo get grants for affordable housing, Johnson said, the Sunshine Coast needs good research to define the housing problem more clearly and prove this region's eligibility for various housing programs. Several agencies at the forum were interested in forming partnerships to do that research.

"We need to understand the situation a bit better," said Johnson. "We've been sliding into a crisis. I'm concerned that we not remain complacent but start paying attention to this."