Comment: Do this to make housing more affordable

A commentary by three British Columbia mayors: Lisa Helps, Jonathan X. Coté and Linda Buchanan

As mayors of some of the densest cities in Canada and B.C., we see firsthand the worst effects of our nation’s affordability crisis. We have seen unprecedented commodification of housing. We have seen speculators purchasing housing units and buildings, only to “sit” on them, either leaving them vacant or under-used, primarily seeing them as investments, not homes.

Millions of households across the country cannot afford decent housing. What these households would need to earn in order to keep their housing costs at 30 per cent of their income is well beyond median incomes, due to the drastic rise we have seen in housing costs.

This is particularly the case for renters, with low-income renters being hit harder by the housing affordability crisis. The federal housing crisis is, among other things, fundamentally an issue of equity.

Renter households in hot markets are being squeezed. Rents are going up, many purpose-built rental buildings aren’t being adequately maintained, and rental vacancy rates are staying consistently around one per cent, much lower than the three to five per cent vacancy rate that represents a healthy residential rental market.

So how did we get here? A historical lack of investment at the federal level and by many provincial governments has created a legacy gap. While the federal government has stepped back into the void with a National Housing Strategy and very welcome injections of cash, the fact is that closing a decades-wide gap is a considerable undertaking. It can only be achieved by working together.

This is a call to action. We call upon all federal parties to indicate renewed commitment to closing the housing affordability gap, with particular focus on renters and vulnerable Canadians. Specifically, we have the following four requests for the federal government:

1. We request a GST exemption on rental housing construction projects, and also the maintenance and repairs of existing rental buildings, on the condition that the exempted taxes can be demonstrably used to lower rents and to increase security of tenure.

2. We request direct funding for non-market housing to be granted to local and regional governments.

3. We request an acceleration of the National Housing Strategy, rolling important NHS initiatives out over the next five years, instead of 10.

4. We request that the federal government create a nation-wide Rental Rehabilitation Assistance Program. While Canada’s purpose-built market rental housing stock is aging and in many cases could use considerable renewal, this aging stock also provides relatively affordable housing for tenants, many of whom have low to moderate income levels.

Cities are partners in closing Canada’s affordability gap. We are at the frontlines. And we’re willing to do our part. Layering onto our individual and collective efforts some key commitments and actions from the federal level will help us to accelerate our successes and to address the housing affordability crisis being felt across the country.

Together, we can mind the gap — and close it.

Jonathan X. Coté is mayor of New Westminster; Linda Buchanan is mayor of North Vancouver; Lisa Helps is mayor of Victoria.