Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Tools for the Toolbox! City Council explores path ahead to perhaps introducing an Interim Housing strategy for the community

With an eye on the need for housing, city residents may soon see many 
more notices of proposed  housing for the community in the future
such as this for 11th Avenue East 

With Housing currently the focus for some debate around town related to the need for affordable housing, Monday night's City Council Session provided what could be a blue print for the road ahead, should Council choose to follow it.

Monday saw the introduction of an Interim Housing strategy for the community, through a report from the city's contract planners plan, which we previewed on Monday morning

iPlan's Rob Buchan provided the overview on their document that explored a range of options for the City to consider when it comes to developing a proposed housing strategy to address some of the challenges currently found in the community.

Calling on some of the themes of the Vision 2030 presentation of 2019, he outlined how there will be a requirement for housing with anticipation  of more workers coming to town in support of the growing port industrial footprint.

The iPlan research observed that the profile of the housing situation and data that they have reviewed validates housing as a major issue in the community.

As he explained it,  the policy framework is designed for Council to use when considering future actions, comparing it as similar to an Official Community plan that does not commit the city to any actions and simply is a framework, one that simply puts forward the framework to follow when opportunity and budget permit.

The document included ten recommendations to be considered in the future, though the one which attracted the most attention was that of the P3 proposal which would be a public private partnership model, where the city would not be a developer, but would partner towards housing development.

Councillor Niesh led off the discussion, providing a few of his observations particularly in the challenges that the local geography provides for, especially when it comes to the presence of muskeg and how to dispose of it, suggesting the creation of an area that is beyond development for disposal purposes.

Councillor Mirau followed up on that theme, noting how the city could be more creative beyond site preparation but to help with the use of rock from the landfill expansion for building purposes. He then outlined some of the other challenges that are found in Prince Rupert compared to other communities both near and far.

He observed that there are currently no local contractors available to fill the gap to provide for the new build warranties on residential construction, and with few new builds in the community that is an area that has been under serviced.

Mr. Mirau then took note of the higher than average homeless and poverty in the region and how the city needs to come to terms with those issue and some of the tools offered up may help towards solutions.

He also observed how the needs assessment process needs to be bumped up in importance, so as to better understand the where the best strategic efforts should be directed.

Mr. Mirau also noted that another area of interest for him was the concept of a Housing Corporation that the city may consider setting up, something that should catch a few eyes from city residents and add to the list of civic run enterprises currently in place.

"How exactly would a land bank or a housing fund interact with a Housing Corporation, if we were to decide to go down that route" -- Councillor Blair Mirau

Rob Buchan noted that would have to be determined in the future and outlined that the City would have consider how it would want to set it up and fund it, noting it would require a well researched business model before it could move forward.

"I think that's something to be determined into the future, clearly if this becomes at an arms length municipal subsidiary corporation, the Council would need to put its mind to how it wants to fund the corporation and how it gets its funds back. Now of course, you know it owns the corporation, it owns all the assets that it puts into it, this would have to be mapped out to in a business model which we haven't gotten there yet, where this is pretty high level at this point." -- Rob Buchan from iPlan on the concept of a Housing Corporation

Councillor Mirau also observed  as to how the city could use its land as its contribution to any partnership, should the City choose to follow that path, which led to a bit more detail from the iPlan planner.

"That is precisely the approach in terms of the high level, the municipality has the land which is its contribution as a part of the partnership. If this is done as a city function to begin with and I think that is the recommendation, you start off as a pilot and a catalyst, and to see if it works. If after a number of developments you think it's worth carrying on, there may be some advantage in looking a developments of a separate corporation but until such time as its a seperate subsidiary it's just a municipal asset" -- iPlan's Rob Buchan expanding on the theme of the Housing Corporation

Councillor Mirau also offered a note of caution to be careful not over step into provincial jurisdiction, and whil the city has a major role to play though not as a developer or a landlord.

He also called attention to a renoviction bylaw currently in place in New Westminster and how the City could consider adopting something similar, though more research on how enforceable such a program would be.

Councillor Cunningham also found much to like from the Housing report, but noted how Council needed to prioritize its targets when it comes to housing needs in the community.

He also spoke to the new Marina District proposals, offering up some cautionary themes towards the idea of floating homes and the guidelines they would have to follow.

Mr. Cunningham also spoke to the renoviction issue, and noted that some kind of ability to control that situation was required as it is causing a larger issue for housing in the community, noting that he also found the New Westminster blue print useful.

Council Adey made note of the immediate focus and emphasis of the document in targeting the need for housing for new port workers, professionals and tradesmen as the key focus for housing owing to port expansion; but also observed that the focus contrasts with what needs that those at the lower income and wondered how the plan would incorporate both element.

City manager Robert Long spoke to that theme, observing how social housing development involves a number of levels of government and requires much in the way of capital and how the city is not in a financial position to take on those forms of projects. 

Mr. Long did note that what the City is in a financial position to do is to leverage some of the properties that it owns to be able to in effect subsidize some of it but through the private sector and produce some housing through a P 3 arrangement, which would have to address the market housing first.

On social housing themes, he noted how the city would have to partner with BC Housing and noted that those kinds of discussions are underway and ultimately he observed would come to pass.

For now he stated that the City is only capable of dealing with market housing at this precise point of time.

Mr. Buchan noted how the study did provide some guidance on how the city could approach the need for social housing with the other levels of government, though he also put the focus on what the City could have the capacity to do and how it could respond to the need for worker housing, which he observed would be an economic development tool as well.

The city's contract planner also noted how there was provincial funding available for development of housing strategies.

Mayor Lee Brain offered up a few thoughts on the topic of housing to date, hailing the traction that has been seen in the city so far. 

Making note of the Provincial government's funding of social housing and low income housing through such initiatives as the Kitkatla Anchor Inn purchase, the Crow's Nest Lodge, which he noted the city donated land towards, the new housing and shelter at Five Corners which he observed was great to see.

He also relayed how BC Housing has plans to upgrade their housing not only in the Kootenay area but in other properties around the city. As well as potential new developments.

The Lax Kw'alaams proposal for 11th Avenue East was another housing initiative he made note of, as well as the success of the Metlakatla Elders Housing on Seventh East.

He stated that just in the last three years there has been a huge investment from the provincial side of things to play catch up and to address that part for the community;  and how in fact it's really been the main focus and how there hasn't been much seen on the other end of it.

Mayor Brain then followed up to note on the private level speaking of the ongoing development of the Digby Towers work and the city's  moves to encourage development downtown through their policies.

Looking to the future he observed that the city needs to look to all spectrums of housing need and that they have been addressing those themes through new bylaws, their OCP work, along with land  use regulations and how the City can continue to do what they can, referencing past land donations to the province as one option for further housing options.

His synopsis wrapped up with the Mayor noting of how sees hundreds of housing units that will be coming online for the community and how there has been traction and he doesn't see it stopping, adding how MLA Jennifer Rice has continued to work to make sure that there is more investment into BC Housing options.

In response, Councillor Adey observed how there is much to build on towards housing and how there has been broad consultation through the 2030 process and how a housing needs strategy for April 2022 would allow those groups that haven't shared their concerns to make them known.

He pointed towards the need for Seniors housing to allow existing residents to downsize and stay in the city that they have spent their whole lives in, observing how those other voices should be part of the conversation.

Councillor Skelton-Morven echoed much of the previous commentary and how the proposed package allows the community be nimble, enterprising and entrepreneurial on housing.

Before moving on from the topic, Mayor Brain noted how it was not just a Prince Rupert problem and how it was a nationwide concern, he then outlined some of the moves that City Council has taken on in recent months as they move the needle over the edge.

Among them changes to the development guidelines bylaw to all for a more streamlined process and provide more information to resident earlier on in that process, something he referred to as a game changing element.

The Mayor pointed to the recent Tax Incentive bylaw for the downtown area, which he stated is already attracting attention both locally and from out of town looking to invest in the community.

Other elements he hailed included the update to the OCP and Zoning Bylaws and all the elements that they will add and to clarify the housing themes. Noting how they all make for a selection of tools for Council to work with.

He also observed as to the city's ambitions for private development of housing stock as part of a recent RFP for development of a new subdivision, which as we outlined in December is proposed for just off the current housing on Silversides.. 

The Mayor called back to the 2030 Strategy and how it has been the guide ahead towards and how as a community there would be a need to create all these initiatives to help create a market where people would want to build.

Looking to the future he observed how he sees the city on track for hundreds of units to be built in the next few years and how city's work is to develop a foundation for a new development environment in Prince Rupert for the next decade, something he stated that the community hasn't ever done. 

Towards the work ahead, the Mayor highlighted how the changes will bring a more streamlined approach that will allow for all voices to be heard and given a fair hearing, with Council needing to ensure that the process is communicated well to the public.
The full report from the city's contract planners can be examined from the Council Agenda from Monday evening, it's the last item of review from the package.

You can review the entire discussion on housing from the City's Video Archive, starting at the  20 minute mark.

For a wider overview of the evening's work see our Council Timeline feature here.

A wider review of Council Discussion themes is available from our archive page.

For a look at some past notes on Housing see our archive page here.

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