Nelson could use another 110 to 180 housing units to meet the demands of various groups struggling to find affordable places to live, according to a consultant’s report.
The update to a 2010 housing needs assessment, which incorporates new demographic and economic data, was presented to council Monday along with a separate document outlining 20 steps the city can take.
The reports, which relied on census data, rental listings, Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation statistics, and interviews with a variety of local agencies, identified six groups facing the greatest challenges finding housing: at-risk youth and young adults; low-income seniors and seniors in rural areas; low-income families; people with mental health and additions issues; people with disabilities; and the homeless and those at risk of homelessness.
The greatest demand was found among low-income seniors and seniors in rural areas, where 20 to 35 private-market rental unit and ten to 15 affordable family units are needed. Up to 130 additional units are required to satisfy the combined demand from the other groups.
The study found that in the last five years, rental rates in Nelson have increased $550 per year for a bachelor suite, $840 for a one-bedroom apartment, and nearly $1,000 for a two-bedroom apartment.
However, the vacancy rate has “alleviated to a small degree” since 2009, when it was below 1.5 per cent. As of April, it stood at 4.3 per cent for bachelor units, 2.3 per cent for one-bedrooms, and 2.4 per cent for two-bedrooms. The overall rate is 2.6 per cent. (A market is considered balanced at three per cent.)
Compared to the provincial average, Nelson’s housing stock is substantially older and more in need of repair. The city also has a higher percentage of renters compared to the rest of BC.
The report recommends adopting a policy around infill housing — a term that describes new homes in established neighborhoods. Infill is already permitted by the city’s zoning bylaw, but senior planner Megan Squires explained a policy would help clarify the requirements.
“A lot of people find infill can be complicated and contentious when dealing with small lots,” she said. “A policy would provide some guidance and avoid those challenges.”
Another recommendation is a standards of maintenance bylaw. The report notes the updated official community plan supports minimum levels of upkeep on rental properties, including water, light, heat, and ventilation, but a bylaw has not yet been written.
“Observations from the community revealed occurrences of substandard rental housing in Nelson,” the report says, pointing to mold, bed bugs, lack of heating, faulty plumbing and overcrowding. “Equally of concern in the community is the potential for ‘renovictions,’ whereby older housing stock in need of major repair is improved and, as a result, rent prices increase and become unaffordable.”
Other recommendations concerned increased density, alternate forms of housing and construction techniques, and even an addictions treatment facility with dedicated detox beds.
Squires said immediate steps might include advocating for additional rent supplements and partnering with non-profits and developers.
The report also highlighted achievements since 2010, such as the establishment of a housing committee and reserve fund, and incorporation of new policies into the updated official community plan that encourage infill housing, secondary suites, and laneway housing.
“The city has done a lot to create opportunities for market housing,” Squires said. Although she felt it’s too soon to tell if some of the new policies are having their desired effect, she suggested they may be partly responsible for an increase in apartments.
Outgoing city councillor Donna Macdonald, who sits on the housing committee, said the reports provide a “very comprehensive and fulsome” look at the local housing picture. She was also happy to learn the estimated number of required units, which she called a “concrete target.”
“You hear the criticism ‘Why don’t you just build something instead of wasting money on more studies?’” Macdonald said. “But I would suggest it would be foolish for us to tackle affordable housing in Nelson without a good basis for our actions. That’s what these reports have provided.”
Mayor-elect Deb Kozak agreed: “With complex issues and problems, it’s important to understand all the elements before you spend a lot of time, energy, and money on them. We have taken too long to address this issue, but this [report] has better defined the state of affordability and outlines some next steps.”
CitySpaces Consulting of Victoria, which also produced the 2010 affordable housing strategy, was hired in May to update the document, and worked with city planners and the housing committee. The twin studies, which cost about $20,000, were jointly funded by the Columbia Basin Trust and the city.
Council candidates often cited affordable housing as a key issue in the recent election campaign.