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COLUMN: Affordable housing more complex than pithy election promises

Jenny Robinson writes about what it takes to develop projects
Former Nelson CARES executive director Jenny Robinson is seen here showing off the kitchen of an affordable housing unit at the Hall Street Place building in 2021. Photo: Tyler Harper

by Jenny Robinson

When I see statements by city council candidates saying their plan for the development of more affordable housing in Nelson is to maintain a relationship with BC Housing, I would suggest they need to dig deeper, much deeper.

As the past executive director of a local non-profit, I spent the better part of 15 years building bridges with funders across B.C. and Canada to deliver 90 new units of housing in Nelson. I also led two large renewal projects to preserve existing housing and set two more in motion.

I of course did not do this alone, and the effort included a dedicated team of staff, contractors, and a board of directors. It happened because we were tenacious and kept fostering trust with BC Housing, Canadian Mortgage Housing Corporation, the Columbia Basin Trust, and many of you in the community. From this perspective I offer some ideas about the development of affordable housing and the key role of municipal government.

We are witnessing the tip of the housing affordability crisis, involving rising homelessness, a deadly illicit drug supply, untreated mental health disorders, a tsunami of low-income vulnerable seniors and persons with disabilities. Not to mention everyone else who can’t find housing. This is not unique to Nelson; this is a global crisis of poverty and inequity — we all need to take responsibility and address these issues as civic leaders and interested citizens.

Nelson received funding for three affordable housing projects over the past decade. It took years of stewardship to secure these funding agreements, and that was just the first step; non-profits not only raise the funds and complete multi-million-dollar projects, they also maintain and operate the housing in perpetuity. You don’t get housing built because you attend a few meetings, it takes 1,000s of staff and volunteer hours each year to get this work done.

As a municipal leader you get housing built when you support organizations that will develop and operate the housing.

In 2020, the RDCK completed a housing needs assessment for the region. There are recommendations that came out of that report. Specifically, communities need to create and manage their own strategic housing plans. I have yet to see follow-up from the City of Nelson regarding these plans. We need clear direction, and developments connected to a long-term plan.

The time is right to address these issues. The current NDP provincial and federal Liberal governments are investing in housing, right now! It’s time to plan and secure needed investments. We have emerging leaders like David Eby (NDP), likely the next premier of B.C., who just unveiled an ambitious housing platform. The City of Nelson needs to get ahead of the funding wave with prior proper planning.

What does that really look like? The City of Nelson needs to:

1. Develop a long-term housing plan with community partners and funders.

2. Reduce or waive development and connection fees for verified affordable housing projects (the gold standard of affordability means tenants pay 30 per cent of net income).

3. Allocate land for future affordable housing.

4. Be responsible for delayed or deferred infrastructure maintenance and not put the onus on affordable development projects.

5. Really understand that many intergenerational residents, lower wage earners, seniors, basically the average human can no longer afford to live here because of the laissez-faire nature of the city’s response to a crisis that revealed itself more than a decade ago.

Funding for affordable housing is at the whim of local, provincial, and federal politicians. Bad public policy got us into this terrible mess, so let’s vote for people who really want to go the distance and build affordable housing.

Jenny Robinson is the former executive director of Nelson CARES.


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• Meet the Nelson City Council candidates: Part 1

Meet the Nelson City Council candidates: Part 2