There are some exciting developments happening around town right now. The Railtown plan is chugging along, Cottonwood Market is getting a major rebuild, a downtown facelift is in the works, and the city is making strides in reducing our carbon footprint with the solar garden and plans for a biofuel plant.
But on the affordable housing front — cue the crickets.
Despite housing being a major issue in the last two elections, very little has been done to address this crisis at a municipal level. We can talk about it all we want. We can complain about the provincial and federal governments and their utter failure to address these issues. But none of this will actually create more housing.
That said, I believe everyone working in local government would like to solve this problem, but the challenge is huge – much bigger than fixing up Baker or replacing the market. Because of this, very little is likely to happen unless we are prepared to invest in the problem.
One of the things holding us back could be that people are wondering, “Why should we have to solve this problem?”
Why not just let people who can’t afford to live here move away? That’s the free market solution. We might be obligated to help those in dire need such as seniors, or those living in deep poverty, but we’re not necessarily obligated to help people who simply want to live here because it’s a cool place to live.
But there’s a very strong business case for making housing affordable for everyone.
If you like Nelson the way it is — a vibrant community with loads of great restaurants, lots of art and culture, and a youthful feel — then we need to make sure Nelson is attainable for people across the economic spectrum. If the only people who can live here are people with money, which generally means older people, then Nelson will become a very dull place. (No offence to older folks. I’m in the process of becoming one myself.) If you want to live in an interesting community with long-term viability, it can’t be a seniors-only community. This past summer I visited Port Hope, Ontario. With loads of wonderful old buildings, a great little downtown, and nice beaches (radiation notwithstanding), it’s arguably nicer than Nelson. But it was shockingly dull. The downtown on a beautiful Saturday afternoon looked like Baker Street at 7 pm on a Sunday.
I was mystified, so I checked the local census data and found that the median age of Port Hope residents is 47. Nelson’s median age is about 40. This explained why a town with 15,000 people had just one liquor store (which closes at 6pm on Saturdays).
So if we want to keep Nelson Nelsony, affordable housing must become a priority. If we don’t, many of the people who help make Nelson an interesting place to live and visit (and operate a business) will slowly trickle away. Nifty old buildings and lots of trees are great, but many places have those things. What makes Nelson a great place to live and visit is its culture, and its culture is only as good as its people. So what can we do?
Canmore and Whistler have embraced a strategy for dealing with housing crunches by forming non-profit housing corporations. These corporations create and manage affordable housing options ranging from restricted resale units to rent-controlled apartments. There’s no reason Nelson can’t follow suit, but to do so means taking steps to figure out how organizations like Whistler’s Housing Authority or Canmore’s Community Housing Corporation operate. This would involve hiring somebody to take on this task. And there’s the catch. This would mean adding another line item to the city budget. But with affordable housing very clearly a huge priority in the last election, our council has a strong mandate to tackle the issue. This is just one idea, and it may not be the right one for Nelson. But regardless, it’s time to stop talking about the problem, and invest in figuring out what it’s going to take to solve it.
John Paolozzi is a freelance writer and stay-at-home dad living in Nelson.