Housing action and inaction in a West Coast suburb

1970s-vintage housing, central Maple Ridge

1970s-vintage housing, central Maple Ridge

Late in its 2011-2014 term, City Council in the British Columbia suburb of Maple Ridge  ratified a housing action plan intended to promote housing choice and affordability.

The issue matters because quality housing is a key determinant of population health. At the dawn of the welfare state, as Canadian troops returned from World War Two, the federal government promoted affordable housing investment from the private and public sectors. By the 1980s, Ottawa and the provinces had turned their backs on this effort. The cost of this rollback has fallen mostly on renters, with an increasingly creaky and leaky stock of dedicated rental housing from sea to sea.

Canada’s local governments are left to nibble away at the problem on a volunteer basis, through local regulation and small-scale partnerships. The Maple Ridge plan’s 2014 recommendations were cautious enough that they avoided drawing fire in a middle-class suburb. The authors, a city-sponsored advisory council, started from a basic premise that the availability of housing affects everyone who cares about the liveability of their urban community.

Metro Vancouver’s housing costs are among the highest on the North American continent. Maple Ridge, a peripheral suburb of 75,000 people, is relatively lucky: above-average incomes, below-average home prices and widespread home ownership. However, the housing plan identifies the following deficiencies:

– A scarcity of housing options for seniors wanting to downsize
– A scarcity of quality rental housing
– A critical shortage of housing for the working poor and families living on social assistance, putting some at risk of homelessness
– Poor access to transit, retail services and other services for those housed outside the urban core

The plan’s recommendations for city government generally align with suggestions made on this site, such as:

– Encourage a diversity of housing forms and land uses in each neighbourhood;
– Work with developers to increase the supply of rental housing; and
– Focus housing development in the urban core, so that residents can walk to services.

New supportive housing (2013 photo), central Maple Ridge

New supportive housing (2013 photo), central Maple Ridge

Homelessness — along with  issues associated with homeless people living on the street —  played a big part in the local election campaign that ended on November 15. It was proposed that there should be a Mayor’s task force to tackle these issues, and the main proposer is now the mayor-elect in Maple Ridge.

I will support the work of the task force. At the same time, a too-narrow focus on street poverty, with its scope for blaming and drama, may obscure the more subtle and pervasive housing issues that reduce quality of life for seniors, students and many working families. Housing policy, as the federal and provincial governments have long been aware, is not a big political winner. There is no glory in  applying modest administrative and planning tactics to spin off occasional rental housing units here and there. It’s more likely, in fact, that this kind of change will bring a political backlash from homeowners.

My hope for the newly elected council, nonetheless, is that Maple Ridge should push forward with its modest housing action plan, in the open light of day. With more people housed, it seems logical that we will see fewer people without housing.

[This item was in fact posted on November 17, 2014, but for mysterious reasons shows a November 2 date.]

Vintage house, decaying reduced

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