SURREY — Surrey council has approved a new housing strategy that zeroes in on preventing loss of rental stock through several policy changes, including a “one-for-one” rental replacement policy and a $1,000-per-unit affordable housing fee for developers.
The new policy, titled Surrey Affordable Housing Strategy: A Focus on Rental Housing, aims to “prevent the overall loss of affordable rental housing stock and strengthen the protection of tenants when multi-family, purpose-built rental housing sites are developed,” according to a report council considered and approved on Monday (April 9).
Surrey Councillor Vera LeFranc told the Now-Leader the new strategy was the will of council at the beginning of their term in 2014.
“I’m thrilled with some of the recommendations in it,” she said. “In particular, it was really important, and we heard from the community, that we really wanted to protect current and affordable rentals.”
Surrey’s rental vacancy rate has hit an all-time low in recent years, dropping from 4.2 per cent in 2013 to 0.6 per cent in 2017, leaving Surrey lower than the regional rate of 0.9 per cent.
— Amy Marie Reid (@amyreid87) April 10, 2018
In the same time period, the average rent jumped from $846 to $1,005. Homelessness in Surrey rose during that time, jumping nearly 50 per cent from 2014 to 2017 in the regional count, to 602.
According to LeFranc, the lack of “work force housing” has put pressure on units that would generally be home to vulnerable individuals.
“We’re seeing the housing at the low end of the spectrum being taken up by workers,” she said. “We used to see them go to people who were on income assistance or working in a really low wage position. Those people are now being pushed out the bottom into homelessness. We’re hoping to address the whole spectrum.”
How Surrey plans to address housing crisis
Over the past decade, Surrey has targeted its housing investment to those in the greatest need, including those who are homeless or at-risk of homelessness, according to the report to council.
The new housing strategy intends to “build on existing city policies and regulations that support the provision of appropriate and affordable housing along the housing continuum, from emergency shelters to home ownership,” the report to council notes.
To prevent loss of rental stock, a “one-for-one rental replacement policy” will be implemented in Surrey for “purpose-built” rental housing units lost to redevelopment.
The new strategy also includes a “tenant protection and relocation policy” for tenants who might be at risk of losing housing through redevelopment.
New tenant protections will be included in a new Rental Housing Redevelopment Policy, which will outline requirements for developers to implement a communication and relocation plan with tenants, provide at least three months of rent to tenants, find at least three options of “comparable” rental units, and offer tenants first right of refusal to a rental unit in the new development, among other things.
According to the report, the city will also “continue to fast-track the development approvals process for new purpose-built housing” and “encourage the development of secured purpose-built rental housing, especially with affordable rental units, in locations close to Frequent Transit Networks.”
Approval of the strategy also means a new $1,000-per-unit “Affordable Housing Contribution” from new residential development through rezoning processes.
In 2017, the city says it issued building permits for 3,250 new dwelling units and “based on this level activity, a $1,000 per unit fee would generate approximately $3.25 million a year.” At current land costs, the city estimates that amount of money could fund the acquisition of approximately one acre of land to allow for the development of 50 to 70 housing units in a town centre locations.
LeFranc said developers “have been very generous” and are “all on board” with the new contribution.
“One of the issues we are trying to address is the lack of land or land affordability to put non-profit housing on,” LeFranc told the Now-Leader. “So the ability to have that money put aside to address that, is something we’re happy about. Land is getting more and more expensive, so helping out some non-profit providers and encouraging rental housing is great.”
Councillor Judy Villeneuve explained this $1,000 fee as a “reintroduction” of a former developer charge that the city used to collect. In 2007, $9 million in what was then the Affordable Housing Reserve Fund was used to create the Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society.
The majority of Surrey’s purpose-built market rental stock is low-rise buildings built in the 1970’s. But for the first time, Surrey is seeing such developments materialize in what is referred to as “significant numbers.”
Last year, a 97-unit rental project opened its doors and this year, 1,250 new units of purpose-built rental stock are either under construction or in the planning process. Of those, 644 are being built right now, the city told the Now-Leader.
The new strategy delves into current national and provincial efforts to resolve the housing crisis, and how the city can capitalize on them. That includes the 10-year, $40-billion National Housing Strategy, released last November, which has a new National Housing Co-Investment Fund to contribute to repairing existing and developing new affordable housing, and must be supplemented by investments from another level of government.
As part of the the strategy, the city intends to “encourage the development of new secured purpose-built rental housing through partnerships” and “support Surrey-based projects to access funds available” through the new funding.
And in February, 2018 the province released its housing plan, called Homes for B.C.: A 30-Point Plan for Housing Affordability. This plan includes a $6-billion investment including rental housing targeted to working families and seniors, student housing, supportive housing for those who are homeless or at-risk and will be delivered through partnerships.
“The provincial and federal governments both identify municipalities as key partners in responding to the need for more affordable housing,” the strategy notes.
Plan lacks ‘dates and deadlines’
One longtime homeless advocate would’ve like to see hard timelines in the plan.
“I would like to see some action items that have dates and deadlines,” said Jonquil Hallgate, who is co-chair of the Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society. “I understand that it’s predicated on people wanting to build rental housing, so the city can’t magically get developers to do that if they’re interested in building home ownership sorts of complexes, but part of it has to be about the incentives that are offered.”
According to Hallgate, the strategy doesn’t “think outside the box” when it comes to different forms of housing.
“There’s a number of interesting things happening in other parts of the world to accommodate people with really limited income,” she said, pointing to modular housing and tiny homes.
Hallgate recalled approaching former mayor Dianne Watts with developers years ago to pitch a plan to approve bonus density if developers would give one or two units of housing to a non-profit.
“They could house whoever they wanted, that was the idea. But we were told, ‘That’s not something we do,’” Hallgate recalled. “We have to start looking at non-traditional ways, developing partnerships, of creating housing for people.”
Back in those days, Hallgate said she heard a clear message from city hall: “No to shelters, yes to housing.”
“Well, now look at it, we have shelters and we don’t have enough housing,” she said. “Now we’re building more and more shelters, accessing more and more shelter for housing space, but the housing hasn’t followed.”
As for the small homes Hallgate eluded to, LeFranc said they don’t “make economic sense.”
“You could put maybe 12 or 15 on an acre… it won’t work, the numbers just won’t work,” said LeFranc. “I think people romanticize the tiny home but they don’t work in this kind of an environment.”
When it comes to laneway houses, such as those seen in Vancouver, LeFranc wasn’t sold either.
“I think the circumstances are very different in Vancouver,” she said. “If you look at our experience with coach houses, such as Clayton, you see in our neighbourhoods not well served by transit, it’s not easy to deliver in those neighbourhoods. People who live in them rely on public transit, so until we build up public transit we probably shouldn’t be putting in those types of housing.”
Hallgate said leaders in Surrey spend a lot of time celebrating the fact that more than 1,000 people move to Surrey each month but she stressed “we have a .06 rental vacancy rate.”
“And so what are the timelines to move this (strategy) forward to actually accommodate the people who want to live here, not to mention people who actually live here?” Hallgate wondered.
Overall, Hallgate said the new strategy is a “good start” but said “it’ll be interesting to see how they unroll it.”
“And how quickly,” Hallgate added. “We’re in a crisis. I don’t think we have weeks or months. We certainly don’t have years. The crisis is here now.”
Rents rising, wages not
While Surrey used to be a “city of homeowners,” the proportion of renters has increased gradually over the last decade. Today, the city says 29 per cent of households rent in Surrey.
“There are on-going tight rental market conditions that have resulted in a significant number of renter households falling into core housing need (paying rents that are considered unaffordable for their income),” according to the April 9 staff report. “As well, the proportion of renter households living in overcrowded conditions is higher in Surrey than elsewhere in the region.”
While “affordable housing” is broadly defined as spending less than 30 per cent of one’s household income on housing, 37 per cent of Surrey renters spend more than that on shelter.
Exacerbating the affordability issue, the city notes, is that housing costs are outpacing income increases.
“Over the past ten years, incomes have not kept pace with increases in rent and housing prices in Surrey,” the strategy notes. “From 2006 to 2016, household incomes increased by 29 per cent, while rents increased by 48 per cent and dwelling values increased 70 per cent.”
— Amy Marie Reid (@amyreid87) April 10, 2018
The city did the math, breaking down what people can afford to pay and what rent actually costs. The report notes a “median renter” with a household income of $42,595 can afford to rent secondary suites and one or two bedroom purpose-built rentals. “Very low” income households earning less than $30,000 cannot afford to rent anything larger than a one-bedroom secondary suite.
A single person on minimum wage cannot afford any of the units at average market rents.
The gap widens even more for those on income assistance. “There are no affordable units of any size at average market rents,” according to the staff report.
Non-market rental stats in Surrey
The City of Surrey reports that 2,046 Surrey households were on the waitlist for social housing in 2017. Of those, 992 were families and 509 were seniors.
The number of non-market social housing units in Surrey is very low relative to Surrey’s population: Vancouver has a population of 631,500 and has approximately 16,000 units of non-market housing, whereas Surrey’s population is 517,887 and has a non-market housing stock of approximately 5,300 units.
Of those, 694 have supports (such as transition, second-stage or long-term supportive housing). The remaining 4,613 are non-market rentals for low-income residents, which includes co-operatives (which are managed by the residents within them) as well as rentals for low-income seniors, Indigenous people, singles, families and couples.
These housing units are typically operated by non-profits, BC Housing and the Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation.
Most of Surrey’s social housing stock was built between the 70’s to the 90’s, primarily with funding from provincial and federal governments. Construction peaked in the 80s, when 2,104 new units were built. Since then, the number has lagged behind, with 861 in the 90s, 747 in the 2000s, 369 in the 2010s so far. The city says more than 650 are currently in progress.
Meantime, there are 694 units of transitional and supportive housing in Surrey, with another 50 to 100 planned in a new Green Timbers shelter in Surrey, and another 250 units of modular housing planned with supports on-site, to be funded by the province.