Column: Another step toward affordable housing in Chilliwack

Chilliwack's Affordable Housing Strategy is slowly filling some of the gaps in the city. But more work needs to be done.

Stable and secure housing is a key component to success in life. However, finding that housing in a super-heated market like the Lower Mainland can be a challenge.

In Chilliwack that hunt promises to get a little easier, thanks to a $17 million investment from BC Housing on Monday and the continued efforts by local non-profits and the City of Chilliwack.

On Monday the provincial government announced an $11 million commitment to the Mamele’awt Qweesome Housing Society, and another $6 million for supportive housing at Ruth and Naomi’s. Both projects will offer important additions to Chilliwack’s affordable housing inventory, and mark another step on the path charted by this city’s affordable housing strategy.

That strategy is more than eight years old. It was sparked by concern over the rising cost of housing in Chilliwack and the continued pressure on the rental stock in the community.

It wasn’t developed in a vacuum. It was the product of extensive consultations with the private sector, non-profits and the public. The result was a 30-page document, finalized in 2008, that provides a guidemap to affordable housing in Chilliwack.

“Affordable housing” is a broad term, and the strategy looks at a variety of housing types, from emergency shelters to long-term family homes.

At the time of its creation, the cost of accommodation in Chilliwack was rapidly outstripping incomes. As a result, more and more people were spending over 30 per cent of their income on housing, with some spending as much as 50 per cent.

The economic downturn at the end of 2008 cooled the housing market somewhat. But today, with home sales reaching historic levels, the cost and availability of housing is once again putting pressure on too many families.

Not only has the cost of owning a home reached unprecedented levels, the rental stock has been drastically cut as investment properties are sold. Estimates put the vacancy rates between zero and three per cent, depending on the location.

Historically, providing affordable housing has not been the role of local government. However, as other levels of government (the federal government in particular) have moved away, municipal governments have had to play a larger role. There are a few tools at their disposal, and some were identified in the City’s housing strategy.

Most centre on making the development process easier by fast-tracking eligible projects.

But municipalities can also increase the affordable housing stock through increased density, and by allowing such things as coach houses and secondary suites.

These steps may fill some of the gaps. However, they’re only one part of a complex mix.

Another key identified in the strategy is creating partnerships. This week we saw the successful result of that effort.

The Mamele’awt Qweesome Housing Society project, which gained its rezoning in October, will create 80 affordable units in an “urban village” setting. Construction is expected to start this spring.

Also slated to begin this spring is the long-anticipated project at Ruth and Naomi’s Mission. With the $6 million in funding support from the province, the project will add another 35 units, providing badly needed supportive housing for low-income families.

These additions come as other projects, like the Cyrus Centre for at risk youth (which hopes to double its capacity), The Village on School Street, and the Chilliwack Health and Housing Centre continue to support Chilliwack’s housing needs.

Other parts to this puzzle are still missing, of course – parts made even more visible by the dramatic increase Chilliwack’s homeless population. But we should acknowledge how far Chilliwack has come since it launched its ambitious housing strategy.