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‘We have to get things built faster,’ says B.C. housing minister in Chilliwack on affordable housing

Chilliwack one of several Fraser Valley communities to see housing minister touch down for meetings
B.C. Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon, left, and MLA Kelli Paddon talking housing affordability in Chilliwack. (Jennifer Feinberg/ Chilliwack Progress)

B.C. Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon was in Chilliwack Thursday (Jan. 5) talking about plans to tackle B.C.’s affordable housing crisis.

“For me speed is key, we have to get things built faster,” Kahlon said.

Speeding up permitting approval is part of the plan since some desperately needed projects having taken up to eight years to come online in some communities.

“You’ll be seeing from us a refreshed housing strategy in the coming months,” the minister pledged after sitting down with Mayor Ken Popove at city hall.

Kahlon touched down in Chilliwack accompanied by Chilliwack-Kent MLA Kelli Paddon on the heels of similar meetings with mayors in the Langleys and Abbotsford this week.

Mayor Ken Popove said he’d been looking forward to meeting with the minister to map out some of Chilliwack’s housing concerns.

Chilliwack had the highest increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in the Fraser Valley in the last count, with 306 people self-identifying as homeless - an increase of 38 per cent from the last count in 2017.

The mayor echoed the minister’s co-operative vision.

“Making sure the province helps create affordable, safe and appropriate housing for our residents is a priority, and I look forward to continued partnerships with the province in the future,” Popove said. “We work better together.”

Housing is a provincial jurisdiction, but City of Chilliwack has jumped into the fray by waiving fees and development cost charges on housing projects, and supporting several affordable housing projects, and housing first developments in Chilliwack. Various types of affordable housing, and hundreds of units of supportive housing, have been built in Chilliwack since council approved its Homelessness Action Plan, focused on the housing first approach, in 2016.

Asked if he had a sense of how Chilliwack is doing relative to other communities, the housing minister replied that Chilliwack is doing “fairly well” given its rapid growth, and is doing “great” on efforts to work in co-operation with other agencies and levels of government with the Chilliwack Healthier Community network.

“The fact that you are seeing the growth here, but at the same time, you’re not forgetting the most vulnerable populations, is what’s needed,” Kahlon said. “Too often communities grow and then say, ‘Oh, we have a problem’ and then try to figure it out. But to have the leadership you have here with all levels of government saying, let’s grow and let’s address these issues as we grow, is actually the way to go forward. So I think they’ve taken good steps.”

The effort to create more housing infrastructure is taking too long across the province.

‘We’re not building at the rate that we need to be building, and that it’s taking far too long to build is actually part of the problem we’re trying to address,” Kahlon said.

“If you look at the amount of funding that went to affordable housing for the last 20 years, you’ll see that when our government formed, we dramatically, I think six times increase the budget for affordable housing.”

The minister stressed that homelessness is on the rise in general, not just in B.C.

“If you look at San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, if you look at all jurisdictions coming out of the pandemic, everyone has seen an increase in vulnerable populations, an increase in homelessness. If you go across the country, you’re seeing the same thing. So I wouldn’t say that it’s unique to British Colombia.

“We have a particular challenge which is, we do have some of the highest housing costs in the country. We also have the strongest economy in the country which is attracting record numbers last year.”

The housing minister’s mandate letter from Premier David Eby focuses on the need for “attainable and affordable housing.” How will they make it attainable?

RELATED: Premier Eby releases affordable housing plan

“Well the challenge is that every single person has a different view of what housing means to them,” Kahlon said. “If you talk to a young person, they’ll talk with student housing, they’ll talk about how to be close to school, they’ll talk forget about buying. They say ‘How am I gonna afford to rent a place?’

“If you talk to a young family, they want to be able to buy a place and grow their families and they’re trying to figure out where to go. If you talk to seniors who have homes, they’re like where are my kids gonna live? And how are my grandkids gonna be close to me?

“So housing means different things to different people. And that’s the challenge that we have, since the median incomes are different in each community.”

RELATED: Affordable housing for seniors, youth

Part of the new provincial strategy that’s coming will look at the problem as a whole, but also community by community.

“So communities can get the housing that fits within the median income of their population so that they can protect or save some of the the naturalness of their community but also be able to build the housing for the growth of the future.”

He touched on the standard definition for “affordable housing” used by most agencies, which is that somebody’s rent or housing costs shouldn’t exceed 30 per cent of their income, while also acknowledging the “affordability gap.”

“And so our goal right now is, using the same metrics as CMHC, 30 per cent of pre-tax income.

“But again, when you see prices going up, rents going up and wages not going up at the same rate, there’s the real challenge.”

One way they’ve tackled it is with “aggressive” action to raise wages.

“That’s why we’ve taken initiatives to protect workers in a better way, with five days paid sick leave and a whole bunch of measures because housing is one part of a bigger problem that we have, which is coming out of the pandemic things have become less affordable. And so we’re trying,” the minister said.

“How do we ensure there are co-ops and and different types of housing, non-market housing, non-market rental housing built? It’s going to require all the levels of government working together, because it’s not just a Vancouver problem.

“This is a challenge that as a community, as a region, as a province, we all have to deal with it together.”

RELATED: 306 people in Chilliwack in the last homeless count

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Jennifer Feinberg

About the Author: Jennifer Feinberg

I have been a Chilliwack Progress reporter for 20+ years, covering the arts, city hall, as well as Indigenous, and climate change stories.
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