Revelstoke housing focus: Successful resort town affordable housing models are out there

Despite our growing housing crisis, Revelstoke still doesn’t have an affordable housing plan. We reached out to representatives and experts in the field of resort community housing to find out what we need to do to get on track.

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A row of homes on Second Street East in Revelstoke. Photo: Aaron Orlando/ Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

This article first appeared in print in the December 2018 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.

Dollar-wise, it was a big announcement: In mid-November the B.C. government announced they were handing out $492 million to build 4,900 units of affordable housing in 42 communities in B.C. Towns in our region benefited, getting the green light for housing projects; Nelson earned 45 units for families and seniors, Sicamous got funding for 36 new affordable housing units, Salmon Arm will go ahead with a 71-unit project, and Vernon will break ground on a 36-unit project.

Revelstoke, however, got skunked.

I reached out to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to ask why. Their response was that no entities in Revelstoke applied to get a piece of the first third of the province’s $1.9 billion Building BC Community Housing Fund, which aims to build 14,000 affordable units over 10 years. Revelstoke can apply during the next round, in early 2020, the spokesperson suggested.

With construction time, any successful application wouldn’t likely get built until at least 2022, which will be late for Revelstoke residents demanding action on affordable housing.

The new provincial funding is just one of the many pots of funding available from a number of provincial and federal organizations, who have recently recommitted to housing funding. So, why is Revelstoke, in the midst of an ever-growing housing crisis, leaving the money on the table? More importantly, how can we do better?

The Whistler model

Whistler is the gold standard when it comes to affordable housing for a resort community. Since committing to a goal of housing 75% of their workforce in the mid-1990s, the community has created about 2,000 units of affordable rental and ownership housing, administered by the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA), a quasi-governmental organization that leverages an array of funding structures to create new housing. According to the WHA’s 2018 annual report, over the past year, they’re on track to add about 225 new units, and they attracted over $6 million in external funding. This is the result of years of effort and support from local government to achieve their goals.

Cheeying Ho, Executive Director for the Whistler Centre of Sustainability (WCS)

Cheeying Ho, Executive Director for the Whistler Centre of Sustainability (WCS), said the mountain resort community’s successes with housing started with political commitment, and it then followed through by creating the WHA, a self-sustaining organization, which is largely funded via their rental units. The WHA takes a percentage off the top of rental rates to fund its operations.

“An independent authority is key to building an affordable housing stock,” said Ho during an interview with the Mountaineer. “It’s just so important to have professional staff dedicated to it. The model is effective and they have a really strong board with expertise in development.”

Currently, the Revelstoke Community Housing Society (RCHS) is the closest parallel in Revelstoke. However, it’s run by a volunteer board, which is tasked with the challenging job of managing Revelstoke’s current 14 units of affordable housing, and also applying for grants, and actual boots-on-the-ground housing development. The volunteers do this complex management and development work after their workday ends. (For more on the RCHS, see our story on page 36).

“There needs to be help from the municipality to get something like [the WHA] going. I think there needs to be some capital to get an organization going.” Ho said. She said it was important the community “has a plan and knows exactly to do with the money.”

Ho also pointed to an array of tools available to a municipality, most of which are not in place in Revelstoke. “There is lots a municipality can do. Rezoning is a very powerful tool that municipalities sometimes under-utilize,” she said. “It’s the time for municipalities to really use their zoning powers to demand affordable housing.”

Currently, Revelstoke’s zoning bylaw dates back to the early 1980s, and is badly in need of an update, something that many council candidates said they’d like to tackle during the 2018 election cycle.

The WCS recently completed a study on the leading practices for affordable housing in small communities, which listed and ranked the pros and cons of various tools municipalities can use. The tools included options such as secondary suites, density bonusing, inclusionary zoning, streamlined development approvals, housing levies, and many more.

Ho pointed to tools such as inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to build a percentage of affordable housing into new multi-unit developments, or density bonusing, which allows for more dense developments if the developer commits to a percentage of affordable housing in the project. She suggested, for example, a requirement in documents that “all new developments have a 15% non-market or affordable” component. “Be proactive in the rezoning process. Because each development needs a rezoning application, on a case by case basis,: she said. The units can be built “on site, elsewhere, [or via] cash in lieu.”

Ho said meaningful community engagement, and “having a clear shared vision, and what that means for affordable housing,” are key components.

Tofino Housing Corporation

Like Revelstoke, Tofino is experiencing the same seasonal housing rushes as Revelstoke. Workers in low-paying service industry jobs had nowhere to stay, and businesses are struggling to attract workers.

After a couple furtive attempts in the mid-2000s, the municipality committed to the Tofino Housing Corporation (THC) model in mid-2017, something that required political will and support from the local council. They funded about $250,000 to get the organization going, and have committed district lands for affordable housing.

Ian Scott, THC Interim Executive Director, came from the development community, bringing years of experience in private development projects to the role. He works closely with non-profit development contractors to actually develop the projects.

“I really think the housing corporation the model that Tofino chose … was inspired by Whistler,” Scott said. “One of the key moves that any group getting going can make is hire that professional support,” he said. “That puts you a lot further forward than trying to make it happen with a volunteer effort. It takes talent.”

The THC is in preliminary steps of building two affordable housing projects; one will be about 11-14 units, another potential future project approximately 55 units.

Tofino has also taken zoning steps to alleviate the housing crunch. Every property is allowed either a secondary suite or a cabin.

After establishing a professional housing authority, Scott lists his top three steps for a small resort town. The first is allocating municipal land for affordable housing. The second is getting the land properly zoned. The third is putting municipal financial resources into housing. “If the local government is not willing to put in money, it is going to be hard,” he said.

What’s happening here in Revelstoke?

Above: An early model of the Revelstoke Community Housing Society’s 24-unit affordable rental building, slated for construction near the B.C. Ambulance Station in Revelstoke. Image: Revelstoke Community Housing Society

(For more information on the Revelstoke Community Housing Corporation’s plans for the affordable rental housing building picture above, see this recent profile from revelstokemountaineer.com.)

I sat down with City of Revelstoke assistant planner Daniel Sturgeon and new city Community Economic Development Director Ingrid Bron to talk about Revelstoke affordable housing plans.

They said the city is currently in a state of transition, with many recent senior staff changes and a new council in November. The new planning director starts in early 2019, and affordable housing plans will likely follow in the new year. “We’re in a period of flux,” Sturgeon said. Once the city development services department is fully staffed up early in the new year, they’re hopeful they can devote more resources to the issue.

The City of Revelstoke recently completed its Housing Needs and Demands Study, which found the city is currently short by about 425 units of housing. The next steps towards more affordable social and market housing are not clear, but the city staff members said plans are in the works.

Recently, the city assisted the RCHS with land and significant zoning work to facilitate a planned 24-unit affordable rental apartment near the BC Ambulance Service building. The city also provided support for successful funding applications for the project.

However, the city’s overall plans moving forward are less defined at this point. In the new year, the city’s development services department is planning to issue a request for proposals for an affordable housing strategy, but that step will require political support.

“We would need to get endorsement from our council on what that vision would be,” Sturgeon said.

“We can’t think about housing in isolation of all the other challenges the city is facing,” Sturgeon said. He emphasized the need for a holistic approach on the city’s housing plans. “When we talk about housing, we’re not just talking about housing, we’re talking about everything. We will be deciding what the vision for affordable housing in this community is,” he said, emphasizing the highly interconnected nature of housing with the economy, social issues, and more. “I would like to see a vision statement that reflects Revelstoke, not just a boilerplate definition.”

Bron has only been on the job for several weeks, but said she’s hearing clearly from many sectors that housing is a top issue.

“Certainly everything I’ve heard from the different groups I’m working with, the different people I’ve consulted with, this is a key need. So, we’re listening,” Bron said. “It all comes back to accommodation for workers, for residents, as well as for emergency needs.”

Sturgeon acknowledged the urgency of the housing issue, but said that a cautious approach is needed to get it right.

“We are going to move through this as quickly as we can, knowing it’s a priority, but it is a process we have to go through. That process involves collaboration, capacity-building, communication and working across stakeholder groups,” Sturgeon said. “But it is a process, and planning processes tend to be not fast, and if you rush a process, it doesn’t go well.”

He also touched on the issue of vacation rentals. The city is using an online tracking system called Host Compliance, which tracks vacation rentals using digital tools. He said currently there are about 200 vacation rentals in Revelstoke, both illegal and legal. City staff are reevaluating the city’s approach to vacation rentals, and will be presenting plans to council in the coming weeks or months.

“We will have a report to council to reevaluate how the city addresses vacation rentals,” he said.

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