Students not the reason for housing woes

Rising cost of housing

A recent trend amongst urban planners and housing critics on social media is to take a deep dive into the theory that the growth of universities is having a negative impact on local housing markets, with particular consideration given to the rise of international students.

The argument goes something like this: universities are admitting more and more international students each year as a means to make more money, and while they are significantly increasing the number of these students - they are not building any new housing to home those residents and, as a result, competition for homes increases which increases rents.

In this vein, I decided to explore a little about the rates at UBC Okanagan through publicly available data.

From 2016 to 2023, overall student enrolment at UBC Okanagan (UBCO) increased to 11,978 students from 8,687, an increase of 38%. At the same time, the number of student housing units increased to 2,150 from 1,676, an increase of 28%. That meant that while UBCO enrolment is outpaced the university’s construction of student residence spots, it did not do so by a significant amount.

Of course, as I said previously, the argument being made by housing critics is mostly related to international students, so let’s focus in on that. From 2017 to 2023 the number of international students enrolled at UBCO increased to 2,613 from 1,676, an increase of 55.9%. Now that’s certainly a dramatic increase.

As the backdrop, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Kelowna was $980 in 2016 and today, in 2023, it is $1,952, an increase of 99%.

By looking at these numbers, I’m sure you could make the argument that housing prices have increased at almost the same pace as international student growth at UBCO, so they must be the cause. But that’s the incredible thing about statistics , you can make them say pretty much whatever you want.

It is highly improbable that the addition of just under 1,000 new international students is the cause of the Okanagan’s housing woes. But that hasn’t stopped this type of discussion from proliferating across online platforms.

In addition, the economic impact of UBCO on the Okanagan is an estimated $1.5 billion and employs 1,688 people in our community.

None of this is to say we shouldn’t be encouraging UBCO to build more student housing. As rents get more expensive, it becomes more challenging to attend university in Kelowna if you don’t have family or friends you can live with while completing your studies.

Further and disappointingly, the new UBCO tower in downtown Kelowna is not student housing. On UBC’s own website it states, “the housing that is included in the project is not a student residence but a facility where units will be rented out to students and others at rental rates that support their construction.”

That means that while they may choose to only rent to students, they’re not subsidized like student housing units and will likely be rented out at market-rent.

You may read this column and think, he wrote an entire column disproving his own thesis.” But it was never my thesis.

It’s something that’s proliferating online and sometimes it’s just as important to show that the theories of others do not hold true here in the Okanagan.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Use development cost charges to incentivize smaller, affordable home construction

Building affordable homes

When you read the comment section of almost any news story announcing construction of a new development now, the resounding question is always, “but will anyone who lives here actually be able to afford to buy there?”

A lot goes into what price a builder decides to list a home at, but at the end of the day it all comes down to how much it cost them to build the home.

Other than land acquisition, a key cost factor for builders are development cost charges (DCCs). In Kelowna, depending on where the you’re building, DCCs range from as high as $50,531 in the southwest Mission area for a home to as low as $26,997 for a home in the city centre — however the average is around the $36,000.

In Lake Country, the DCC for a single detached home is $30,633.

Building a new home places additional strain on city resources, like roads, bridges, water, sewer, drainage and parks. The city and its existing residents shouldn’t be expected to pick up the tab for that. The new residents and the developer should. That’s why DCCs exist.

But let’s bring this back to building homes that people can afford.

Taking the home in the southwest Mission as an example with a DCC of $50,531, that DCC will cost $50,531 whether the developer builds a five-bedroom, 5,000-square-foot home or a two-bedroom, 1,300-square-foot starter home.

That means there’s no incentive when it comes to DCCs to build a smaller home (this is not the case with building permits, which is another charge based on value). If a developer will see tax savings by building smaller, and therefore more affordable, homes, it creates an extra incentive to do so.

One thing I noticed while recently looking at detached homes was if you need less than 2,000 square feet, most homes are in retirement communities, or were built in or before the 1980s. But if you’re looking at homes built in the 1990s and later, they’re often larger than 2,500-square-feet. This isn’t because families got bigger (the opposite is actually true). Developers simply started building bigger homes. Any real estate agent will tell you homes are priced on a square foot basis, so the bigger the home, the more it costs.

That’s why it’s important to use some of the tools at our disposal to incentivize smaller home construction. These are the homes people can afford. Adjusting our DCC rates is one way of achieving that.

For example, why should a two-bedroom bungalow pay the same amount in DCCs as a three-story, five-bedroom home? The tax, as a percentage of the new home’s construction, is lower the more expensive (and larger home) you build, increasing the builders desire to build bigger.

At the end of the day, the DCC exists to reimburse the city for the extra costs associated with new growth. In nearly every case, a home with two bedrooms, and likely two to three people living in it, costs less to service than a home with five bedrooms and five to six people living in it.

It should be noted the DCC rate should be based on square footage, not the number of bedrooms. To understand why, we need only to look at England’s “Window Tax,” introduced in 1696, where homes were taxed based on how many windows they had. That ultimately led to people bricking over the windows in order to save money.

At the end of the day, a policy like this should be created in tandem between the municipality, the Canadian Home Builders Association, and other similar groups that can work together to determine at what rates developers would be incentivized to create smaller, more affordable new homes.

The Okanagan is home to some of the most expensive residential property in Canada, while British Columbia continues to face a debilitating housing crisis.

Continuing to do more of the same will not make homes more affordable. We need to get creative and look at innovative solutions to make housing more affordable and this is simply one of those ideas.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Kelowna needs help with its homeless, addiction situations

New strategy needed

Recently, Kelowna was trending across social media for all the wrong reasons, stemming from a video shared by Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre, which simply showed the homeless encampment on Kelowna’s portion of the Okanagan Rail Trail.

While it should serve as a wake-up call for the province and the federal government, I know it won’t.

The encampment site, required to exist due to law, is home to approximately 174 people, according to Kelowna’s Gospel Mission. The site, which I drive by frequently on the way to my parent’s home, has been steadily growing for the last several years with little to no action from the federal or provincial governments.

Kelowna deserves action.

The conversation around homelessness in B.C. is often centred around Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Those conversations neglect the reality homelessness is a challenge in many communities across Canada. However, some communities bear the brunt more than others.

In Kelowna, for example, we have generally warm weather and the designated encampment site is close to services yet sheltered from much of the public. Many Interior Health services that individuals rely on are focused in Kelowna.

The provision of affordable housing and addiction treatment is primarily the responsiblity of the provincial government. In the Central Okanagan, our MLAs are all from BC United (formerly the B.C. Liberals), with the exception of Vernon—Monashee NDP MLA Harwinder Sandhu.

With the governing NDP holding very few seats in our region, (the premier and cabinet ministers) don’t make the trip out to our communities very often anymore.

In September 2022, the provincial government announced Kelowna would receive 20 new complex care beds. That’s right, 20 beds. When we have a growing mental health and addictions crisis that’s fuelling a homelessness crisis (and a housing crisis that’s fuelling a mental health and addiction crisis) 20 beds is quite literally a drop in the bucket.

Kelowna’s former mayor, Colin Basran, prided himself on working collaboratively with the provincial to get these complex care beds, and he was successful. But if working collaboratively with the provincial government over eight years leads to the creation of just 20 beds, then it’s time to change strategy. It’s time for Kelowna to get vocal.

What’s going on here is not acceptable. It’s not fair to residents, business owners and those living on the rail trail and at other informal housing locations. We deserve and require immediate investments from upper levels of government.

For starters, Kelowna needs more than 20 new complex care beds. The provincial government must create regional recovery centres across B.C. Building facilities that treat patients with severe and complex mental health and addictions challenges, like the Red Fish Healing Centre in Coquitlam, are essential. People are struggling and need help. Decriminalizing drugs and not providing people with addictions support is simply wrong.

Kelowna also needs more shelter beds. A little known fact is the reason we must allow a designated camping site on the rail trail is because there are not enough shelter beds in Kelowna to house our homeless population overnight.

Any efforts to end the encampment on the rail trail must be centred around the fact that as long as there are not enough beds, people will be allowed, and in some cases forced to, camp outdoors.

Finally, Kelowna needs access to housing funding, and we need it rapidly. The federal government launched a program through CMHC a few years ago called the Rapid Housing Initiative.

The idea was to create new affordable housing within one year of receiving funding.

There have been three rounds of this funding to date but none to Kelowna. In fact, Kelowna is not even eligible. Communities like Burnaby, St. John’s, Charlottetown, Windsor, Saskatoon and more are specifically eligible for this program but Kelowna is shutout despite being the 10th most expensive city in Canada to rent an apartment.

Quietly playing nice with the provincial and the federal governments has not worked in our favour. Kelowna has a growing homelessness problem, not enough shelter beds, very few recovery beds and is shutout of major affordable housing funding streams. It’s time to shift strategies.

While Poilievre’s video of the rail trail does not depict all of Kelowna, it does depict a reality for too many of our residents. We need to get upper levels of government to pay attention, pay up and take action.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Banning drugs in parks, playgrounds not unreasonable

Drug decriminalization

The government of British Columbia, alongside the federal government, have decriminalized hard drugs in our province under a three-year pilot program.

That means that people can use and possess small amounts of drugs without fear of criminal repercussions.

In implementing decriminalization, the province came up with a list of certain areas where this wouldn’t apply— including schools and daycares. That seems like common sense.

However, much to the displeasure of many mayors—from Kelowna to Penticton to Sicamous—the list of exempted locations does not include municipal playgrounds and parks.

Municipal opposition even caught the attention of BC United MLAs (formerly B.C. Liberals) who took the issue on in Victoria. From party leader Kevin Falcon, to BC United MLAs Norm Letnick (Kelowna-Lake Country), Renee Merrifield (Kelowna-Mission), Ben Stewart (Kelowna West) and Peter Milobar (Kamloops-North Thompson), opposition has been fierce. Yet, from the government there has been no movement.

Locally ,in the Okanagan, the pushback against local governments and BC United has come from the Interior Health Authority.

“Punitive approaches would be perpetuating the harms we are trying to reduce with this exemption,” stated the IHA. “These harms also include stigma and shame that force people to conceal their substance use and use alone, increasing their risk of dying from substance poisoning”.

Does drug-use stigma kill? Yes, absolutely. It’s why we often hear of people dying alone in their homes from drug overdoses. These people are our children, neighbours, work colleagues and friends. People’s closest friends may not even know they recreationally use drugs because of the stigma associated with drug use. For that reason, they use drugs alone. That is a fact that cannot be ignored.

However, the same simply cannot be said for those people willing to use drugs openly in parks and playgrounds. I’m sorry, but if people are willing to use drugs on a playground, I don’t believe they have any concern around the stigma or shame associated with drug use. If they did, they wouldn’t be using drugs in a children’s playground.

If suddenly they are told they cannot use drugs in the park, they won’t suddenly resort to using drugs alone in their basement. That’s simply nonsensical.

The government stating that it is decriminalizing drug use, while adding “sorry you still won’t be able to use drugs in playgrounds, schools or daycares” doesn’t create more stigma, it simply puts in reasonable protections for people who don’t use drugs.

We need ensure that in protecting drug users, we don’t endanger non-drug users.

Another argument we’ve heard against exempting playgrounds from drug use is that people already use drugs there and it’s already a problem, so what does banning their use do in the first place?

This is true in many parks, but by suddenly allowing drug use in parks, enforcement officers, like bylaw or RCMP officers, will no longer have the ability to move drug use out of parks. That means the problem in parks where it is already an issue could get worse. So while yes, people are unlikely to listen to the new rules, without the rules there’s nothing the RCMP can do stop people, which can simply make the problem worse.

The poisoned drug supply and the addictions crisis facing British Columbia is severe and requires immediate action. The Portugal model of care which involves decriminalization is often held up as a solution, however what is occurring in B.C. is not that.

The government is implementing the decriminalization portion of the Portugal model without the wraparound services and care portion of the Portugal model.

The government has simply picked the cheapest and easiest parts of the Portugal model to implement, while ignoring the difficult, expensive and effective portions of the model, while simply hoping for the best.

Asking to keep drug use out of parks and playgrounds is reasonable to ensure children’s safety. The reason for the opposition from government is astonishing.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

More Wilson on Water Street articles

About the Author

Adam Wilson is from Kelowna and has an educational background in urban planning, where he published his research on the politicization of cycling infrastructure in the Journal of Transportation Geography. 

Adam was named as one of Kelowna’s Top 40 Under 40 in 2017 for both his research into cycling infrastructure and a number of political interviews he had done with Macleans, the National Post and CBC News. 

He previously worked as an urban planner in Toronto, where he focused on provincial legislation and municipal approval processes.

Most recently, Adam worked for Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, where he held various positions, including as the minister’s executive director of policy and strategic planning, and the minister’s director of communications. 

Adam now lives in Kelowna with his partner and works in the health care sector, while running his own consultancy that provides strategic advice on local municipal issues.

Email Adam at: [email protected]

His website is adamwilson.ca

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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