The City of Abbotsford, developers and senior levels of government all need to work together to increase Abbotsford’s supply of affordable housing, experts say. This fall, the city approved this six-storey affordable rental housing project for Old Yale Road. Tyler Olsen/Abbotsford News

Can churches help solve Abbotsford’s rental shortage?

Experts optimistic city can turn corner on lack of housing

Abbotsford’s churches could help alleviate the city’s shortage of affordable rental housing, a University of the Fraser Valley professor says.

Earlier this week, a new report showed Abbotsford has the country’s lowest rental vacancy rate, with just one of every 500 apartments unoccupied. But while most have looked to governments and developers to supply new homes, UFV’s Cherie Enns said Abbotsford’s religious community is an untapped resource.

“There is no reason why anyone should be homeless and there is no reason anybody should have inadequate housing if this community is willing to be innovative and work together around creative responses to the challenges,” said Enns, who used to work as a planner for the city. “Let’s start with every church in Abbotsford that has extra land beginning to explore their options for building housing.”

With land frequently the biggest cost in building new housing, Enns said Abbotsford’s numerous churches with significant land holdings have an opportunity to play a key role in the development of new-market and non-market housing.

“The idea of redeveloping on sites such as church property is really exciting from a social justice perspective in my opinion and could gain a lot of traction within a city like Abbotsford.”

But Enns’s church proposal won’t be able to solve the problem alone. Rather, she and others say there needs to be a collective effort and creativity from developers, governments and non-profit organizations to get more housing built in the city.

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The current housing crisis stems from the Abbotsford-Mission area’s low inventory of rental housing, according to Steve Pomeroy, a prominent housing analyst and University of Ottawa fellow. When rental housing was being built in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Abbotsford was much smaller. Over the ensuing years, Abbotsford did grow, but its stock of multi-family housing was almost exclusively oriented in favour of strata condominiums. The government also curtailed tax incentives that had encouraged the construction of purpose-built rental buildings.

Now, a recent jump in demand has left the market trying and failing to play catch up. Skyrocketing home prices have pushed home ownership out of the reach of many. Workers in Vancouver have looked east for more affordable housing. And the area’s strong economy has drawn an increasing number of migrants from other provinces. Faced with higher mortgages and other bills, homeowners with basement suites have sought to raise rents. Those factors have all combined to fill the city’s supply of rental housing and push rents considerably higher.

Renters now share stories of landlords asking for higher-than-allowed increases, and of difficulties finding a place if they have pets, children or can’t immediately come up with a deposit. Many have suggested that the provincial government should regulate how much landlords can charge in rent. (There are currently limits only on how much landlords can increase rent on current tenants.)

While Enns said more analysis needs to be done on the issue given the immediacy of the problem, Pomeroy said rent controls could be counterproductive. Caps could help those renting now, but they would deter developers from building more desperately needed rental housing.

“It’s a two-edged sword,” Pomeroy said. But there is reason to be optimistic. The city’s low number of rental units means that a few new apartment buildings could turn things around quicker than in larger markets.

With around 500 units under construction now and another 500 or so proposed, Pomeroy said the completion of new buildings could have a significant positive effect.

“It’s easy to move the dial on the vacancy rate in Abbotsford.”

But the region-wide scale of the rental housing shortage also means that Abbotsford can’t solve the problem by itself.

“This is a supply-and-demand problem,” said Mayor Henry Braun. “When you have vacancy rates below two per cent, you’re going to see increased rents.”

The federal government’s new National Housing Strategy has created some optimism, and the City of Abbotsford is considering several options to promote the building of a range of more affordable housing as it updates its zoning bylaw and affordable housing strategy.

Braun and consultation surveys suggest those could include requirements for builders to include a certain percentage of family-oriented larger units in complexes. Braun said it’s also worth considering whether new multi-family buildings should be required to include some rental housing offered at non-market rates.

The city and local organizations are also developing several other programs, including Rental Connect, which will try to match those badly in need of housing and subsidies. Referrals will take place online and through local service agencies.

And while the need for more buildings seems to be the core of the problem, it’s not the only issue.

Enns noted that new housing must be built in the right locations – centrally and with access to services, schools and shops.

“If the developer and the market can be more responsive to the emerging groups that are challenged and are willing to look at the incentives that the Canadian government is now beginning to develop … I see great hope and opportunity,” she said. “You’re not going to fix the problem overnight, but a community like Abbotsford could become a place where housing is adequate, affordable and the community in the process of redevelopment becomes more livable.”

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