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Bureaucracy can bog down building affordable housing

Don Procter
Bureaucracy can bog down building affordable housing
DON PROCTER — President and CEO of Concert Properties Brian McCauley (second from left) believes the key to getting affordable housing units built is to have alignment of government initiatives and incentives. McCauley was one of three panellists at a recent Land & Development Conference seminar in Toronto.

While various governments have promising strategies and incentives to boost affordable housing developments across Canada, “the fact is that little of it has landed so far.”

A case in point is the federal government’s $40-billion affordable housing program to run over 10 years. “Very little of it has been spent,” said Brian McCauley, president and CEO, Concert Properties, a rental housing developer with properties in Victoria, Vancouver and Toronto.

Speaking at a seminar on innovative solutions to kick start affordable housing, McCauley said key to getting thousands of needed affordable units to market as quickly as possible is the alignment of government initiatives and incentives.

“We have municipalities that are just grinding us through the process…at incredibly slow paces” at a time when the need for affordable housing is pressing, said McCauley, one of three panelists at the Land & Development Conference seminar in downtown Toronto.

Panelist Thom Armstrong is executive director of the Community Land Trust of B.C., a non-profit real estate developer which creates and preserves land for low and moderate income households. “It is a way to aggregate assets in the community housing sector without having to merge co-ops or non-profits,” he said, pointing out that the land trust’s development capacity is bolstered by partnerships with private sector developers and municipalities.

Armstrong, who is also executive director of the Co-operative Housing Federation of B.C., said the Achilles Heel of the community housing sector has been its small scale, leaving it with a “lack of capacity, lack of capital.”

He told delegates that recent power given by B.C. to municipalities to zone land for purpose-built rental “has the potential to be significant” for developing rental housing. In Vancouver more than 50 per cent of the city’s residents are renters.

But Armstrong argued that government initiatives “can’t just layer on” requirements such as accessibility and energy efficiency without understanding the cost hikes involved for private and community sector developers. “When you are a non-profit or community housing developer, you don’t have profit margin to erode with those costs so they just go straight to rents.”

Armstrong said people who believe only non-profits and co-ops can deliver long-term affordable housing are mistaken. “Every stick of social housing in Canada…has been built by the private sector. The community and private sectors are inextricably linked” in delivery models for affordable housing.

The Community Land Trust would not be where it is today if it were not for its partnerships with companies like Concert Properties, he told seminar delegates.

McCauley said Concert Properties, which owns and manages its own buildings, tries to align itself with non-profits and land trusts to “bring their level of expertise” to the affordable development table.

As an example, Concert has head leased units to non-profit groups, including a mental health agency, for resident placement.

This fall the developer plans to start construction on a 308-unit rental building in Coquitlam. The project is being done in partnership with three government levels. One hundred units will be head leased to a non-profit group, McCauley said.

“It’s a very convoluted way of trying to achieve greater affordability…but it really does take a creative approach to an alliance or partnership…to bring greater affordability.”

McCauley added that working with Toronto’s Open Door Program (an affordable rental housing initiative) and through CMHC financing, Concert is developing a 235 unit residential tower in Etobicoke with 70 units below market value.

Daniel Winberg, principal of developer The Rockport Group, sees the value of partnering with the non-profit sector. Teaming up with Artscape, a not-for-profit that makes creative spaces, was instrumental in the design of Artscape Weston Common, a 30-storey rental tower with 79 affordable housing units and an 8,500-square-foot community cultural hub.

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