Affordability is Subjective

Maya2I live in the West End of Downtown Vancouver. I rent a small apartment — less than 700SF.  I have two bedrooms, with one serving as my office. I pay $2,400 a month.  Up until recently, my partner and I were paying about $1,700 a month toward a mortgage on a 2,500 SF family home in Langford (a suburb of Victoria), and earning equity with every payment.  So, to me, $2,400/month in rent is not affordable. And yet, I can — technically speaking — afford it. This is because my ability to afford something is less about the price of it then it is about my household income.  In other words, affordability is subjective.

I’m thinking a lot about housing affordability lately.  Not just because of my personal situation (which, frankly, is unsustainable), but because it is at the heart of the work I’m now doing.

I lead the Property Resource Team (PRT) for the United Church in BC (the BC Conference).  We are currently working on a property redevelopment portfolio that will result in 4 new churches built on 4 existing United Church properties (3 in the lower mainland, 1 on Vancouver Island), along with about 400 new rental apartments.  In addition to new church space, we’re building brand new, purpose-built, affordable rental housing.   There will be a mix of rents at each of these locations, but 51% must meet the affordability criteria set out by our financial partner and lender, BC Housing. This criterion, not surprisingly, is based on income.

In Canada, housing is considered affordable if shelter costs account for less than 30 per cent of before-tax household income, so the rental rates for the housing we are building need to be set (and kept at) rates that meet or exceed this threshold.

In a housing market as inflated as the Lower Mainland’s and with average Canadian’s incomes as stagnant as they are, this kind of affordable housing is important, and we’re proud of this initiative. At the same time, we’re very aware of the critics that say affordability is not enough.

It’s true — affordable housing is NOT social housing. It is not subsidized enough to meet the needs of people living in poverty and on social assistance. The housing we’re building is meant to be affordable for working individuals or families, for university students who have some savings or family support, for seniors who have reasonably good pensions. Affordable housing does not, using the vernacular of the tax agency, “alleviate poverty”.

In a world of scarcity and either/or mindsets, anti-poverty advocates and affordability advocates can find themselves battling against each other.  But this kind of binary thinking is not helpful and it doesn’t acknowledge abundance. Providing affordable housing and addressing the housing needs of the poor are not competing values.  They are different aspects of the same struggle.   Here’s the key:  affordability cannot be achieved at the expense of the poor.  Quite literally, it must be achieved at the expense of the rich. 

We in the United Church don’t like to think of ourselves in financial terms, but with membership and donations shrinking, we must. And when we do, we can’t help but see that while we are largely cash poor, we are also, broadly speaking, property rich. And this comes with social and moral obligations.

ethics2With these valuable financial assets, some entrepreneurial thinking, and the right kinds of partnerships, we are in a position to redevelop property — and do it without maximizing profit! Indeed, our redevelopment projects won’t make as much money as they would if we were to hike the rents as high as the market would allow — but they will make enough money to meet financial/debt obligations of  the redevelopment as well as our congregational renewal objectives.

If we can do this, why can’t market developers?  Why aren’t they willing to make less money for the sake of providing affordable housing?

Over the years, we have asked that question in many ways to various market developers — and while we have crafted some good and positive partnerships with hardworking, ethical market developers and entered into deals that are beneficial to the United Church — the idea of intentionally forgoing profit to improve housing affordability is unfathomable to many of them.  It’s increasingly common for market developers to make community contributions through City-mandated programs, but this is typically done as part of getting their market projects approved — a cost of doing business.  As it currently stands, however, market developers exist to make money. Affordable housing is simply not their purpose.

I’d like to see that change (I’d also like to see world hunger ended, racial discrimination eliminated, the carbon economy upended, patriarchy overturned, and so on). I’ll keep working on changing the world by doing what I can in my small corner of it.  As the PRT lead, that means working with people —  in congregations and other kinds of organizations —  who are committed to make housing affordability central to our congregational renewal efforts.


3 Replies to “Affordability is Subjective”

  1. Fantastic post. Very compelling – your absolute best. I hope it is well received amongst your readership! Enjoy Montreal.

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