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Affordable housing idea works

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The Selinger government recently introduced a bill that would allow municipalities to encourage or require new developments to include affordable housing. This step hopefully will lead to a wider range of housing options in new developments.

The idea is simple: Municipalities will be able to enact "inclusionary zoning," requiring a percentage of any new development (usually 10 to 30 per cent) to be "affordable." Municipalities will define what affordable means, both for the initial sale and to ensure it remains affordable over the long term.

Inclusionary zoning can be mandatory or voluntary, and usually developers receive some form of incentive in return. It works best in areas where there is strong demand for housing and house prices are rising.

Inclusionary zoning is used across North America to increase the amount of affordable housing in new developments and sometimes in redevelopments and infill housing. Usually, the housing created is for ownership, not rental. Although it is a good tool for the development of housing affordable to middle-income households who could not otherwise afford to buy, it usually isn't used to create social housing, as a significant government subsidy is required to make social housing financially viable.

Properly implemented, inclusionary zoning does not create a hit on developers. Good programs are flexible and include tools to encourage developers.

In Langford, B.C., for example, density allowances are increased, enabling developers to build (and sell) more units at a price high enough to cover the costs of building affordable units. Other municipalities have waived development fees or other costs and may fast-track the project through the approvals process.

Municipal governments -- as with provincial and federal governments -- have a responsibility to ensure their citizens are well-housed. But, unlike other government levels, municipalities have fewer resources to draw on. Instead, many use the tools they have available, such as density bonusing, which allows a developer to build more units than the zoning mandates; allowing secondary suites and laneway housing; developing bylaws that control demolition and conversion of residential buildings; and including housing in the city's development plan and other planning documents.

In fact, Our Winnipeg, the City of Winnipeg's development plan, clearly supports "the development of safe and affordable housing throughout the city."

It emphasizes the importance of creating mixed-income neighbourhoods, or "complete communities." This idea came from the thousands of Winnipeggers who participated in SpeakUpWinnipeg and who said they want to see a city that is sustainable and equitable. Inclusionary zoning is a tool that can help make that happen.

A frequently cited concern is that if developers are required to build affordable housing, they will move elsewhere. In Winnipeg, for example, they might look to build outside city limits.

This speaks to the need for good regional planning, but it also highlights the importance of having flexible regulations and tailoring an inclusionary zoning program to specific contexts. The types of housing that could be built in a city are different from those that could be built in a rural area and so the tools to help developers include affordable housing will be different.

Why is this kind of legislation necessary? At the moment, housing is provided primarily by the market -- developers build and sell housing for profit based on market demand. As a result, housing is built for those who can afford to pay prices middle- and lower-income households cannot afford.

When such groups are excluded from being able to live in a particular area, it's called exclusionary zoning. Inclusionary zoning is a way to counteract this.

Although inclusionary zoning has a lot of potential to increase affordable housing, having the government pass legislation is not enough. The legislation only makes it possible for municipalities to enact their own bylaws, it doesn't require them to do so. It remains to be seen what decision municipalities will make.

Even if municipalities do pass bylaws requiring inclusionary zoning, this will not solve Manitoba's housing challenges.

The number of affordable units produced through inclusionary zoning will not be enough to meet the demand; it will only house a small proportion of the households looking for affordable housing.

Low-income households will still look to other housing programs, including subsidies and social housing, to meet their housing needs.

Municipalities, provinces and the federal government must continue to develop plans and strategies to ensure everyone has access to safe, affordable housing.

Sarah Cooper researches housing and community development at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 18, 2012 $sourceSection0

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