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Housing plan splits Brandon's top NDP

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BRANDON -- It is an ambitious proposal that would increase the supply of safe, affordable housing throughout Brandon but, in a strange twist, it has pitted Brandon's top two New Democrats against each other.

With a rental-market vacancy rate of just 0.2 per cent, Brandon has a city council that is considering a zoning bylaw that would ease restrictions on secondary suites and boarding houses. Under the plan, boarding houses will become a permitted use in all areas of the city other than trailer parks, the mandatory requirements will be relaxed and minimum parking-space requirements will be reduced.

While "secondary-dwelling units" are currently limited to use by an extended family member within a single-family dwelling, the proposed amendment would broaden the definition to include a secondary suite in the same building, a garage, or even a garden suite.

Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst is a vocal advocate for affordable housing and a strong supporter of the proposal.

"The regulations will provide a better standard of housing," she recently told the Brandon Sun, "so when the housing is secure and safe and meeting building codes, then it creates an environment that is conducive to people making good choices."

Decter Hirst is right, but there are many more positives to this plan.

The restrictive nature of Brandon's current land-use scheme has limited the supply of rental accommodations to just a few areas of the city -- most notably the core area -- and has forced individuals and families to accept whatever housing they can find.

The new plan would dramatically increase both the supply and quality of rental housing throughout the city, giving tenants the freedom to choose the neighbourhood where they want to live, along with improved access to schools, shopping and recreation facilities.

It would also help slow urban sprawl, balance the use of infrastructure throughout the city and reduce the need for government-funded housing projects.

Most important, the proposal would make Brandon's neighbourhoods more inclusive and reflective of the diverse cultural and economic makeup of the city's population.

Another positive aspect of the plan is the impact it would have on those who are struggling with the increasing costs of home ownership. With utility bills and taxes on the rise, many Brandonites, especially seniors, are finding it increasingly difficult to remain in their own homes. The new bylaw would permit them to generate rental revenue and help them make ends meet.

While the plan appears to enjoy the broad support of Brandonites, Brandon East NDP MLA Drew Caldwell has been a lone, loud voice of opposition.

"It's the worst possible option for the creation of housing because it does destroy neighbourhoods and makes them more dangerous places in which to live," he told the Sun.

He claims the city's plan would promote crime, poverty and the marginalization of the poor.

Those incendiary comments earned a swift rebuke from Decter Hirst.

"I just want to assure our MLA that having safe neighbourhoods is as much a priority for me as it is for him," she responded.

Caldwell's intervention in the issue is difficult to fathom, for a number of reasons. First, this is a city proposal that should be allowed to proceed without the heavy-handed involvement of a government MLA.

Second, the amendments would impact Caldwell's riding far less than Brandon West, which is represented by Progressive Conservative MLA Reg Helwer.

If Helwer opposed the plan on the basis it promotes crime -- a position he has not taken -- Caldwell and his NDP colleagues would immediately condemn Helwer for fear mongering and stigmatizing the poor.

Finally, the Selinger government is proposing legislation (Bill 7) that would give municipalities the power to force developers to include affordable housing in new residential developments. Does Caldwell also believe Bill 7 would promote crime and destroy neighbourhoods?

The proposal being considered by Brandon city council has the potential to do far more to solve Brandon's affordable housing issue than Caldwell has accomplished in his 14 years as an MLA -- and maybe that's his real objection.

Instead of trying to derail the new approach, he should put his ego aside, get out of the way and allow the proponents of the plan the opportunity to get the job done.


Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 30, 2013 A13

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