Two years in, Cowichan affordable housing fund shows results

Cowichan Valley Regional District residents voted in 2018 for higher taxes to tackle the affordable housing crisis. Here’s what that money has paid for.

In the fall of 2018, Cowichan residents voted in a referendum to increase property taxes to help address the region’s affordable housing crisis.

The Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD) promised that the money, administered by the Cowichan Housing Association (CHA), would spur development of new affordable housing in the region. 

The pitch was, in part, that the region needed a pot of money to better attract funding from the provincial and federal governments. So far, has it worked?

“I can say with confidence that has been the result,” says John Horn, executive director of the Cowichan Housing Association. “We have generated a considerable amount of money coming into this valley that wasn’t there before.” 

In its most recent annual report, the association says that as of March 2020 it helped attract nearly $5 million in funds from senior levels of government to the region. Most of that, $4.2 million, will go towards new affordable housing in Ladysmith, a $10 million project spearheaded by the Ladysmith Resources Centre Association. Of that, $317,000 has come out of the new affordable housing money. 

John Horn is the executive director of the Cowichan Housing Association. David Minkow/The Discourse Cowichan
John Horn is the executive director of the Cowichan Housing Association. Photo by David Minkow

Where has the money gone?

The CVRD has requisitioned about $750,000 each of the last two budget years for the housing fund, slightly under the $765,000 cap. But it hasn’t all been spent. 

Of the $1.5 million, $500,000 has gone to the Cowichan Housing Association for programs and services related to spurring affordable housing development and preventing homelessness in the region. 

That includes its housing loss prevention program, tenant and landlord education, data collection and emergency rental assistance. The money also supports CHA to work with community organizations towards getting their affordable housing projects developed and funded.

The remaining $1 million, or $500,000 per year, went to the Housing Trust Fund, a pot of money to help brick-and-mortar projects get underway. 

The $317,000 towards the Ladysmith housing project came from that pot. So did $25,000 to each of the Cowichan Lake Elder Care Society and the Duncan Housing Society, to help those groups move their housing projects forward.

The cost of the 2018 referendum, $108,360, came out of the $500,000 trust fund budget in 2019. 

The rest remains in the fund, awaiting future projects. A CVRD spokesperson said the funds are held in reserve until the Cowichan Housing Association requests that they be allocated to particular projects and those recommendations are approved by the CVRD board. Reserve funds are held in the CVRD’s accounts, earmarked for the housing service and earning 0.96 per cent interest.

By the end of 2020, there will be $524,640 still in the fund, the spokesperson confirmed.

New affordable housing coming to Ladysmith

The $317,000 committed to the Ladysmith Resource Centre Association will go towards a 36-unit residential development on Buller Street. It will provide families with low- and moderate-income levels, seniors and those with developmental disabilities with homes. The project also received funding from BC Housing, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the Ladysmith Resource Centre Association and the Town of Ladysmith, the Ladysmith Chemainus Chronicle reports.

Horn, with the Cowichan Housing Association, says work on the project is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic but will start again in April with pre-construction work.

Development funds move projects in Lake Cowichan and Duncan forward

Small non-profit organizations spearhead many of the affordable housing initiatives in the Cowichan region. The housing fund was set up to support these groups with funds and expertise to develop their plans so they can attract capital funding from the provincial and federal governments. 

Groups can apply for up to $25,000 towards surveys, studies and consultants to help them develop a clear plan.

The Duncan Housing Society, which operates the Duncan Manor, and the Cowichan Lake Elder Care Society are the first groups to receive project development support through the housing fund.

The Cowichan Lake Elder Care Society has proposed a new affordable housing development on Renfrew Avenue in Lake Cowichan. In a recent Facebook post, the society says it has an agreement in place with the Town of Lake Cowichan with regards to use of the land, and has completed various reports and studies. Reached by phone, Ross Forrest said the society has no additional details to share about the project at this time. 

Horn says he anticipates the society will apply to access capital funds through the housing trust in the future.

The Duncan Housing Society is working towards needed renovations at Duncan Manor. Horn says the society expects to have a proposal in front of BC Housing by mid-January to apply for the Community Housing Fund, a province-wide program that seeks to create more affordable housing in B.C.

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Helping renters afford and hold onto housing

As noted, some of the budget money goes to support the Cowichan Housing Association’s programs and services to support renters. 

“We do a variety of things,” Horn says. “And really, it’s all aimed at: the more rental housing, the better.”

And next year there may be one more avenue of support. Horn says the Housing Association is in talks with the CVRD to set up a rent bank for residents who need some extra help making rent payments. They’d be able to borrow money from the Cowichan Housing Association and enter an agreement to pay it back without accumulating interest. 

The association will seek to partner with the B.C. Rent Bank, an existing program with a track record of success, to deliver the program. Horn says the CVRD and Cowichan Housing Association will start work in January to set up infrastructure for a rent bank. 

B.C. Rent Bank is a Vancity Community Foundation project that is funded by the province. It announced recently that it would open rent banks in the Lower-Mainland, Central Okanagan and the Nanaimo region. The rent bank is available to renters in low- to moderate-income households. Those borrowing from it will be able to pay back the interest-free loan over a six- to 24-month period.

The B.C. Rent Bank program has been around since June, 2019. Vancity says there will be 16 rent banks in the province by January 2021. 

As of the end of September, the initiative has helped close to 800 individuals and families maintain secure rental housing, according to the news release. It has also offered support like financial advice and access to government programs to nearly 5,000 more people. 

Are there other affordable housing projects in the pipeline?

Horn says that some of the work towards affordable housing development has slowed this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “But it’s also just the nature of the business, … because it takes a while to get to the point where you have enough of a schematic to ask for capital,” he says.

The Housing Trust Fund holds onto unspent money earmarked for capital projects. A growing pot of funding may be beneficial if some projects that require a larger grant come forward, Horn says.

Horn says despite fewer housing projects popping up during the pandemic, the Cowichan Housing Association has still been busy. It heads up the COVID-19 Task Force for Vulnerable Populations in Cowichan. The task force has helped find housing and shelter for people who are homeless or in precarious housing situations during the pandemic.

Read more about how previously unhoused residents are finding security and purpose at the Ramada in Duncan.

“We have been called upon as an agency to support the COVID-19 response for homeless individuals,” Horn says. “We also recognize the short-term crises that our citizens sometimes face so we’re responsive in that sense as well, trying to create innovative ways to invent housing.”

The Cowichan Housing Association is working with community groups on developing other affordable housing projects, Horn says. But he declined to offer specific details on early-stage plans. 

He says some of those projects are working to secure land, which can be pricey. The association is working to help find affordable land for them and then will help with project development. 

The housing association hopes that that work will lead to new housing units, particularly in areas south of Duncan, including Mill Bay and Shawnigan Lake, where the need for affordable rental options is great, Horn says. [end]

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