What is the City of Nanaimo doing to make housing more affordable?

A recent city council meeting brought the new council up to speed with affordable housing actions underway and needs still overlooked.
A new building with five floors stands with a sign in front showing rentals are available.
Rental units like this one on Barsby Ave. are increasingly unaffordable, local renters say. Photo by Denisa Reyes/The Discourse

An affordable housing update was the focus of a city council governance and priorities committee meeting on Jan. 9.

The meeting was intended to bring the newer council and general population up to speed on what progress the city had made on its Affordable Housing Strategy and what actions are on the table for this year. Dale Lindsay, general manager for City of Nanaimo development services, was the lead presenter with support from Lisa Brinkman, manager of community planning and Christy Wood, social planner. 

The city’s affordable housing strategy sets out priorities to lower the cost of housing from 2017 to 2027 — from emergency shelter spaces to supportive housing to long-term non-market housing.   

Short-term rentals and infill housing

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A key achievement in 2022, according to city staff, was the implementation of business licenses as a requirement to operate short-term rentals, as a way to restrict the number of available rental units used only for short-term rentals. 

Since the requirement launched in 2022, over 160 applicants have been approved for a business license. Brinkman notes the next step will be enforcing the requirement for non-compliant short-term rentals. It’s not clear from the presentation how many suites the new requirement opened up for longterm tenancies.

Another big item on the city’s list was to incentivize the construction of affordable housing with “density bonusing” — where the city grants a developer permission to build more units than zoning typically allows in exchange for “amenities” like purpose-built rentals or non-market housing units.  

Future amenities in alignment with the new city plan could include innovative forms of home ownership, community spaces that promote resident interaction or childcare spaces.

The city updated zoning bylaws to make it easier to add additional units on a property without the property needing to be rezoned. Units need to be secured by a housing agreement to be eligible. 

Plans for 2023 include another update to zoning bylaws to include density bonuses for family-friendly and adaptable units, in keeping with priorities identified in the new city plan

 A 2023 census of Nanaimo zoning could show what neighbourhoods are low-density and appropriate to target for densification. Council has encouraged staff to find ways to make approvals for carriage houses and secondary suites even easier.

Coun. Erin Hemmens asked what more the city could be doing if current bylaws allow secondary suites and carriage houses throughout the city. 

Lindsay, general manager for City of Nanaimo development services, noted the current bylaw only allows one or the other on each property and future updates could allow for both on a single property. The city could also expand the lot sizing requirement for carriage houses or allow even more secondary units per lot.

The topic of what counted as carriage housing brought forward the topic of tiny homes and if those would eventually be allowed under carriage house regulations. Currently, factory-built housing can be added to properties as a detached suite, and that could be a stepping point for defining tiny homes. 

“I think it’s important to clarify what we mean when we say tiny homes,” Lindsay elaborated. “Sometimes they’re used interchangeably with what we would call detached suites. But the city needs to look at coming up with what we define as a tiny home if we want to move forward on that option.

Related: Could tiny homes ease the housing crisis?

Transitional and supportive housing

Tiny homes were mentioned again as a possible solution when it came to the need for supportive housing, with council bringing up the Cowichan model of sleeping cabins used as emergency shelter. 

Brinkman pointed out that at an April 21, 2021 council meeting, city staff delivered an information report which laid out what funding and operational support would be needed to create this type of transitional shelter. The report made clear the city did not have capacity to run this type of housing safely and would require help from partners.

At that council meeting staff were directed to call for expressions of interest to see if any organizations could run transitional housing for 24 people at two yet-to-be-identified sites. 

However a few months later, at a July 26 2021 meeting, city council chose not to proceed with the expressions of interest report and proposal. 

Since then, the city says it has worked to implement other temporary emergency accommodations with select units now available at Labieux Road and 250 Terminal Rd. supportive housing locations.

City staff reminded council they have also worked with Snuneymuxw First Nation to develop modular housing on reserve land for temporary emergency housing.

At this, Coun. Paul Manly pointed out that more transitional housing is still needed, such as a designated camping location.

“We have to find a way to be more humane with people in this community. I know there’s veterans in our community living in the woods (at Bowen Park), dealing with PTSD. And our current models of housing don’t support or fit their needs.”

The 2019 BC Housing memorandum of understanding between Snuneymuxw First Nation, Board of Education School District No. 68 (Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools), City of Nanaimo and BC Housing Management Commission proposed to develop seven locations for supportive housing and affordable rental housing. The projects ranged from completed to still in the early development stage.

“Modular construction will continue,” Lindsay says. “This is still a faster process in our experience than the other options available, than building a whole structure.”

The city owned vacant property at 1425 Cranberry Ave. is waiting for a finalized lease before 46 affordable housing units are developed by BC Housing. 

Te’tuxwtun Project remains in concept development phase with ongoing community consultation. It is expected that rezoning applications will be filed this spring with a request for 40 family friendly affordable housing units added to Te’tuxwtun Project and other approved areas.

Low-income vs affordable housing?

At points through the presentation, clarification on affordable, low-income and supportive housing definitions were requested. And as some councilors pointed out, definitions of affordable didn’t always match up with current needs.

“A lot of the affordable housing units we’re talking about are really for service worker income,” Coun. Manly said. “I think that part of the issue in our community is that people get confused between supportive housing and affordable housing. If you’re working at the grocery store or at the coffee shop, you really need affordable housing in this community.” 

Manly then brought up the strategy used by Whistler to reserve rental housing for employees to attract workers . Manly noted this would work parallel to affordable and supportive housing projects.

Coun. Ben Geselbracht, in response to Manly’s critique on the city’s current plans, noted the country wide crisis and the growing fatigue in municipalities faced with the crisis.

“My general sense is that the effort from the province and municipalities isn’t commensurate with the scale of the problem. There is an exhaustion setting in with not being able to do enough.” 

As Coun. Sheryl Armstrong points out, many of the higher profile strategies currently being developed fall short of supporting an overlooked population of Nanaimo’s unhoused residents. 

“A lot of this still doesn’t really touch on our couch surfers and vehicle dwellers. That needs to be something we start to focus on, that quieter population of unhoused.”

Another 2023 priority outlined in the affordability housing strategy includes requiring tenant relocation plans as a condition of approving the redevelopment of existing rental housing properties. 

The strategy also aims to pre-zone appropriate parcels for affordable housing in alignment with urban centre and corridor areas idenitified in the city plan.

Do you have a question about Nanaimo’s affordable housing strategy? Write to us.

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