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Coming Up: October 7

Council meets on Monday. The agenda includes:

  • Procedure Bylaw

  • Affordable Housing Strategy

  • Community Housing Corporation

  • Airport Commission Authorities

  • Subdivision and Development Appeals

  • Shallow Gas Tax Relief

  • Land Acknowledgement

Following is more information and my take on agenda items.

As always, any mistakes or opinions belong to me and me alone, not to Council or City staff.

While I express my current views below, I always go into meetings ready to listen and with an open mind. I learn new information and participate in debate. This always informs, and sometimes changes, how I vote on issues.

If you would like to watch the meeting or read any of its supporting material for yourself, you can do so by clicking here. The City will post the highlights of Council’s decisions here.


PROCEDURE BYLAW

The Procedure Bylaw dictates how Council meetings and Council Standing Committee meetings work. Since it is what governs how Council runs its business, it is one of the most important bylaws the City has.

This Bylaw has not been reviewed in its entirety in over 24 years. A new version is being proposed by administration. It has a number of updates, most of which reflect current practices or make it easier to read.

Many of the updates are very good. However, some also have me worried. Most concerning to me: this bylaw has some measures that would make it a lot more difficult for members of the public to address Council and Council Standing Committees. There are a few amendments I would like to see made.

I’m also concerned by the process this Bylaw has gone through. It was created by administration, and next Monday will be the first time Council discusses it. This is a normal process for Bylaws that I don’t generally object to.

However, the Procedure Bylaw is different. Since it is so fundamental to how Council operates, Council needs to give it careful consideration. It shouldn’t be passed the first time Council touches it.

I intend to make a motion to refer this matter to Council’s Bylaw and Policy Review Committee. This will give time for it to receive more attention before being passed.

If this referral motion fails and Council decides to push forward with the Procedure Bylaw on Monday, I’ll be moving a number of amendments meant to make it easier for the public to appear before Council. I’ll also likely be voting against having third reading of this bylaw on Monday night. If I do this, Council will be unable to give final approval to this bylaw on Monday: it will need to have additional debate and voting at the next Council meeting.


AFFORDABLE HOUSING STRATEGY

Council will be debating an Affordable Housing Strategy. It seeks to increase access to affordable housing for low income individuals and families.

Most of the Strategy is good. However, I have some concerns about a few of its particulars. I’m leaning towards suggesting it get a little more work before being endorsed by Council.

About the Strategy

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) defines housing as “affordable” if it costs less than 30% of a household’s before-tax income. A household is in “Core Housing Need” if it needs to spend more than 30% of its pre-tax income to find housing that is in suitable condition (ie: doesn’t need major repairs) and adequate space (ie: has an appropriate number of bedrooms for the household).

Earlier this year, the City completed a Housing Needs Assessment. It found that, in 2016, there were approximately 2,475 City of Grande Prairie households in Core Housing Need. Within the households who were struggling to find affordable housing, there was a high prevalence of lone-parent and indigenous led households, as well as households with seniors and/or someone who had an activity limitation. The Housing Needs Assessment also found that most units reserved for people based on need were only suitable for people living alone: there were few options for families.

This is a problem. Stable housing is important for all people, especially children, seniors, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations. Not having proper and affordable housing can lead to individuals losing their jobs, remaining in abusive relationships, taking part in social disorder, facing declining health, or having other experiences which lower their quality of life while causing them to draw on more government services. On the other hand, someone who is in proper housing is better able to be healthy and contribute to the community by working, purchasing, volunteering, and paying taxes.

Following up on the Housing Needs Assessment, the City has created an Affordable Housing Strategy for 2020-2030. The purpose of this Strategy is to increase the supply of subsidized housing for households which cannot find affordable market units, and to improve access to market based housing so that less households are in need of subsidy.

When it comes to subsidized housing, the Strategy calls for a general service level of 37%. This means that, in 2030, it hopes to see 37% of households who are in Core Housing Need (but who do not have other specialized requirements) to be placed within affordable housing units. It also hopes to see 57% of households requiring accessible units to be in affordable housing, and 65% of seniors in Core Housing Need to be placed. These targets were selected because they are the historical average of how many Grande Prairie families in Core Housing Need have access to affordable units.

To hit these targets, it is projected that 359 new units will need to be built by 2030. This would cost $45-$108 million. Primary funding sources would include federal and provincial grants, financing that is paid back through rent revenue, philanthropic giving, and private investment.

To hit its targets, the Strategy lays out three primary goals, each of which are accompanied by a number of objectives. Those are:

  1. Be a catalyst for the provision of affordable housing in the community.

    1. Have permanent City resources working on housing issues

    2. Understand community needs and anticipate future demand

    3. Advocate for local needs with organizations that play a larger role in housing

  2. Increase the supply of affordable housing

    1. Incentivize the inclusion of affordable units in new development

    2. Facilitate the development of affordable housing

    3. Create housing that meets the needs of the community

    4. Lead the development of affordable housing

    5. Preserve the existing supply of non-market housing

  3. Improve access to market housing

    1. Reduce cost of developing housing

    2. Encourage development of a range of housing options

    3. Address issues causing volatility in the housing market

    4. Support affordable home ownership programs

If you want to learn more about these goals and objectives, you can read about the accompanying action items in the Strategy document.

On Monday, Council will be debating whether or not to endorse this Strategy.

My Take

I support most of the high level goals and objectives described above. At the same time, I have three concerns about the Strategy:

  • The objective to “lead the development of affordable housing” could cause problems. The City certainly should have a leadership role in the development of affordable housing. But it shouldn’t be THE lead on most projects: often times the best approach is one driven by non-profits or businesses with government support. I may be too concerned with the semantics of this objective. However, there are some actions suggested which make me concerned about where this objective could lead. I have more on that in the following section of this post.

  • This Strategy doesn’t aim to actually improve access to affordable housing in our community. Instead, it aims to ensure that the ability for households to access it doesn’t drop below historical averages. I want to see us do better than that. If affordable housing is a problem in our community, we should seek to improve it, not just stop it from becoming an even bigger problem. While setting realistic targets is important, these might be a little TOO realistic- I’d like to see us shoot a little higher.

  • Our community doesn’t just need affordable housing which helps low income households. It also needs supportive housing, where people in need of it have access to medical care, social workers, or other professional help to allow them to get or stay healthy. This Strategy is only focused on affordable housing. Many of its strategies will also help develop supportive housing, but that is not its focus. I appreciate this because affordable and supportive housing are very different: they should not be approached in the same way. At this same time, they are very related: I don’t know if we should be adopting a strategy for affordable housing without also knowing what our supportive housing strategy will look like.

I think this Strategy provides a good starting point in planning how to address affordable housing needs in our community. It’s bones are good. But there are nuances to it that I think should be tweaked. And I don’t think there is a rush to adopt this Strategy. I’d like to see us take the time to get it right rather than pushing it through right now.

I’ll be going into our meeting on Monday ready to listen and to have my concerns addressed. I’m open to the idea of supporting this plan. But right now, I am leaning towards voting “no” to endorsing the plan as presented.


CITY HOUSING CORPORATION

One of the objectives of the proposed Affordable Housing Strategy is to “lead the development of affordable housing.” An action that comes out of this is to “create a housing corporation that will lead housing projects.”

Depending on how they get fleshed out and are implemented, I could become supportive of these high level ideas. That is why I am open to supporting the Affordable Housing Strategy.

However, on Monday, Council will also be discussing a draft business plan for the proposed Grande Prairie Community Housing Company (GPCHC). It describes how a City owned housing corporation may work.

In principal, having an arms length housing corporation might be a great tool in the City’s toolbox. However, there are specifics of the business plan which have me very concerned. I’m very unlikely to support it as presented.

Reasons for a Corporation

There are several reasons why a housing corporation may be a good tool for the City to have. Some of these include:

  • The City regulates housing. If the City is supporting a project which has opposition from neighbours, this can create conflicts of interest. Having an arms length corporation support projects may reduce this problem.

  • An arms length corporation may be able to have more flexibility than a City department. This could be a great help to projects which involve private industry or non-profit partners.

  • A corporation could be solely focused on housing issues. It wouldn’t have to balance other municipal issues, especially if it became financially independent from the City. This increased focus could help drive better results.

  • A corporation could become registered as a charity, which would help it fundraise. Additionally, there may be operating grants available to an arms length organisation which are not available to the City.

  • A corporation would have financial tools not available to the City. For example, it would be able to lend money or guarantee loans for private companies creating affordable units. Additionally, if the corporation itself borrowed money, that wouldn’t count towards the City’s provincially legislated debt limit.

  • A corporation’s board would have public members. This would allow it to have expertise which may not be present on City Council. It could also provide for more focused and consistent governance.

About the Proposed Grande Prairie Community Housing Company (GPCHC)

According to the Draft Business Plan,

The Grande Prairie Community Housing Company (GPCHC) will support the development and long-term sustainability of non-market housing within the City of Grande Prairie. Non-market housing refers to housing that is reserved for specific needs groups who face challenges accessing or affording market housing, such as low income households, persons with activity limitations, and seniors. This includes permanent supported housing, below market rentals, rent geared to income units, emergency shelters and other types of housing reserved for households with specific needs.

The GPCHC would be a registered charity overseen by a Board of Directors, not by City Council or staff. This Board would have two seats for City Councillors or the Mayor, one seat appointed by the Urban Developers Institute or another private industry organisation, and the remaining seats made up of other public members. All board members would have an equal vote.

The primary outcome of the GPCHC would be to “increase the supply of non-market housing in the City to support households in need.” The primary measures of whether or not it is hitting this outcome would be the number of non-market affordable units created, and reduction in wait lists for non-market housing.

To achieve its outcomes, the GPCHC would:

  • Develop non-market housing

  • Manage a supply of land for non-market housing projects

  • Manage the City’s Public Housing reserve, and

  • Support asset management of non-market housing in the community

This company would have an initial staff of three: a CEO, a project manager, and an office coordinator. During its first year, it would require funding from the City of $536,640 and it would need to fundraise $100,000.

The company’s first project would involve the Smith subdivision. The City owns an 11.8 acre parcel of land zoned for high density residential development. This land was purchased in 2014 for future social housing developments. It is proposed that the CPCHC undertake a first phase of development on this Smith site. This phase would be comprised of 42 townhouse units.

My Take

There may be merit in forming a corporation to pursue housing goals. However, I cannot support the Business Plan being presented to us. I have the following concerns:

  • I don’t know if it is needed for affordable housing creation. Affordable housing isn’t necessarily complicated. Many families are in need of financial help, but they don’t have any other complex needs or challenges. The most efficient way to serve them may be to offer financial incentives or subsidies to private landlords to have them provide below-market rate rent. We already do this for some households. I don’t want us to jump right into building affordable units when we haven’t fully explored expanding partnerships with private industry.

  • If the City decides to own affordable housing units, building them new may not be the way to go. While our first recourse should be to explore further partnership with industry, I’m open to the idea that maybe it cannot fill all of the affordable and supportive housing needs in our community. However, if more publicly or non-profit owned units are needed: they may not need to be new units. By 2030, rent prices are likely to be much higher than today (if only because of inflation). The best way to own affordable housing in 10 years may be to buy existing units, and hold there rent to 2020 levels going forward. I want us to further explore the potential of buying existing units before we jump to building new.

  • More focus needs to be on supportive housing. Affordable housing is a need in our community. However, I think we have an even more urgent need for supportive housing: places for people with complex needs to live and receive ongoing support (and maybe supervision) from social workers and other professionals. Of especial need is second stage shelters to help people move from emergency shelters to more permanent housing. I’d like to see any potential housing corporation have great focus put into supportive housing. I don’t see that focus in this Business Plan.

  • The Business Plan calls for a very large expense. The proposed Business Plan’s budget would require over $500,000 in municipal support. I don’t know if the budget is including all necessary overhead. It also calls for $100,000 of fundraising in 2020 and $50,000 increases to fundraising each year. These fundraising numbers seem very unrealistic to me. I suspect that the GPCHC as proposed would require significantly more than $500,000 in municipal support. Council should be investing money in affordable and supportive housing initiatives, but this doesn’t seem to be the way to get our best impact for it.

  • The Business Plan relies on charitable fundraising. The GPCHC budget relies on an aggressive fundraising budget. I’m skeptical that those targets will be hit. And if they are, it will be harder for other non-profits in our community to obtain funding. I don’t want to see the GPCHC competing with the rest of our charitable sector.

  • I don’t support the Smith development. I don’t support building large amounts of social housing in Smith. It isn’t the right neighbourhood. Many of the families that are likely to live in affordable housing do not have access to vehicles. I’d like to see them in closer proximity to schools, grocery stores, recreation facilities, and other essential services. Additionally, it is good for our neighbourhoods to have mixed incomes. I’d like to see affordable units spread throughout the City, not placed in a single development.

I don’t just have minor concerns with the GPCHC Business Plan. I fundamentally disagree with a lot of the assumptions behind it. For that reason, I cannot support its endorsement.


What I Could Support

I cannot support the Community Housing Company as proposed. However, I could maybe support one in the future. Here are some of the activities I would potentially be comfortable with it undertaking:

  • Supporting non-profit developments. We have several non-profits in town that want to build new affordable and supportive housing. Many know how to operate programs and property, but they haven’t built anything new in a long time. A Housing Company could provide small, interest free loans to do the initial design work needed to secure larger financing and grants. It could help non-profits develop business cases for new builds and secure capital. It could help in the procurement and project management of new buildings. And it could help non-profits navigate City and other regulatory processes. An arms length organisation may have more flexibility than the City in offering this type of support. Additionally, since the City needs to regulate development, an arms length organisation can be a stronger advocate for these projects than a City department can be.

  • Incentivizing and supervising privately owned affordable housing. A Housing Company could provide low interest loans to private developers willing to offer discounted rent. The Municipal Government Act makes it difficult for the City to do this directly. And if the City pursues a strategy of offering rent subsidy in private units rather than owning affordable units of its own: perhaps an arms length company with a board that has relevant expertise would be better positioned than a City department to administer this program.

I’m not fundamentally opposed to forming a Housing Corporation. It could be an important tool for the City to have.

However, a Housing Corporation needs to have well defined functions. These functions need to be attached to strong reasons that they can’t best be carried out by in-house City resources. And I need to be convinced that the money put into a Housing Corporation is both realistic and likely to have a significant per-dollar impact in our community.


AIRPORT BYLAW

The airport is owned by the City. However, it isn’t run directly by the City. Instead, an Airport Commission provides governance to the airport and is responsible for hiring and overseeing airport management.

One of Council’s priorities has been fiscal discipline. City administration has been working hard to identify and fix inefficiencies. One area of inefficiency: the Airport’s relationship to the City.

Despite the fact that the Airport Commission and its management are responsible for the airport, they require approval from the City to undertake some processes. This increases time requirements, and consumes both City and airport resources.

Council will be debating a new Airport Bylaw. It will expand some authorities of the Airport Commission. This bylaw would allow the Commission to set its own fees and charges and to negotiate its own contracts, permits, leases, and licenses. It will also update the land description of the airport to include land that has recently been acquired to support future airport growth.

This bylaw makes sense to me. I intend to support it.


SUBDIVISION AND DEVELOPMENT APPEAL BOARD BYLAW

Sometimes residents disagree with a City decision regarding development permits. When they do so, they are able to appeal to the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board (SDAB). This is a body that is required and heavily regulated by the provincial Municipal Government Act (MGA). However, it also requires a City Bylaw to operate.

On Monday, Council will be debating several changes to the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board Bylaw. These include:

  • Allowing public members to receive remuneration for taking part in half-day hearings (currently they only get paid for full-day hearings)

  • Requiring individuals to complete an approved training program before participating as Appeal Board Members or Clerks

I support these changes and will be voting in favour of the bylaw. However, I also intend to make a motion to amend the bylaw with one important change:

When someone appeals to the SDAB, the province requires that City to advertise the hearing. This advertising costs money. The applicant is charged a fee (currently $350) to recover advertising costs.

In the event of someone having their appeal overturned: it makes sense to have them pay a fee. This discourages frivolous appeals.

However, if someone wins their appeal: their fee should be refunded. In the case of a successful appeal, the SDAB is finding that the City development process failed in some way: the Board sees some flaw in City bylaws or how they were interpreted. In cases like this, the applicant has to invest a significant amount of time and energy into appealing the flawed decision. The applicant shouldn’t also be asked to invest their money, too.

I’ll be making a motion to amend the bylaw so that those who make appeals have their fee refunded if the SDAB rules in their favour.


SHALLOW GAS TAX RELIEF

The province has decided to offer property tax relief to shallow gas wells and pipelines. However, no fundamental changes can be made until the 2020 tax year. So the province is asking municipalities to help it offer temporary relief right now.

The province has asked municipalities to refund 35% of the property taxes paid by qualifying properties. In turn, the amount municipalities refund will be deducted from the invoice they receive from the province for education property taxes.

On Monday, Council will be debating whether or not to refund a total of $1,460.12 to qualifying properties within this City. I will be voting in favour of this. I am happy to help the province out. That being said:

This has been pitched as carrying no cost to municipalities since we will receive all the money we refund back from the province. However, there are costs involved in administering this program and presenting it to Council for approval. This is one [admittedly small] example of the province downloading costs onto municipalities.


LAND ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Throughout Canada, land acknowledgements are being used at civic gatherings to recognize the traditional or treaty territories of Indigenous peoples. These acknowledgements further develop relationships with local Indigenous communities and support reconciliation.

At our last Organisational Meeting in October, 2018 Mayor Given began with a land acknowledgement. This was the first time this was ever done at a City of Grande Prairie Council meeting. It is not our regular practice at Council meetings, and we have no policy for land acknowledgement at other City functions.

Earlier this year, administration was tasked by Council to develop a policy and procedure for land acknowledgement. Since then, Mayor Given has led discussions with local Indigenous elders and leaders. Administration has also researched land acknowledgements in other communities. Coming out of this work, two recommendations are coming before Council on Monday:

  • To approve the hiring of a consultant to further the development of our land acknowledgement framework

  • To have Council and Senior Administration participate in an education session facilitated by this consultant to better understand the meaning and value of traditional land acknowledgement statements

I’ll be supporting these recommendations.

Land acknowledgement would be a very valuable part of Council’s rhythm. As we make decisions that will impact our community far into the future, it will be helpful to be reminded of the long history of our land.

There is also a lot of trauma and pain within our Indigenous communities. This creates significant problems, and much of it is because of government actions. Building better and healing relationships between government and Indigenous peoples can improve the quality of life for all residents within our community.


That’s what is on our agenda for Monday. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

You can comment below. Or, you can contact me at dbressey@cityofgp.com or 780-402-4166. I'm happy to talk online or over the phone. I'm also always willing to setup a time to meet for coffee.

We also always have great conversation in the GP Round Table group on Facebook.

After Council meeting, you will be able to find highlights posted by the City here.

Thanks for reading!

-Dylan