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The Higher ED Blog: How one lower-tier municipality made its housing market more affordable

Michelle Madden / February 2, 2015

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The Higher ED Blog: How one lower-tier municipality made its housing market more affordable

Langford, BC, spent many years as a bedroom community of Victoria but recently, the city of 29,228 has begun to break out on its own. The population grew by 30 per cent between 2006 and 2011, making it the fastest growing municipality in British Columbia. The residential growth was accompanied by 800,000 ft2 of retail and commercial growth, much of it in the form of big box stores and large format wholesale and distribution centres. Langford can now be considered a shopping and employment centre within the region.

The growth—along with several aesthetic and livability initiatives and Langford’s proximity to high-priced Victoria—have caused housing and land values in the city to increase. While this was good for the city’s tax base, many elected officials and members of the development community saw that housing prices were outpacing increases in income.  Both the local development community and the municipal government recognized that the problem called for a regulatory response.  A paper that Matthew Baldwin, Langford’s Director of Planning, submitted to the Economic Development Program in 2013 outlined what the city did to improve affordability and describes the award-winning program he helped create and implement.

The first changes happened in 1998 and 1999 when the city amended its zoning bylaws to allow for small lot, single family homes. The new lots could be as small as 220m2, less than a third of the former minimum of 695 m2. The impact was seen immediately with the first of these new build homes selling for $180,000 ($15,000 less than the average resale single family dwelling).

Then in 1999, they made it possible to add secondary rental suites in all owner-occupied single family homes.  The secondary suite concession had two kinds of impact. First, it legitimized a huge number of illegal secondary suites, which were already present in up to three-quarters of all homes at the time. Second, it made housing more affordable by allowing buyers to factor in expected suite income when getting mortgage financing. Unfortunately, legitimizing the secondary suites did not improve the vacancy rate (it hit a low of 0.5% in 2007) but it did ensure that the illegal suites were inspected and brought up to standard. It also made it possible for new homes to be built with suites, as practically all new homes from that time onwards were.

Further incentivizing of residential development came in the form of mixed-use zoning and tax and monetary incentives for multi-family housing. The latter included reductions in development fees and tax holidays for the construction of rental apartment buildings.

The above changes relieved some pressure, but the real impact came from Langford’s Affordable Housing Program.  Designed in close consultation with the local developers association, the program required developers to build one affordable house for every ten (then later, fifteen) market lots. The requirement was built into the zoning bylaw as a bonusing tool—trading increased density for affordable housing.  Although it would apply only to developments needing a rezoning, this was practically all new single-family development, due to historic low density zoning patterns.

The program set standards for the affordable house to ensure that it was built appropriately to the needs of its occupants. The City required a minimum floor area of 893 ft2, three bedrooms, a single vehicle garage, storage space, a level entry (making the home wheelchair accessible) and complete landscaping.  To ensure that the price stayed low, the selling price was set by council policy, and a housing agreement registered on title regulated the resale values. The home also had to stay in the program for 25 years. The developer was also required to sell to a qualified purchaser, as determined by the City.

Between 2004 and 2013, 40 single family homes and eight apartment units were built and sold, several of which have also been successfully resold. The total investment into the community is estimated to be in excess of $5 million. These results were reached with practically no cost to taxpayers since the administration cost was offset by rezoning fees. Plus, the lower-than-market housing cost gave the new homeowners a greater ability to participate in the local economy through increased discretionary income.

The Affordable Housing Program earned the City of Langford national attention and multiple awards for showing that a single lower tier of government could effect positive outcomes on their local housing market. The program is largely the same today, but with a few changes to reflect changing times (and the impact of the 2008 Recession); since the policy excluded increasingly popular micro- and large-scale developments, it was expanded to allow developers to provide cash contributions to the City for affordable housing in lieu of building the units. This amendment was successful and the City plans to keep the tool flexible so that it can remain sustainable.

About the Author

Matthew Baldwin has been a planner with the City of Langford since 1997 and has held the position of Director of Planning since 2007.  He is a member of the Canadian Institute of Planners and is a Registered Planner in the Province of BC.  He holds an undergraduate degree in Economic Geography (UBC), a Master’s degree in City Planning (Manitoba) and a diploma in Urban Land Economics (UBC).  He completed the Economic Development Program at the University of Waterloo in June, 2010.  He and his family live, work and play in their community.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

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