RDN will help Trust with tools for attainable housing

Derek Kilbourn

Sounder News

Tuesday, December 15 2015

While the Islands Trust and Regional District of Nanaimo are going to work together on making attainable housing a reality on Gabriola, the RDN does not currently have any intention of creating a tax function to help fund such a project.

Island Trustee Melanie Mamoser brought the subject up at the recent joint meeting of Trustees, RDN Director Howard Houle and staff from both local governments.

Mamoser said the Trust is exploring which useful tools and rules are available to be used, as attainable housing is one of the top priorities on the Local Trust Committee’s (LTC) agenda.

“We’re not sure what direction we’re going to take it in. Trust staff recommended liaising with the RDN to see what it has in place to support attainable housing.”

RDN staff said there have been recent studies conducted, studies which could be shared with the Trust.

There are also land use tools used by the RDN planning staff through development approvals - while the RDN doesn’t have land use jurisdiction on Gabriola (that belongs to the Trust), the RDN would be willing to share those tools.

Paul Thompson, Manager of Long Range Planning for the RDN, said that a few years ago the RDN did a housing needs assessment and action plan which identified the directions the RDN could take.

Recommendations from the plan, according to Thompson, “are organized based on what is easier to accomplish without a lot of funding versus complicated or requiring more funding.”

Some of the methods involve taking steps to waive certain fees and costs for housing proponents.

Trustee Mamoser asked which services could be provided by the RDN that the Trust is not able to provide: services such as being an organizer of funds for housing.

Garbutt said the RDN doesn’t currently get involved in funding.

“I don’t think we’d bring much to the table - if we had a transition in an area that was looking at changing from a tourist-commercial to residential - we’d look at the impacts on services in the discussion.”

Thorkelson said, “The work of our study and action plan had a spectrum of involvement the RDN could have in affordable housing - from the easy ones around regulations and changes to bylaws - to the other end which is being active in developing projects. That’s not something the Board has been prepared to go with - it has significant resource implications to support those kinds of programs.”

Mamoser asked Thorkelson, “So it isn’t that you can’t, but the Board hasn’t given that direction.”

Thorkelson said, “In terms of a deep involvement in developing affordable housing, it is possible to get involved. Capital Regional District has a housing association. Metro Van is similar, they have significant property holdings. But that is nowhere near where this regional district is.”

Thompson said “the focus so far for the RDN has been on the land use side of things, trying...to make sure there are places to provide a range of affordable housing options. 

“It hasn’t gotten to the point of doing the building; it is making it possible for someone else to do the build.”

Thorkelson said, “We try to set the stage for the other people out there to develop rather than actively push or pull the market in a certain way.”

According to Houle, the RDN doesn’t own any land on Gabriola that could be used for housing.

Secondary suites

One of the steps the RDN has taken for attainable housing has been the adoption of changes to allow secondary suites in all zones.

Thompson explained, “While we do our OCP (Official Community Plan) and zoning changes, we look if there are barriers to housing. The RDN will be looking at doing a more comprehensive review of our policies to see what else can be done.”

Trustee Heather O’Sullivan asked how the process for changing bylaws to allow secondary suites went.

“Was there community support or resistance?”

Thompson said there was almost no resistance with the result being that the RDN allows suites in all zones [except Area B]. 

LTC Chair Laura Bushekin asked what the uptake has been on the secondary suites.

Tom Armet, Manager of Building, Bylaw and Emergency Planning Services, said his department is seeing more single family homes constructed with a suite.

Paul Thompson (re: Board also adopted a policy to not enforce on existing suites) wanted to make sure that if someone had it, leave it alone.

Geoff Garbutt, RDN General Manager for Strategic and Community Development, said the RDN doesn’t consider the suites to be units, as the RDN can’t consider the suites to be secondary if they are part of the original unit.

“There was a recognition this was happening anyway. Ultimately we looked at the fact that they are not secondary dwellings, they are part of the primary [building].”

In other words, building inspectors look at what carrying capacity would be needed for water and septic for the whole dwelling, in the same way they would for a single-family dwelling of the same size.

“We’re not going to push a rope - this is something that is happening.

“It was a long process and took staff time; the outcome so far has been good.”

There will be a report back to the Board at a future date on how well the new regulations on suites are working.

As Garbutt said, “Once you adopt these things, you have to ask if it is still functionally working. I don’t think we’ve had any complaints.”

O’Sullivan said, “We’d be eager as you to do the follow-up to hear any information on how it works in your rural areas.”

Ann Kjerulf, Northern Regional Planning Manager for the Trust, asked if there are issues with servicing and water availability and discharges. 

Garbutt said right now the RDN doesn’t ask how many bedrooms people have, so long as the systems are enough to have Island Health say it is sufficient.

Paul Thorkelson, Chief Administrative Officer for the RDN [at the time of the meeting], said in a study done when he worked for the City of Nanaimo, there was found to be no significant difference in water and septic usage between houses with suites and the houses without suites.