Rendition of proposed design for modular temporary rental housing building to accommodate homeless people proposed for Commerce Avenue in Kelowna. Photo: City of Kelowna

Letter: Backbone organization needed to address housing in Kelowna

Renters United polled council candidates on housing strategies

A message from Renters United:

Something revolutionary happened down in Peachland the other day. There, the Peachland residents association organized an election forum where political candidates attended but weren’t allowed to speak. It’s the public who had the platform that day, and Renters United thinks that’s something that’s been missing here in Kelowna. We’ve heard plenty from the candidates, but precious little from the public, so this is why we appreciate the Capital News giving us a platform.

Renters United is a renters union modelled on the Vancouver Tenants Union. We came into existence right around the time the City of Kelowna’s recommendations on short-term rentals came out, and right around the time the Brooklyn development came before city council for consideration. The Brooklyn is a downtown Kelowna condo development that offers owners the ability to have short-term rentals – you know, AirBNB type rentals – and it’s a development that’s been marketed to foreign buyers. No wonder the Brooklyn helped give birth to Renters United.

READ MORE: Kelowna short-term rental loophole raises concerns

As a reminder to the public, the rental vacancy rate in Kelowna is just a hairline above zero per cent, workers and middle-class families in Kelowna can’t afford to buy homes, and local employers are having an incredibly hard time finding and retaining employees because there’s no housing for them. This is not the time for mayor and council to be approving developments like the Brooklyn, and frankly, they should know that.

In terms of the civic election on Oct. 20, an interesting development involved the emergence of the Future of Kelowna Consortium. This is a group of 10 community organizations that came together to craft a set of survey questions for the candidates. Renters United was one of the members of the Consortium. We came up with a question that referred to the Healthy Housing Strategy.

In a nutshell, the Healthy Housing Strategy is concerned with improving the availability and affordability of housing for both renters and prospective homebuyers. Our question to candidates was this:

The Healthy Housing Strategy is an ambitious five-year plan to address the community’s most pressing housing issues. Would you support the creation of a backbone organization to implement the Healthy Housing Strategy such as the one created for the Journey Home Strategy?

For the benefit of the public, it’s important to understand that the Journey Home Strategy is concerned with housing for the homeless. The Strategy anticipated there would be political difficulties placing the homeless within Kelowna’s neighbourhoods and giving them free stuff like shelter and comfort. The Strategy insisted a backbone organization should be created to push through implementation, and council saw the wisdom of that and agreed to it.

READ MORE: Kelowna mayor seeking provincial support for homelessness plan at UBCM

When Renters United asked for the same kind of backbone organization to implement the Healthy Housing Strategy, implicitly there was an element of criticism about recent action at city hall on housing issues. So we were a little surprised when 15 candidates out of 21 were in favour of creating a backbone organization.

A person who stood out as not being in favour was Mayor Basran. His survey response included the comment that the Healthy Housing Strategy is currently being implemented by city staff, so a backbone organization isn’t needed at this time.

Renters United knows that seven specific actions toward implementation are supposed to be undertaken in 2018, and we know of only one that’s seen any movement. That action has to do with the report on the regulation of short-term rentals we mentioned earlier. Public consultations on the recommendations were supposed to happen at the end of August or in early September, so things are running late. But it’s still fair to say that this action is in the process of being implemented – even though mayor and council have contradicted themselves by, at the same time, approving a development with short-term rentals.

Renters United asked city ftaff to provide us with detailed evidence that the other six actions of the Healthy Housing Strategy are being implemented, but staff failed to do this. The office of the city manager responded that different city departments are aware of the actions they must take and that they will be creating individual work plans and budget requests, as required.

What that means to Renters United is that 86 per cent of the implementation that’s supposed to happen in 2018 is actually not happening. We think it’s unlikely that much more is going to happen before the end of the year. We think implementation is not happening because of inertia, conflict of interest and group-think. We think Mayor Basran should have supported the creation of backbone organization to ensure that implementation would be guaranteed and would proceed on a timely basis. We have a message for him.

Mayor Basran, Renters United wants to tell you we think it’s not too late. We think you could still come out with a positive message about the need for a backbone organization. People must be put before short-term rentals and foreign sales and craven profitability. Right now, people are hurting. They need the utmost amount of action to be taken as quickly as possible. Please recognize the interests of renters, prospective homebuyers and employers of Kelowna. Please support them by endorsing the creation of a backbone organization that will get the Strategy implemented.

We also have a message for candidate Tom Dyas. We hope you don’t pick up the Healthy Housing Strategy and try to turn it into some kind of political football. We’ve seen the astonishing politicking you’ve done on the Journey Home Strategy, and we were glad when the directors of the City of Kelowna’s Journey Home Task Force Society came out and said that this was a time for action and implementation, not misinformation and political posturing.

As for political posturing, Renters United has one more thing to say to Mayor Basran. We saw in an interview the other day you said that 3,000 units of purpose-built rental housing had been approved in the last four years. You said Kelowna was on track to achieve a rental vacancy rate of 2 per cent next year and all we needed was 3 to 5 per cent to eliminate the crisis. We’re almost there, you said.

Mayor Basran, the difference between 2 per cent and 3 or 4 or 5 – or 6 to 8 per cent, such as we’ve heard that will be required to ease the crisis – is like the difference between 1.5 degrees of atmospheric warming and two. Every per cent matters deeply. We also know that counting new rental units does not in any way comment on the affordability of those units or the affordability of market housing for homebuyers. We have many miles to go, Mayor Basran, and Renters United hopes you will work with us to help solve the horrible, horrible housing crisis that affects Kelowna’s renters, prospective homebuyers and employers.

Renters United is immensely grateful to the Capital News for giving us this chance to speak. Maybe in four years’ time the people of Kelowna will organize an election forum like they had down in Peachland, where numerous people spoke and most of the candidates listened. This is what democracy looks like from the bottom up.

Dianne Varga, Co-founder


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