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Uzelman: Housing affordability- Kelowna’s OCP sharply restricts land and housing supply

A column by Bruce Uzelman

~BW Uzelman

Part 2

Kelowna’s Official Community Plan (OCP) attempts to direct growth to urban neighborhoods and away from suburban neighborhoods. The plan states that the low population densities of suburbs make transit service difficult and the maintenance of infrastructure costly. One of the “Pillars” of the OCP is to, “Stop planning new suburban neighborhoods.” This seems extreme in a growing city.

Another Pillar is to, “Focus investment in Urban Centres” to limit urban sprawl. The OCP identifies five Urban Centres – Downtown, Pandosy, Capri Landmark, Midtown and Rutland. The plan specifies, “Urban Centres should support a greater intensity of employment (in retail, office, restaurants, etc.) and residential density to ensure they become Kelowna’s primary hubs of activity.” The OCP envisions the Urban Centres offering schools and parks and a variety of transportation.

The plan reads, “the OCP focuses on slowing the outward growth of Suburban Neighborhoods using a Permanent Growth Boundary, beyond which urban growth is not supported.” In short, the boundary is a barrier to development. The boundary will constrain the supply of residential land. Lot prices in Kelowna already start at $300,000-$400,000 and range to $1 million, and home prices reflect that.

The Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) since the 1970’s has vastly reduced the land available for residential use in many cities in BC, including Kelowna. It was introduced by the provincial government to preserve agricultural land use. In 2015, the ALR occupied fully 40% of Kelowna’s land area. Now, as well, the Permanent Growth Boundary tightly encircles existing neighborhoods, and new suburban neighborhoods are prohibited. These urban containment policies can only further reduce the numbers of residential lots available and further drive up lot and home prices.

In “Rethinking Urban Sprawl”, the OECD writes, “Policy action needs to focus on promoting socially desirable levels of population density and fragmentation ….” The OECD examines the negative impacts of urban sprawl, but also cautions against severe reactions to it. It surveys some moderate policy approaches, including the easing of stringent maximum density regulations, the adjustment of stringent urban containment policies and the reform of property taxation to foster infill development.

Wendell Cox is principal for Demographia, a company which rates housing affordability in 94 markets in eight countries with the use of a house price-to-income ratio. The countries include Canada, the US, the UK, Australia and China. Demographia’s 2023 report reveals that the three most unaffordable markets in 2022 were Hong Kong at a score of 18.8, Sydney, Australia at 13.3 and Vancouver at 12.0. Any score over 5.0 is classified as “extremely unaffordable”. In BC, Victoria and Kelowna, at 9.8 and 9.3, were only moderately less unaffordable than Vancouver. All are very far from an “affordable” score of 3.0 or below.

Cox writes, “In a well-functioning market, the median priced houses should be affordable to middle-income households, as they were in virtually all markets before the inception of more restrictive land use polices, especially urban containment.” Cox believes unaffordable housing threatens the middle class. In “Under Pressure: The squeezed middle class”, OECD data supports that view, “house prices [in the OECD] have been growing three times faster than household median income over the last two decades.”

Kelowna’s OCP presents a vision for a new kind of city. Some of it sounds wonderful. The plan seeks to develop five vibrant, verdant, multi-use Urban Centres. Three more Pillars, to protect the environment, limit climate change and boost agriculture, in isolation, are commendable. These “green” Pillars, however, clearly inspire the Pillar to eliminate new suburbs and impose the Permanent Growth Boundary. Here, the OCP loses its way. The green pillars must be balanced against affordable housing. In the blind pursuit of the former, there is no doubt, we are deprived of the latter.

As suburban growth across the continent demonstrates, many people value space and privacy and separation from urban crime. Many parents do not want to raise their children in a dense urban environment, and some couples and individuals who work in an Urban Centre do not want to live there. But, for numerous residents, there is no choice because the ALR and the OCP will continue to drive up land and housing costs everywhere, but particularly in the suburbs.

The third reading of the OCP was granted by a unanimous vote of Council. If Council allows the plan to direct all future planning and land use decisions, our standard of living will continue to deteriorate.

Part 1- Uzelman: Housing affordability- Immigration needs to be coordinated with housing supply


Bruce W Uzelman

I grew up in Paradise Hill, a village in Northwestern Saskatchewan. I come from a large family. My parents instilled good values, but yet afforded us, my seven siblings and I, much freedom to do the things we wished to do. I spent my early years exploring the hills and forests and fields surrounding the village, a great way to come of age.

I attended the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. I considered studying journalism at one point, but did not ultimately pursue that. However, I obtained a Bachelor of Arts, Advanced with majors in Economics and Political Science in 1982.


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