Newly reformed Cowichan Housing Association continues to pursue affordable housing trust fund

RAHD, the precursor to CHA, coordinated Ready to Rent and other housing initiatives.

The Cowichan Valley’s housing advocates, the Regional Affordable Housing Directorate (RAHD), recently formed its own independent organization, called Cowichan Housing Association (CHA), after operating as a committee of Social Planning Cowichan since 2007. CHA coordinator Joy Emmanuel explained that the change will allow for the organization’s board to make direct decisions, though it won’t change the mandate of the group.

Earlier this year, the Cowichan Housing Association, as RAHD, announced that they would be pursuing the creation of a Valley-wide Affordable Housing Trust Fund to alleviate some of the problems highlighted by a 2007 report by Social Planning Cowichan on the Valley’s housing situation.

Housing trust funds, also known as housing reserve funds, are used to provide the capital costs of new projects or renovations to housing providers and developers. Ideally, the financial assistance would ensure the community access to adequate and affordable housing.

Similar housing trust funds have proven to be successful in other cities across British Columbia, such as Kelowna, Richmond, Coquitlam and Abbotsford. Though housing trust funds have grown in popularity across North America, particularly in BC, the proposed Cowichan Valley trust fund would differ from most others, as it would be supported by the entire region, as opposed to just one municipality. The only other housing trust fund in Canada to be supported regionally is the Capital Regional District (Greater Victoria), which Emmanuel said CHA will be using as a model.

“In our case, the trust fund is better with regional support,” Mayor Ross Forrest said when the project was first proposed, “so developers won’t have an unfair advantage in one community over the others.”

The business case takes into account the benefits of working regionally, such as providing municipalities with a more stable source of funding and encouraging a stronger focus on long-term goals and priorities.

It should also be noted that working as a region could pose unique risks as well. Administrative costs would likely be higher, some municipal politicians may not have the will to support the fund and public support would likely be low during the initial years in which the trust fund is still being built up.

With initial meetings with the individual governments of the region done, Emmanuel said that she’s pleased with how receptive politicians have been to CHA’s work, though commitment could change further down the road.

“You have to temper the [initial reaction],” Emmanuel said. “Most people off the top would say that they love the idea, but the problem is how to raise funds — that’s a more delicate political decision. We haven’t tackled that yet, and that’s what’s going to make the difference.”

The housing situation in Lake Cowichan and the Valley as a whole has been described as stagnant. Though data differs within the region, housing needs assessments done by Social Planning Cowichan have found vacancy rates to be relatively low, with suitable housing especially short for youth, families and seniors.

As Emmanuel explained, income levels play a huge role in the housing situation, especially with the local living wage on the rise.

“Income is a primary barrier,” she said. “I’ve talked to a senior who owned a house but couldn’t afford to live in it, so he was forced to rent it out while living somewhere more affordable. There are so many people on income assistance, which allows only $375 per month for shelter — what can you find for that price? And when you’re spending three-quarters or more of your income on housing, what do you have left for food or transportation?”

CHA plans to launch an education campaign regarding the affordable housing trust fund next year, prior to further consultation with local governments.

As RAHD, the organization also coordinated Ready to Rent, a small rental assistance fund, workshops on tenants’ rights and Homeless Action Week.