It’s rare during an election campaign for every candidate to agree on something, but everyone running for the lone council seat that’s up for grabs in the municipal byelection thinks Smithers has an affordable housing problem.
The four councillor hopefuls see that house prices in town continue to rise, there is low inventory of rentals available and low income places and shelters are full with waiting lists. However, how to fix the issue is where opinions differ.
Sam Raven has heard that some people are struggling to find a place to live and thinks that housing should be top of mind for town council.
“We can ensure that affordable housing is one of the top priorities moving forward by exploring tax exemptions for residential home owners who create new suites or additional living spaces, with emphasis on housing for families and seniors,” she said.
She added that increasing density in existing neighbourhoods is a great option as it utilizes existing infrastructure.
Raven said that while the Town has done some work to address the need, more can and should be done.
“The town has taken steps towards addressing the issues, most recently by approving laneway housing, though there is a lot more work to be done in this area,” she said. “This issue is my top priority, I will work hard with those on council to find the options that best suit the needs of our community.”
Colin Bateman agrees that the Town has made some positive changes over the past couple of years.
“The tax relief for apartments over downtown stores seems to have been utilized by a few storeowners. Breaking ground on the first skinny house in Smithers, an idea brought forward in 2017 by The Smithers Chamber; subsidized rental suites; and Goodacre Place are all steps forward to reduce the housing crisis, but we still have a long way to go,” he said.
He doesn’t think the Town needs to start from scratch when it comes to affordable housing.
“The task force prepared a detailed housing report in 2010 that requires some updating, but would be a good place to pick up conversations with local groups and our economic development coordinator, with a primary goal being to attract mixed use development with multiple building types.”
Bateman added he thinks the housing crisis has other economic effects and needs to be addressed for long term sustainability in Smithers.
“In my decades of experience in the retail and hospitality sector, as well as my two terms as president as Smithers Chamber of Commerce, strongly suggests that our staffing shortages are directly linked to affordable housing,” he said.
Meanwhile Mika Meyer is advocating for residents to participate in the Smithers Housing Needs Assessment Survey that the Town of Smithers is currently conducting. She said there aren’t enough homes for the diverse needs of the people who want to live here.
“With the results, we can determine where housing gaps are and help the town with potential strategies and planning actions,” she said. “I think that the town has come up with creative solutions to try and address and improve this situation with bylaws such as implementing the Downtown Revitalization Tax Exemption that promotes densification of housing in the downtown core by increasing stock in apartments within mixed-development.
“As well, the development of carriage houses and legal second suite development in single family residential zones. We should continue to seek creative, collaborative solutions such as working with provincial and federal programs to address affordable housing within existing town development areas.”
Meyer added that housing issues are important to her because she loves Smithers and this is where she chose to invest, live, work and to raise her family.
“I think that all people that want to be here should have the same opportunity and not be limited because of the lack of diverse housing availability,” she said.
While Randy Bell is in agreement there is a housing need, he thinks there is another solution.
“A big part of any solution for housing is individual choices and responsibility,” he said. “What I mean is individuals need to be creative and willing to work out solutions for themselves, like I had to do for many years.
“I have repeatedly heard people complain that they can’t afford a house or car on their entry level wages; this is not a new issue. Most of us starting out could never afford those things until many years of working and saving. Where I take issue is when governments create an environment of exhausting red tape and taxation that make it worse for those starting out.”
Bell added that temporary tax incentive rentals on new builds in the downtown area is a reasonable attempt to help create more spaces.
“But I would suggest we go further and broader by having lower taxes in general to encourage more development from the private sector.”
However, in general, he is opposed to continuing to build more publicly funded housing as he thinks this is short term thinking and rarely works out well in the long run.
“It is counterproductive by creating a non-competitive environment. When tax-payer money is spent in direct competition at low or no costs for the government-selected contractors, it’s a lose-lose to the local market and local home builders.”
Bell went on to say that the private sector, including businesses that rely on employees and need their workers to have housing available and contractors and developers that are investing into projects need to be the ones active and engaged to come up with more ideas.
“The local government just needs to take out any roadblocks when it comes to regulation and bylaws,” he said.
Residents can hear more from the candidates at a virtual debate scheduled for Oct. 1 at 7 p.m.
Voters go to the polls on Oct. 17.