British Columbia is leading the country as the province with the highest rate of unaffordable homes, so it isn’t a surprise that housing is a hot topic on the municipal election campaign trail in Smithers.
Affordable housing is not just an issue unto itself, it has far-reaching impacts on most of the other big issues, economic growth, employment, healthcare, cost of living, public safety, homelessness and municipal taxation.
Sandra Hinchliffe, past president of the Northern Real Estate Board said the real estate market has slowed down considerably in Smithers and all over Canada.
“I have seen this type of slow down before, it’s part of the cycle, but in my 20 years as a Realtor, I hadn’t seen such a fast upswing,” she said.
“The housing shortage in Canada has been building for some time. Many experts in the field have been predicting an extreme shortage for a long time. And the fast upswing was the result. The cause of the hot market and the shortage is multi-faceted and there are many expert opinions to be found, but many say that all levels of government have not planned well enough for the future.”
She understands why housing has emerged as such an important election issue.
“It’s important to remember that while there is an important role for municipalities to play in facilitating the availability of housing, it’s also a broader issue that provincial and federal governments must tackle. More housing supply is the ultimate answer and all levels of government must work together to make sure the supply increases.”
She would like the new town council to work to facilitate the affordability of all levels of housing in Smithers.
Incumbent Mayor Gladys Atrill said the town needs to use smart incentives and regulations, work with the right partners and advocate to other levels of government. “Know we can’t do it alone.”
She added the other possible solution is to build up.
“A future consideration is to review the current height restriction on buildings. Going up is a smart way to increase housing using existing infrastructure like roads, water and sewer lines. We can consider putting multiple uses into one building, which could pave the way for more housing and needed amenities– like child care or the library.”
The only other person running for mayor is Murray Hawse and he thinks the answer to the problem is to get rid of some roadblocks that he thinks discourages and delays the process of planning, designing and building affordable housing and housing in general in this community.
“The barriers imposed by the town building processes can be discouraging and frustrating for all involved,” he said.
“Locally, this can begin to be addressed by forming a working group that includes local stakeholders, businesses, and interested parties to promote positive change and streamline the process. The outcome of this review will help shorten the duration from start to finish of projects in our community and, in turn, work to lessen the gap on availability of all types of housing available to the residents of our town.”
Nick Briere is running for a council position and also thinks less red tape will help alleviate the shortage. He said increasing the zoning area for carriage housing, allowing for laneway housing near the hospital and encouraging a greater variety of housing sizes and types to be built in Smithers to accommodate different households and incomes would help.
Fellow council candidate Laura Leonard agreed.
“Regulatory burdens add significantly more to the cost of housing,” she said. “If elected I would analyze our fee structure with regards to permitting to see if we can find ways to cut costs to the developer, reducing red-tape and encouraging investment in our community.”
Incumbent councillor John Buikema knows that housing is a complicated issue.
“There are many who think a municipal government has a major say over the cost of housing in its jurisdiction, but this is not the case,” he said. “The main reason for the high cost of housing in our town is that prices are market-driven. Smithers is a desirable place to live, and housing is more expensive in high-demand markets.”
Buikema added the current town council has tried to get involved in the area of housing in whatever way it can.
“We have supported a variety of housing stock in the Ambleside subdivision. We have opened ourselves to a potential Local Service Agreement on Alfred Avenue which could lead to a number of new houses being built there. We have encouraged small lot infill, skinny homes, carriage houses.
“We’ve made by-law changes making it easier to add secondary suites, and there have been property tax incentives for rental units added in the downtown core. Finally, we have provided a portion of the LB Warner site for the Dze L K’ant Housing Project.”
The only other incumbent councillor running is Frank Wray. He said the new town council will have some new zoning and incentive tools to explore, and, of course, should support any new housing initiatives that make sense for the community.
“Having been a councillor for the past 14 years, I can say that this is not an issue that will go away. There is no magic solution that will provide affordable homes for all immediately. Improvements have been incremental and will continue to come. Council must be prepared to work continuously on this issue for the foreseeable future.”
Sam Raven said while there has been progress in the last few years with carriage homes and approving higher density builds, Smithers needs to continue down that path working with all levels of government to encourage the construction of new units and affordable multi-family dwellings.
“I fully support exploring how we can utilize tiny homes into our neighbourhoods. Always ensuring that when we discuss suites and rentals that we have conditions in place to ensure that we are creating affordable, medium- to long-term rentals so our solutions will actually go towards solving the housing supply issues.”
First-time campaigner Calvin Elliott agreed the town needs to do more and he thinks more land must be developed to create more housing spaces.
“I think we are used to having single-family dwellings and in the past families were larger. Most homes today have four or less people. If we could change our thinking and use the land space more efficiently and create more multi-unit buildings, we could create more housing if land is limited,” he said.
Adam Koch agrees that high density is the way to go.
“We need high-density housing and we needed it yesterday,” he said. “We need housing for everyone, low-income, assisted living, seniors, small families, and professionals just trying to find a place so they can work here. I’m open to working towards any solution that is viable and possible, like offering incentives to developers so that they prioritize high-density housing over single-family homes.”
Jason McCrindle says the town is on the right track to help the housing stock.
“I feel that the Town of Smithers has taken many appropriate steps in the last few years to address the lack of housing, including the housing needs report in 2020, the Rental Housing Incentive Program and Dollars to the Door Program. These reports and programs have helped in recent years with getting more projects going.”
Meanwhile, Genevieve Paterson thinks a team approach to the situation will help.
“I will increase access to housing in Smithers by working with Indigenous, federal, and provincial governments, non-for profits and the private sector to ensure our Housing Incentive Policy and Community Plan are on track to meet our targets for infill developments, secondary suites, carriage houses and supportive housing,” she said.