Both Mayoral candidates in the Smithers byelection agree affordable housing is an issue that urgently needs to be addressed.
Gladys Atrill and Joe Bramsleven noted that any type of housing is, and has been, hard to acquire, with Smithers having a zero-occupancy rate for many years.
How the Town has responded and will respond, is where the two have different approaches.
“Affordability is complex and multilayered,” said Atrill, noting there is a hot real estate market in Smithers driving prices up.
“This makes it difficult for people of all income spectrums, to afford housing, but increasingly it is most heavily felt at the lower end of the income levels or for those that do not currently have housing.”
What prices a landowner or landlord charge is not something the Town can control, she said.
“What we can do is try to provide diverse and innovative housing ideas and solutions for people in all ranges of income.”
Atrill also noted local government can’t do anything about other issues, such as changes to the building codes, changes in building engineering and architecture that affect housing in Smithers are outside the Town’s jurisdiction.
“Looking at town density and whether or not it can be increased in a certain part of town, is within the town’s control,” she said.
“It is important to look at zoning that may be able to be changed, for example, from a single dwelling zone to change and provide for Carriage Homes, duplexes and Skinny Homes or implementing the municipal tax exemption downtown that encourages people to develop the downtown core to include residences, those ideas have worked.”
“We need to keep using those tools and listening to those ideas and figuring out if we can use them. If it is not within the town’s jurisdiction, and they are good ideas, nothing stops us from working with other entities, like the provincial government, to say these are good ideas, can we make this happen?”
Atrill also suggested finding land the Town currently owns and can be utilized, as it did with Goodacre House, a 24-unit affordable housing complex, is also within the Town’s ability to act.
Providing the land that Goodacre House was built on and working with all the different agencies to get that project completed was an amazing contribution to the Town, Atrill said.
Another example of the Town working with multiple entities to accomplish needed and affordable housing when Covid 19 arrived, the camp for homeless people was accomplished quickly with several agencies and the town coordinating.
Atrill noted just because an idea hasn’t been looked at or explored before in Smithers, does not mean it shouldn’t be considered.
“We need to find creative and innovative ways to continue to move forward,” she said.
For Bramsleven, the search for creative and innovative ways to solve the housing issue shouldbe focussed not on the Town investing, but on attracting private investment.
“In the time of COVID-19, you can apply for federal and provincial grants to build a wide variety of housing units, complexes and apartment buildings, but the money won’t be there, and our tax base is not large enough to invest in those types of projects right now,”he said.
“Our current tax base needs to be used for infrastructure and upkeep of the housing projects we currently have. We need to look at companies and individuals that can afford to invest here. “Everything we do right now comes down to the almighty dollar, and with such an uncertain future, we really don’t know what is going to transpire.
“What we don’t want to have happen, is for people to come here because the jobs are here and have no place to live.”
Before looking at growth, though, Bramsleven wants to put the emphasis on people who already live in Smithers.
“We already have a significant problem for the current residents, who may want to downsize, buy their first homes, or are even worried about having a roof over their heads, especially going into the winter months,” he said.
“We need a new plan, and that plan needs to include everyone and all the ideas that people have.
“As Council, we have to have a common-sense approach.”
According to Bramsleven, that approach is bringing more industry to Smithers.
“Before we can build more homes, we need to have infrastructure, and to build infrastructure, we need a bigger tax base,” he said.
“We need to take a different approach and have a different mindset, than what we currently have. “It may take Council reviewing and throwing out old bylaws that wrap people up in red tape; getting ideas from all sectors of our town and outside of Smithers, private and commercial, to come up with ways to solve our housing issues and to fund and maintain them.
“These are uncertain times and Council has to work together as a team with all of our partners to expand our tax base and infrastructure and come up with a two- to five-year plan where we can build new homes of all kinds for all incomes, and maintain them. You have to get the money first, that is where we start.”