Free land! New West responds to affordable housing crisis

For many years, New Westminster has been an overlooked haven of affordable urban housing within Metro Vancouver. Lower rents and housing prices are one of the big factors that drew many new residents here in recent years (although most soon found better reasons to stay).

But at the peak of this latest affordability crisis, even New Westminster’s home prices have climbed beyond the reach of many. It’s a problem that weighs heavily on the minds of New West’s progressive-minded city council and new Mayor Jonathan Cote, who launched a task force on housing affordability immediately after his inauguration.

That task force has proposed an audacious plan: if the high cost of land is what is inhibiting development of new affordable housing, what if the City were to remove that barrier and offer the land for free?

And not only that: if the City receives proposals that suit its strategic goals related to affordable housing, New West is ready to waive the cost of permit fees and site servicing as well. With involvement from BC Housing and the Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation, a winning proposal could even qualify for project financing or operating assistance.

“This initiative demonstrates our commitment to be both a leader and active partner in addressing housing affordability,” said Mayor Jonathan Cote in a press release. “We are hoping that this process will result in some creative solutions to one of the most important issues facing our region right now.”

The land in question is at 630 Ewen Ave. (a few blocks from the Queensborough Community Centre) and 43 Hastings St. (between Albert Crescent Park and the Pattullo Bridge) in New Westminster. The official request for proposals will be issued shortly, with a deadline for submission by the end of September 2015. If the City receives two proposals of the calibre they are looking for, construction could be underway as soon as summer 2017.

The goal of the offer isn’t just to create affordable housing on the two City-owned sites earmarked for these developments, but also to create an environment that supports experimentation in new forms of development. . In a press release, Director of Development Services Bev Grieve describes this initiative as an “incubator for housing affordability and innovation that can be applied across our region” and says lessons learned from the development of these sites will inform the Official Community Plan review that is currently underway.

In addition to the offer of free land for affordable housing developments, the Mayor’s Housing Affordability Task Force will be making recommendations on other opportunities to meet the housing needs of vulnerable citizens, including persons with disabilities, seniors and young families.

In other words, we can expect that our little city will continue to make big waves on this subject.