Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne.

Tofino mayor says private market won’t solve housing woes

To completely close the affordability gap, Tofino must invest directly in affordable rental housing.

Josie Osborne

Mayor of Tofino

Every summer I receive letters and e-mails from concerned business owners and visitors about the condition of certain Tofino roads.

They understandably argue that we need to do a better job maintaining them because they are key to their business success and to the community’s economic prosperity.

Some refer to them as ‘core infrastructure.’

What is ‘core infrastructure?’

First used in late 19th century France, the term ‘infrastructure’ referred to the tunnels, bridges, culverts and ‘infrastructure work’ of the French railroad system. It re-emerged after World War II as a term used to describe the basic organizational structures and facilities (e.g., buildings, roads, and power supplies) necessary for the operations of armed forces.

Today, infrastructure has come to mean any large capital investment essential or necessary to a city or country’s society and economy but typically too large, or too critical, to be run at a profit or trusted to the private sector. In Canada, think schools, hospitals, bridges, roads, tunnels, airports.

So, what about housing? The military knows it needs housing to run a successful operation, so views it as core infrastructure.

Resorts and ski hills know they need seasonal housing to run a successful operation, so they build it or buy it. Smaller businesses also depend on housing to attract employees, but they are less able to acquire it the way larger businesses can.

And communities need enough adequate rental and ownership housing for all the people it takes to make a vibrant community, from artists to baristas to librarians, from teachers to taxi drivers to retirees.

Aside from staff accommodation built on hotel or resort lands, Tofino has not seen new purpose-built rental housing for over three decades. As anyone who’s recently built a home knows, the price of land and construction make for an expensive endeavour, so no wonder so many private developers build condos or homes to sell, realize their profit, and move on to the next project. Few developers have the interest, the cash, the gumption, and the patience to build long-term rental units and wait decades to make their money back. And what about long-term rental suites in single family zones? They’re harder and harder to find since some private homeowners, when given the choice, often feel forced to consider short-term rentals in their secondary suites in order to afford the mortgage.

It is clear that we cannot rely on the private market alone to solve our housing woes in Tofino, and doubly clear that the private market will not dependably provide purpose-built rental housing in Tofino. That is, unless we are willing to seriously consider densities above and beyond what our OCP calls for, sharing some of infrastructure costs private developers would normally bear themselves, and possibly even consider property tax ‘holidays’ (a period of time where property tax is reduced or eliminated on a rental housing project).

The Tofino Housing Corporation has steadily been working these past months on concepts and funding proposals to build affordable and attainable rental housing on municipal land, and in the coming weeks will be asking for the community’s help in fine-tuning these concepts (after all, this housing will literally be community owned). Unlike a private developer, there will be no cost of land in this endeavour.

Yet still, the difference between the rent an average worker in Tofino can afford to pay and the loan payments on the true cost of infrastructure and building construction results in an “affordability gap” which could be as much as $100,000 on a typical rental unit. And that’s with free land. Municipalities are not risk takers – and they shouldn’t be – which is why investment in affordable housing by senior levels of government will be important to close this affordability gap – but early indications are that even senior levels of government will not be providing enough for Tofino to close the gap.

So what’s it going to take? The Province’s proposal to permit municipalities the option to use the incremental Municipal and Regional District Tax (MRDT) collected by AirBnB could be a good start.

Partnering with experienced non-profit housing developers is a wise move to reduce risk.

But to completely close the affordability gap, Tofino must invest directly in affordable rental housing – just like resorts and ski hills do, just like the military does. Because, for communities like Tofino to survive and thrive, we need core infrastructure such as roads, schools, hospitals – and affordable rental housing.

Josie Osborne is the mayor of Tofino.

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