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Many British Columbians are struggling with living costs, with an estimated 117,000 households requiring assistance in paying rent in their current unit in 2016.

“If we don’t do something right now we will find ourselves in such a big hole that we won’t be able to dig ourselves out of it,” Thom Armstrong, Executive Director of the Co-op Housing Federation of BC, tells BuzzBuzzNews.

Armstrong is a member of the BC Rental Housing Coalition, whose report on the state of affordable housing in the province was published this week.

The report, released a month before the provincial election, discusses affordable housing challenges in the province and lays out a 10-year plan to solve the crisis, with the collaboration of the provincial and federal governments, along with a wide range of local partners.

Over the next 10 years, the demand for rental housing in BC is estimated to increase by an average of 7,000 new households each year, says the report.

While housing demand is constantly growing, current supply in the province is significantly backlogged. According to the report, there was a backlog of nearly 80,000 affordable and suitable units in 2016.

In turn, the effects of low affordable housing supply is putting a strain on social and economic factors in the province, including decreasing vacancy rates and increased homelessness.

To keep up with future demand in BC, on average an extra 3,500 affordable units are needed annually, says the report.

Using a financial model, based on a mixed-income and cross-subsidy approach, the average annual cost to accommodate future supply is estimated at $1.23 billion.

“The numbers might be appear to be large but that’s in part a reflection of the inaction we’ve been suffering through in the last couple of decades and the need to move forward boldly and solve this problem once and for all,” says Armstrong.

Along with providing sufficient supply, the report acknowledges the need to maintain existing housing inventory while increasing renters’ income.

“There’s really two aspects of the housing equation…you can either make housing cheaper or you can make people’s incomes rise to the point that they can afford the housing that’s in the market,” says Armstrong. “We think you have to do a combination of both.”

In 2016, the report estimates there were a minimum of 6,860 homeless people in BC. To reduce homelessness across the province, the report suggests an annual investment of $81.6 million for housing initiatives, which could potentially save an annual $177 million in other areas of spending within BC.

To improve housing affordability over the next 10 years, the report outlines recommendations to address housing supply, income, the homelessness crisis and innovative techniques to create housing.

To increase supply, the plan suggests continued support from the government in providing grant capital, forgivable loans and land, creating a new financial institution that is led by local partners and the redevelopment of existing properties, among others.

Next, the report suggests raising incomes for renters. In order to achieve affordable housing, the plan outlines certain measures needed to ultimately reduce poverty and provide financial support for British Columbians.

Even though there are numerous rent assistance programs in BC, the report argues none are universally available or provide enough funding to cover the affordability gap. The plan recommends eliminating multiple aid programs and creating a Renters Grant instead.

“We’re saying, why don’t we just take the resources that are being put into all of those different programs now, consolidate them into one renter’s grant and have a uniform set of criteria that people can understand and that is generous enough and has a budget sufficient to meet the need overtime,” says Armstrong.

Creating a Renters Grant would also allow the government to help renters stay in their current accommodation rather than building new homes.

Tackling the affordability crisis also involves reducing homelessness in the province. The plan encourages a Housing First approach by building new homes, providing more units through rent supplements and supporting those who require them. Along with this approach, a coordinated access system is needed across the province to fix gaps in knowledge, efficiency and service availability.

The last recommendation encourages partnerships with local groups who have a large quantity of assets and capacity. Non-profit groups may be able to provide community land trusts to build new housing and in turn, control affordability.

“We can aggregate some of those resources and we can leverage them to introduce equity and investment into the production and the maintenance of affordable housing,” says Armstrong.

Building homes near bus or transit lines is also recommended to help close the affordability gap in the long run.

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