Jen Casorso, a community well-being expert with Urban Matters, who is assisting the District of Sicamous with an application for a BC Housing grant, led a discussion on affordable housing in Sicamous on Thursday, Sept. 6. (Jim Elliot/Eagle Valley News)

Affordable housing plan for Sicamous unveiled

Application for BC Housing grant to be submitted

A bold plan is in the works to bring more affordable rental housing to Sicamous.

At a public meeting giving residents of the district a chance to discuss the issue of housing affordability, the concept for a project that would bring 20 or more affordable rental housing units to the district was debuted.

The District of Sicamous Development Corporation and the Eagle Valley Seniors Housing Society are partnering on a grant application for a BC Housing program that provides up to $100,000 per unit to build affordable housing developments.

The concept unveiled at the Sept. 6 meeting showed a multi-building development featuring both detached structures and townhouse-like multi-unit buildings. In the centre of the concept drawing is green space with room for a playground or community garden. Parking would be centralized on one side of the development with wide paved pathways leading to the buildings. A long, squat building which is on the street frontage in the concept drawing would act as a community gathering place for the development.

Jen Casorso, a community well-being expert who is assisting the district with the BC Housing grant application and led the conversation at the meeting, said the units in the proposed development would range from 650 to 1,050 square feet.

The property would be managed by the Eagle Valley Senior Citizens’ Housing Society, which recently chose to expand its mandate to include housing for more than just seniors. Along with the grant for construction, the province is also making funds available to cover operating costs for projects such as the proposed housing units, which Casorso said is uncommon.

Related:Eagle Valley Senior Citizens Housing Society expands mandate

“The message that we received at the development corporation and the message the working group has been saying for years is no more studies. We’ve studied this to death and know there is an affordable housing crisis in Canada. We know that it’s very acute in the rural communities,” said Sicamous Town Manager Evan Parliament.

“We want to get boots on the ground and actually turn some sod, and hopefully in 2019 at the earliest, have a ribbon-cutting ceremony,” he said.

The deadline for the grant application is Sept. 17 and BC Housing prioritizes projects that can be started quickly.

“To be successful in this proposal they want something that is shovel-ready,” Parliament said.

“The sooner you can get it into construction phase the higher you are rated and shortlisted to get funds.”

The concept drawing that will be submitted to BC Housing with the proposal is a 3.86-acre parcel of land on Finlayson Street near Eagle River Secondary.

Parliament noted the development corporation is not set on the Finlayson Street site used as the concept drawing, but is looking at a few sites around town, all of which are owned privately. He said they are in preliminary discussions with the owner of the Finlayson Street site, but no purchase offer has been made. The concept drawing is not a firm layout of the structures on the site, but is simply to give BC Housing an idea of what they are planning for Sicamous.

The project is dependent on grant funding to move forward. Parliament said Sicamous could not borrow enough money to pay for its construction at this time.

“If it’s not this grant it will be another grant. Short of BC Housing it will be a federal grant or another provincial grant,” he said.

Mayor Terry Rysz said the district is adamant about getting affordable housing built, as the strain of paying for expensive rental accommodation is felt in Sicamous and across Canada.

“I’m tired of talk, all of these meetings. Time and time again, you sit around a table and everybody has got all these opinions. It’s about getting the damn thing done,” Rysz said.

Parliament said the development corporation wants a local builder for the project and is in preliminary talks with TA Structures.

Along with showing off the concept for the affordable housing development, the forum hosted at the Sicamous Seniors Centre was also an opportunity for those in attendance to learn about and discuss the issue of affordable housing.

Casorso began the discussion by asking what drew people to the event.

“I’m a single mom of two kids and I struggle to find housing,” one woman said.

“I’m single and my home is in danger of being sold. To find affordable housing is almost impossible,” said another.

Casorso provided data on the housing situation in Sicamous. She prefaced her presentation by saying it is from sources such as the 2015 labour market report and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation and may not be an exact representation of what’s going on in the community now.

According to Casorso’s information, 80 per cent of Sicamous residents are homeowners while 20 per cent rent.

Casorso said the basic affordability principle is people should not be spending more than 30 per cent of their income on rent, including utilities. But she said rent expenses exceed 30 per cent of income for 48.6 per cent of renters in the district.

“Your renter populations is often the one that’s the mot stressed in communities and we’re seeing this all over the country,” Casorso said.

More money spent on rent leaves less for food, for transportation and other necessities, making it so people have to make difficult decisions such as skipping meals.

Casorso said a lack of affordable housing has a ripple effect on community well-being, putting stress on families that can create a negative learning and development environment for children.

Coun. Malcolm Makayev said another challenging aspect of the rental market in Sicamous is the number of Airbnbs and other short-term vacation rental properties in the community. Nineteen properties in Sicamous are currently listed for rent on Airbnb.

“It’s putting huge pressure on the rental supply for residents and it changes that affordability factor,” Casorso said.

What rental housing there is is aging; Casorso said 2/3 of the housing stock in Sicamous was built before 1990.

Those in attendance at the meeting were asked to brainstorm their priorities for an affordable housing project. Accessibility for those with disabilities, close proximity to downtown where Sicamous’ essential services are and housing catering to a variety of incomes were all priorities brought up at the meeting.

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