Home Ownership, Rent Vouchers, And Building Codes

Frontier Centre, Housing Affordability, Media Appearances, Poverty

In “Escaping the poverty trap: from public housing to home ownership”, Rebecca Walberg writes that “The last thing a Canadian city should be doing now is building or buying new public housing units.”

Instead, Walberg, Social Policy Analyst for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, advances policy ideas that would encourage home ownership and rent vouchers instead of government housing and rent control.

Western Standard readers may recall a news item from Patrick McGee on Alberta’s own modest measures to tackle rising rents. In “Control freaks”, McGee reports:

“Except for bombing,” asserted the socialist economist Assar Linbeck, “rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city.”

In this article by McGee, Dennis Owens, also with the Frontier Centre, comments that provincial governments should “liberalize building codes” as a partial solution to creating afforable housing.

Owens’ comments remind me of a case in Vancouver in 2002 where costly municipal red tape kept a private low-income rooming house from operating at full capacity. The American Backpackers hostel and rooming house on 347 West Pender Street went under-occupied as owner Vincent Fodera fought red tape at city hall over simple renovations.

Marc Emery, who was the Vancouver Marijuana Party mayoral candidate at the time, had this to say in a press release:

“Vincent Fodera and other developers should be celebrated for trying to create affordable housing. Instead they face an army of red tape worms at city hall. And to add insult to injury, Larry Campbell thinks people who provide low cost housing are slumlords,” said Emery. “Regulations and taxes that add to the cost of building or renovating homes work against the needs of the poor and work to hamper the growth of a vibrant and affordable housing market in Vancouver,” continued Emery.

Emery’s postion was supported by then-president of the Canadian Home Builders Association, Greg Christenson, who said “It’s very important that we tackle systemic barriers to affordability.”

Liberalizing building codes as a way to allow developers to create affordable housing is not without its detractors.

In a June 2008 report, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach announced he’s heading in the opposite direction. In “Taking action to reduce high-intensity residential fires,” Stelmach promises immediate action that includes:

  • improve the building code so homes built 1.2 metres from the property line are safer from high-intensity fires through measures such as requiring fire-resistant gypsum wallboard under vinyl siding;
  • improve requirements for new multi-family buildings that would already require sprinkler systems, by requiring additional sprinklers for balconies, attics and crawl spaces; and
  • make new homes with attached garages safer by requiring fire detectors and gypsum wallboard in the garages.
  • While these recommendations seem reasonable, this is a matter better left to insurance providers who understand risk better than politicians. It should also be understood that increasingly strict building codes come with a cost that could be pricing low-income people out of the market and onto the streets.