I was working out at the gym the other day, when I overheard a discussion regarding housing affordability in Regina. The two who were working out beside me said something I have not heard before in the 20 plus years that I have lived in Regina and, I think we need to be concerned. The first man said “I am taking a job out of the province for less pay, but I think I will be better off because I can get into a home for much less than what I would pay in Regina.” The second man responded, “That is why I am commuting from down east. I can’t afford to bring my family here.”
This comment is echoed by the latest paper from the Frontier Centre for Public Policy released earlier this week on Housing Affordability and the Standard of Living in Regina. My hope is that this unique perspective creates some worthy discussion by policy makers at both the City of Regina and the Saskatchewan Government. In addition, if you are an urban planner, consider yourself an urbanist or have an interest in land use and housing affordability this paper is definitely worth a read.
For City of Regina Councillors and Administration the Frontier Paper provides some clarity on the connection between land use and housing affordability. The Provincial Government should be keenly interested in this paper as it explains how municipal decisions around land use can either create more affluence or hamper economic growth for the entire province through urban containment practices.
There has been no shortage of consultants and urban planners, with respect to our city, who claim that we are consuming too much land, or that we are insufficiently dense. But what the Frontier Centre clarifies is that, for starters, Regina is actually one of the most densely populated cities in North America at over 1,600 people per square kilometer. In fact, Regina has 35 per cent more people per square kilometer that the average urban area in Canada and nearly 80 per cent more people per square kilometer than the average US urban area. Even Portland Oregon, which prides itself as one of the early adopters of urban containment strategies, is 20 per cent less densely populated than Regina.
When you also consider that Saskatchewan has 250,000 square kilometers of farm land, which is more land than all of the United Kingdom which houses a population of over 60 times the population of Saskatchewan, and Regina takes up all of 120 square kilometers – I don’t think we are consuming too much land.
Regarding housing density and traffic, the view is sometimes expressed that higher density will create the conditions to induce more public transit use, thereby taking cars and trucks off of the road.
However, the report points out that Calgary has developed one of North America’s most successful new light rail transit systems. Yet, between 2006 and 2011, Calgary had the largest increase in the share of people commuting to work by driving of any major metro city in Canada. Similarly, in Portland which has invested heavily in mass transit and in creating high density, they now rank sixth worst in traffic congestion even though they are the twenty third largest urban area in the US. Even our own Vancouver, which is one of North America’s most densely populated cities, recently won the distinguished title as not only the least affordable city in North America to own a home, but Tom Tom’s Traffic Index (the world’s most accurate barometer of traffic congestion) also awarded Vancouver the most congested city for traffic. What these cities have in common is that while building state of the art transit, they are not building enough capacity in their road systems.
In addition to this, research cited by the University of California and University of Utah indicates that a 10 per cent increase in density leads to only a .4 per cent reduction in kilometers traveled per person by automobile. As such, creating even more density in one of North America’s most densely populated cities will have very diminishing returns on curbing Green House Gases.
How does density relate to housing affordability? If the dominant urban planning policy is urban containment, the result is land scarcity, which in turn raises house prices.
What the report points out is that the ultimate test for any urban planning policy is in fact, the extent to which it contributes to improving the standard of living for Regina residents, while reducing poverty levels. For economic growth to be sustainable, we must recognize that people are moving to Regina for a higher standard of living. Employment and income opportunities are greater today in Regina than ever before. If our housing costs continue to escalate due to public policy decisions, however, much of the economic gain for individuals and families is a wash, which will ultimately result in less interprovincial and international migration to our city. Indeed, are we seeing this already? In the first quarter of 2013, there was a modest loss in interprovincial migration.
One very timely recommendation in the paper for the future of our city is this: “The municipality in the Regina metropolitan area should commit to housing affordability as the first principle of urban planning.” Our future economic growth depends on it.