BY JOSH UNDERHAY
A report released Wednesday from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) demonstrates a continued crisis in Prince Edward Island regarding vacancy rates for housing. Government has been talking about housing of late, but this crisis has continued to develop over the past number of years, with a dramatic decrease in vacancy since 2014, according to CMHC data.
We are seeing Islanders struggling to find a place to live. Cost of living is inevitably increasing as demand is high while supply is low. The vacancy rate at 0.2 per cent (0.3 per cent province-wide) is worse than the markets in Toronto and in Vancouver, which is saying something.
One solution could lie in urban planning and density. Having more residents per square kilometre allows more units to be built while avoiding urban sprawl, and keeps taxes low while allowing for improved public transit and other services. The City of Charlottetown in particular could increase the maximum height limitation in the areas just outside of the heritage core in order to permit developers to build upwards. We could rezone commercial areas to mixed commercial/residential along busy avenues towards downtown.
Adjusting codes, such as reducing parking minimum requirements becomes possible with more walkability, cyclability, and transit connections. Incorporating mixed-use development allows for more residential units on the upper floors, economic opportunities for businesses on the ground floor, and can reduce commute times as some employees may live nearby.
An integrated housing approach (per cent of units mandated to be affordable) also prevents ‘ghettoization’ and fosters a greater sense of community among folks of all income levels. Co-op housing is also an option. Balconies overlooking street trees and access to parks can allow for a high quality of living for residents as well.
The challenge with our low-density neighbourhoods as the city sprawls outwards, such as Hillsborough or East Royalty, is that transit, walkability and cyclability become more challenging for governments to implement.
But here we are. So, the city and the province need to ensure that these neighbourhoods are connected with transit and other services before allowing the city to sprawl further and further outwards, destroying valuable agricultural land and pushing affordable housing into the countryside.
Planned developments in East Royalty need to have some commercial (or mixed commercial/residential) zoning nearby to allow businesses to provide services and employment to residents. Future development should be further downtown to prevent more sprawl.
In the short-term, we have people struggling now, while tourism accommodations sit empty.
The province could encourage vacant holiday rentals to house people in the off-season with a vacancy tax for empty (winterized) units, and/or incentives for landlords and hotels etc. to encourage filling those properties with long-term rentals.
Development could be incentivized with tax breaks for high density downtown long-term rental units that are completed by this summer, so folks have options by the time the tourists arrive.
By then, our long-term options could come into effect: rural development (i.e. high-speed internet) and province-wide transit to allow the population to start increasing in smaller towns and communities. Temporarily slowed immigration to allow our construction industry to catch up to our population, as well as zoning to increase density, will have reversed this unsustainable trend.
Both urgent and long-term, sustainable measures are needed to address this crisis. Best of luck to developers and decision-makers as you work to address the needs of Islanders.
- Josh Underhay teaches at Birchwood Intermediate and lives in East Royalty with his family. He is the Green Party candidate for Charlottetown - Hillsborough Park.