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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Home ownership, rent vouchers, and building codes: a look at affordable housing

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.

Posted by Matthew Johnston on June 4, 2008 in Canadian Provincial Politics | Permalink


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Please don't mention Emery again. He's not a libertarian hero - instead he's just a druggie trying to manipulate the system to avoid prison. He's poison to anything he touches.

Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2008-06-04 12:49:23 PM

Zebulon, I don't mean to overdo the coverage of Emery. It's just hard to find a politician to quote who actually believes in free markets, hence the reference to a 2002 press release.

And, of course, I respectfully disagree with your assessment of Emery. He was a libertarian activist long before he got into the marijuana legalization movement.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2008-06-04 1:08:04 PM

Seriously, I know you Ezra-nites (Ezra-nians?) have a hate-on for Ed Stelmach, but to imply he is impeding progress on affordable housing by enhancing building codes is ridiculous.

What next? Cheaper apartment buildings by allowing builders to skip out on rebar? Bring back lead paint, I say, and house the world.

I notice you go out of your way to avoid mentioning that Stelmach was against rent controls from the very first (that would be the quickest way to destroy a city, by your words). But that mention wouldn't jive with your pre-conceived notions that he is not conservative enough.

Posted by: Paulie | 2008-06-04 1:31:58 PM

I have to side with the Stelmach position that codes need to be strengthened. If left to their own devices, homebuilding contractors would skimp on absolutely every safety code. For the price of a few 2x4's most of these guys would let low income families go up in flames.

Leaving it to insurance providers would end up with them collecting every penny saved by relaxing codes. They'd come up with new guidelines for premiums, and stick it to customers. you know what they say, pay me now or pay me later.

Obviously there should be limits. Sprinkler systems on balconies might be a bit of overkill, but I've seen so many cases of 1/2" drywall where 5/8" was required, I wonder if the extra few bucks would have broken the contractor's back.

Contractors aren't dumb. They've found ways to get people to side with them against their own best interests. Sort of like corporations convincing workers that unions will lead to poor working conditions. Trying to convince low income families they won't be able to own their own homes if the contractor is forced to use thicker drywall is pretty lame in my opinion.

Posted by: dp | 2008-06-04 1:32:54 PM

Paulie - while I try to be a constructive critic of Stelmach and the provincial Tories, I did say that his recommendations were reasonable. In the trade off between safety and cost, I'm sure most people will chose safety -- but this is a middle class luxury that does, in fact, increase the price of homes. If these safety measures and building standards become too expensive, it will obviously make low-income housing difficult to build. There is no such thing as a free lunch, as they say.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2008-06-04 1:46:39 PM

Our own laziness and the reliance on government standards go a long way to ensuring that we end up with an inferior product. Take the time to learn what constitutes good construction and settle for nothing less. The good standard will filter down to lower priced housing because the consumer will keep after the builder until the job is done right. That will even work with tract housing.

Posted by: DML | 2008-06-04 10:24:13 PM

DP -- you’re right, contractors aren’t dumb. They know that their customers value safety and they compete to provide it at the lowest possible cost.

Remember, greedy automakers gave us seatbelts and airbags, not the government. Why? Because many drivers put a premium on safety. And, like the home builders, there are plenty of private outfits that work to make sure automakers are living up to their promise to build safe cars.

Safety is an important value for many people, but it’s only one of many values, including affordability.

For example, people who ride motorcycles are, perhaps unconsciously, saying to the world that they value fun, freedom and affordability over the safety that a car, with seatbelts and airbags, could provide.

Should people be allowed to make a similar choice in the housing market?

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2008-06-04 10:34:50 PM

Yeah, those liberalized building codes sure did wonders for those folks in China last month.

Posted by: joe bleau | 2008-06-05 2:01:02 AM

Liberalized building codes? In communist China???

Oh you meant shoddy government construction the people had no choice about.

Let's not compare apples and oranges here.

That aside, insurance companies can easily deter people from buying unsafe homes without any government interference whatsoever.

Posted by: K Stricker | 2008-06-05 11:42:25 AM

The topic of over-controlling building codes and zoning by-laws ranks really high in my list of hypocritical politician pet peeves! Any time I hear a municipal politician talking about the need to curb suburban sprawl or increase affordable housing I can't help but check their voting record on zoning issues, to see how many times they've opposed the construction of a high-rise condo downtown because it would "change the character of the neighbourhood", or forced a developer to conform to pointless zoning laws when the developer submits a creative plan for a new community, or some other rotten bullspit excuse. The best example of this phenomenon, IMHO, is the absurd tale behind how Bruce Firestone WANTED to build the Ottawa Palladium (renamed the Corel Centre, and now Scotiabank Place) and the surrounding property versus what ACTUALLY ended up being built. It should be included as a bonus chapter in Philip K. Howard's "The Death of Common Sense". Lots of stuff here: http://www.dramatispersonae.org/EssaysOnLife/EssaysOnLifeVolume1.pdf

Posted by: Anonymous | 2008-06-06 7:56:41 AM

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