On the Fringes: Surrey’s Affordability Defence Strategy

By Drew Penner

The general wisdom on a place like Surrey is that it has escaped the worst ravages of Airbnb ascendancy, maintaining its identity as a place Canadians new and old can go to make serious strides towards financial stability. But in the maelstrom of economics that is the Lower Mainland’s affordability crisis, the realities of suburban life mean that when all is said and done, folks within their jurisdiction might actually be suffering most.

“Once you combine cost of rent and cost of transportation, Surrey is actually less affordable than Vancouver,” said councillor Vera LeFranc, in a telephone interview with ThinkPol, prior to a regular Monday council meeting. “Those that are absolutely at the bottom of the rung of the rental ladder are being pushed out.”

As you would expect, Surrey officials would like everyone to have a place to call home. Housing should be not just affordable, but also appropriate to the individual, administrators say. They have every intention of of preventing the vulnerable from a life of poverty and have been working to make sure there are a range of housing options for people in every stage of life. In April the community announced its Affordable Housing Strategy, meant to protect tenants and add to the stock of rental housing. The community has been trying to increasing multi-family housing options and has been exploring transit partnerships.

Perhaps the core element of the community’s affordability strategy is a thrust towards creating “a sense of belonging and connectedness” for its residents – a laudable goal to be sure. The way Surrey official describe their approach is that it must come to fruition in tandem with the development of a range of mental health programs and services.

For LeFranc, a veteran of the anti-poverty struggle, it’s been a tough slog that’s had its rewarding moments.

She’s been involved with the city’s Homelessness & Housing Society as well as the Poverty Reduction Coalition, which developed the Surrey Poverty Reduction Plan. But as vice chair of the finance committee, she knows a thing or two about balancing the wants of the progressive set with fiscal realities. The funny thing is that the affordability hustle – at least to the nth degree that’s been required lately – is kind of a new dance out in Surrey.

“We have generally been quite affordable,” she said. “We haven’t really needed to regulate.”

Perhaps because of its powerhouse position as the Lower Mainland heir-apparent (as far as population leader goes, at least), the community has been able to make significant strides to build dykes to prevent the deluge from washing its affordable status away. For one, the community asks developers for a 1-to-1 replacement of affordable units. And it has rather strong tenant relocation policies.

“We do want to encourage the addition of purpose-built rentals,” she said, adding that with a vacancy rate of .6 per cent, the situation has become dire. “Less than one per cent of all rentals are available to be rented.”

LeFranc’s efforts to promote the cause of the downtrodden has not fallen on deaf ears. Here’s how Mayor Linda Hepner echoed her concerns in a recent release on the subject of cheap rent: “The need for affordable rental housing in Surrey is a critical component for creating a thriving and inclusive city,” Hepner said. “Our new Affordable Housing Strategy aligns with the planning of the Surrey Light Rail and improved Frequent Transit Network by ensuring that as urban areas develop they will include secure rental housing with better protection for renters.”

She’s referring to the ways in which Surrey is becoming further integrated into the Lower Mainland grid, while attempting to maintain it’s position as a place where Canadians can go to carve out their share of prosperity pie.

Surrey may not face some of the challenges of a place like Vancouver which is bounded so strictly by mountains. But it does have a commitment to maintain its stock of arable land – 1/3rd of its land base is in the Agricultural Land Reserve. And it does have a full-on homelessness problem, something that’s obvious to anyone who’s travelled past the tents set up on 135A. Surrey has to reckon with the fact that so many of its people live in basement suites and townhouses. That means it can’t always play the “bonus density” game to gain juicy concessions from developer by allowing them to build a taller tower somewhere.

LeFranc says it’s important for Surrey’s council to act to set a positive course of action. But, she explains, things have gotten so out of control that the only way to catch up is for the private market to tackle the problem simultaneously.

“We’re so far behind with affordable housing that non-profit and social housing can only meet a small amount of the gap,” she said. “We need market solutions.”

Recently, it seems that’s meant mostly high-end or low-end development, with nary a care for the middle. And that, she stressed, needs to change.

“It’s been heartbreaking for all of us,” she said, pointing to a marked increase in homelessness in recent days, with fentanyl deaths mounting. “It’s been a very difficult three-and-a-half-years.”

But there are some positive developments on the horizon.

For one, 160 units of temporary modular housing are expected by mid-June to assist with the folks in “no fixed address” status down on 135A. Plus, the city has leveraged its civic heft to demand $1,000 for every new unit of housing that goes in be earmarked for land meant for affordable housing. The money will go into a general pot not a specific fund.

Certainly, Surrey stands in contrast to many communities across the country, considering 73 per cent of people actually own their own home. It has 100,000 people under the age of 19 and 85,000 in its schools. Basically, it has plenty of tax dollars to play with. But the urgency of the crisis is obvious, too.

So it will be fascinating to see the alchemy the community is able to cook up in the days to come. And hopefully other, smaller, Lower Mainland jurisdictions, with less latitude, will be able to learn and follow suit in the days ahead.