Mayor’s Task Force avoids widely accepted definition of ‘affordability’

Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Task Force on Housing Affordability avoided using Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) definition of “affordable housing” in their final report (“Bold Ideas for an Affordable City”), instead opting for a flexible and vague definition of housing affordability. In the glossary (page 40) of the task force’s final report, “affordable housing” is defined as housing that

can be provided by the City, government, non-profit, community and for-profit partners. It can be found or developed along the whole housing continuum, and include SROs, market rental and affordable home ownership. The degree of housing affordability results from the relationship between the cost of housing and household income. It is not a static concept, as housing costs and incomes change over time.

This definition stands in contrast to the widely accepted definition provided by CMHC, and widely accepted in Canada:

The cost of adequate shelter should not exceed 30% of household income. Housing which costs less than this is considered affordable. However, consumers, housing providers and advocacy organizations tend to use a broader definition of affordability.

While Vision Vancouver Mayor Robertson’s Task Force is arguing that it is not a “static concept”, the CMHC and others would argue that it is indeed a static and stable concept at this point in time. The point of the Task Force’s exercise was to address housing affordability for households at this point in time based on a current definition of what affordability is for households.

Arguing that affordability is not a static concept only opens the door for the real estate and development industry, as well as developer-backed political parties, to define what affordability is. Housing affordability is based on household income, which, yes does indeed change based on income level, but is static at 30% of household income. Furthermore,  housing policy experts and analysts have argued that housing expenditures beyond 20% of household income for low-income households is excessive, and thus not affordable.

By refusing to define “affordability” consistent with the widely accepted CMHC standard, the task force’s final report is fundamentally flawed. And moreover, we are no closer to establishing an evaluative criteria for which progress towards greater affordability can be based. Again, we are witnessing a developer-dominated housing task force and municipal party catering to the development industry in another flamboyant exercise in political spectacle with the release of this report, which amounts to little more than regurgitated neoliberal policymaking at a time when we need a transformative, progressive political agenda.

2 comments

  1. Mike

    I would like to point out a few things: 1) the CMHC definition quoted clearly states that its definition is not absolute, and that many third parties use a varied definition of affordable (example, the authors of the article suggest that 20% is more appropriate for low income families). 2)In reading the mayoral report they do use a more complex definition of affordability; however, this is in keeping with the complexity of housing and follows from the CMHC’s suggestion that outside parties use their own definition. 3) on page four of the report it is clearly indicated that one of the key issues in vancouver’s housing problem is the number of people, specifically young families that are unable to spend less than 30% of their household income on housing. To me that suggests that they are closely adhering to the widely accepted definition of affordable housing. I’m not trying to say we have a perfect mayor or we are any closer to a solution on housing. I comment because I find irresponsible journalism frustrating. Articles like this just serve to inflame those who would be inflamed and erode credibility.

    • Andrew Longhurst

      Mike, thank you for your comment. You certainly raise important and valid points. I do, however, disagree with you. While they acknowledge the complex definition of affordability in some parts of the report, the definition of ‘affordability’ in the language of the report still remains far too flexible – and I imagine that it will continue to be loosely and politically deployed depending on the circumstance. That is my primary concern, and what I hoped to address with this article. While 30% of household income spent on housing is likely excessive for lower-income households, it remains a useful threshold. Yes, very low-income households face an increasing degree of shelter or housing burden as the amount of housing expenditure increases, but nonetheless, a operational definition of ‘affordability’ is necessary to establish an evaluative criteria for measuring housing affordability successes and failures. And to your final point: i think we should be outraged over the fact that the City continues to use scatter the language of ‘affordable housing’ throughout their reports without committing to a threshold. This has been the case with Vision’s STIR program, and more recently, the Secured Market Rental Housing policy, which they argued was creating ‘affordable housing’ but without any recognition that this definition is based on income and must then be targeting a segment of the renting population (facing a higher degree of shelter burden). These policies have not restricted rents to 30% of household income, or provided any certainty that the waived development cost levies get passed on to the renter. In the case of 1142 Granville STIR project, the developer received DCL waivers (a tax giveaway), and the rental rates have exceeded what they told staff and council they would be renting the units for. This is an instance when they use the language of ‘affordability’ without any criteria (market rental housing, in itself, isn’t necessarily affordable) – and it also resulted in significant tax losses of money which the city could have used to build actual affordable housing outside of the private market.

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