Opinion Column

Step back and let innovation solve affordability

By Ada Slivinski, 24 Hours Vancouver

Bowen Island. (Getty Images)

Bowen Island. (Getty Images)

The owners of Union Steamship Company Marina on Bowen Island have found an innovative way to attract and retain workers.

They are renting out rooms above their restaurant to staff at a rate they can afford and have bought a nine-metre boat, which is also available for rent by those who work for them. Now, they’ve said they are looking to have an area of the marina rezoned so they can build six floating duplexes for the same purpose.

The company has taken this drastic step because they say they cannot find enough staff to run their business and keep up with the growth they’ve seen. They’ve attributed this largely to the lack of affordable housing on Bowen Island and the surrounding area. The median cost of a two-bedroom home on Bowen is $735,000 according to Canadian Real Estate Magazine.

While it should certainly not be the employer’s responsibility to provide housing for their staff, this kind of innovation is exactly what we need more of in Metro Vancouver. Of course, it’s not just the little West Vancouver island where small businesses are having trouble finding serving staff. All over Metro Vancouver, restaurants, bakeries and mom and pop grocery stores are being forced to reduce their house or opening days because they cannot find enough qualified people to work. A $16 an hour wage makes for quite a tight housing budget and workers who would fit the bill are being forced out.

How do we change if we don’t want to see these stores and services close down permanently? First, the government needs to get out of the way and allow more housing innovation in the form of rental suites and microlofts. Instead of tightening up restrictions on services like Airbnb, encourage these kinds of innovations. Airbnb may not do much for affordability but another similar service might and restricting unique solutions squashes innovation.

The City of Vancouver currently bans microlofts, forbidding the sale of any home under 398 square feet. Local developer Jon Stovell has long pushed for a change in this policy, calling microlofts the “bottom rung on the ladder, for both rental housing and homeownership.”

Floating homes? Yurts? Microlofts? Bring it on. So far local governments have been unsuccessful in increasing the affordable housing options for minimum wage and middle-income earners. Maybe it’s time for the government to get out the way and let entrepreneurs and innovators solve what’s becoming an increasingly more pressing problem.