COLUMN: Burden of a growing city

Surrey must work on managing growth, maintaining services

One of the toughest purchases for most people these days is that of a home – particularly if they are just getting started in the housing market.

Housing prices have been on a mostly-upward trajectory since the late 1990s. Even since the 2008 economic downturn, they have barely paused in their relentless advance.

Surrey has been one of the most popular places to look for a new, (relatively) low-cost home. Many of these are townhouses or apartments – single-family housing is not nearly as dominant as it once was. Indeed, there is no such thing, as virtually every single-family home being built has enough room for one or more suites to be added.

While housing prices in Surrey are considerably lower than in Vancouver, a recent study shows that the city adds a substantial sum to the cost of each home with its development cost charges and other fees.

For a sample 22-townhouse development, that additional fee is more than $700,000. That means city requirements add more than $33,000 to the cost of a home.

As the study, prepared by Simon Fraser University’s urban studies program, points out, Surrey has some good reasons to demand the charges. Growth does not come cheaply. Water, sewer and roads must be added. There are additional traffic challenges. There are added pressures on transit, schools, police and fire services, as well as other city services, such as libraries, recreation centres, parks, ice rinks and pools.

“We understand there’s a need to have development charges to pay for growth. What we really care about are the delays and inconsistent application of rules across cities and even within cities,” said Bob de Wit, president of Greater Vancouver Home Builders Association, which helped commission the study, called Getting to Groundbreaking.

Surrey has been taking a good portion of regional growth, with other fast-growing areas being Vancouver, Burnaby, Langley Township and Coquitlam. In the recent municipal elections, it became obvious that the pressures of growth are being felt in almost every Lower Mainland community, to a greater or lesser extent.

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation says about 30,000 new households are being formed in the Lower Mainland each year. This growth comes from immigration and inter-provincial migration, as well as young people leaving parental homes to set up their own households.

Growth is certain to continue in Surrey at a fast pace, given that there remains a large supply of developable land in Surrey – something that is becoming scarce in many other Lower Mainland communities.

However, even with the hefty development cost charges, many city services are having a tough time keeping up.

Perhaps the most obvious example is policing, where Surrey RCMP are clearly understaffed and not able to take on the additional workloads that come from more residents. Mayor Linda Hepner has pledged that 100 new RCMP officers will be hired, but by the time they are here, there will be a need for more.

Growth is also felt in hospitals and schools, both of which are dependent on the provincial government for capital funding. While there have been many improvements to Surrey Memorial Hospital, it is not easily positioned to handle Surrey’s current population, let alone new arrivals.

School capital funding was significant for a number of years, but has been more restricted in the past two years. Yet school children continue to arrive on the doorsteps of local schools, some of which are quite significantly overcrowded.

The study makes the excellent point that there needs to be consistency in the application of rules by each city, and more consistency across the region. Surrey generally gets reasonable marks from many developers, but there is room for improvement.

The challenge facing cities like Surrey is to manage growth so that existing services are maintained for those who live in Surrey now. That isn’t easy to do, and given the continuing pressure for new homes, it won’t be easy any time soon.

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.

 

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