Hinton’s proactive campaign for affordable housing

With or without Vista Coal, residents of Hinton need a place to hang their hats

by Gail Jansen-Kesslar
New row housing with landscaping.

The perpetually affordable Happy Creek project in Hinton is one way the town has worked proactively to address its housing needs. — Photo courtesy Town of Hinton

While the Alberta community of Hinton is looking forward to the potential economic boon that the proposed Vista Coal Project by Coalspur Mines Ltd. could bring, town staffers understand that the size and scope of the project could put considerable pressure on Hinton’s already-strained housing market. The Town of Hinton has started to address this potential negative side effect with a number of innovative and proactive strategies.

Coalspur is currently in the regulatory approval stage. If approved, its Vista Coal Project could bring with it upwards of 500 jobs to Hinton and an additional estimated 2,000 new residents to the town’s already-growing population of just over 9,000. To handle the potential need for housing, as well as the town’s existing needs, the Town of Hinton has undertaken a review of its entire housing continuum—from emergency housing, entry-level and graduated housing right on up to providing new housing alternatives for seniors.

“Housing is one part of the infrastructure puzzle that we’re taking very seriously,“ said Kimberley Worthington, economic development and housing officer for the Town. “Prior to Coalspur, we hosted two housing workshops this past spring, and we just received a grant from CMHC to further that. We’ve also just wrapped up a housing needs and demand study that was put out to the community, and we’re in the process of compiling that data now. Through it we’re hoping to identify what the true need and demand for housing here in Hinton is, and then move forward with a feasibility study and a business plan to address those needs.”

Vacancy rates at the end of October show that Hinton sitting at only five per cent vacancy for rentals and an average single-family housing price of $315,400. What’s needed, said Worthington, is more opportunity for those looking to make a start up the property ladder. That need is being addressed with the Happy Creek Estates project, a perpetually affordable housing complex that is filled to capacity, with a long waiting list already generated.

“We believe that the free market will meet the demand for the upper level of housing,” said Worthington. “But we are concerned with our ability to provide more attainable housing.”

A commitment to perpetual affordability

One project recently undertaken by Plainsman Construction of British Columbia is the Thompson Lake development, a project made possible by the sale of municipal land. Profits from the development will go into a housing reserve fund to help with future affordable housing initiatives. While nothing has yet been decided on, the reserve fund could help to subsidize rents, create live/work units, develop co-operative or workforce housing, or a number of other possible scenarios the town is looking at. Hinton also has a policy put in place, said Worthington, that can assist developers who are committed to perpetual affordability.

“Council has also approved converting the current municipal reserve designation on another parcel of land to community service designation, which means it provides for consideration for other uses such as affordable housing,” said Worthington.

This, paired with their workshops and the data they hope to glean from their survey, should provide the foundation to release the housing pressure currently being experienced as well as any that might result in new industry developments—including Coalspur.

Coalspur or not

“We are doing this whether Coalspur gets regulatory approval or not,” said Worthington. “But if they do, then we’ll have to bump our planning up a notch and ensure that Coalspur is a part of the game plan as well.”

With these and other innovative strategies, the outlook for housing in Hinton looks promising, something Worthington stresses will continue long into 2013 and beyond.

“We are a very proactive and progressive municipality and we like to be prepared," she said. "We are positively working towards a solutions-based growth and growth readiness, because we recognize that housing is fundamental to diversifying and sustaining our economy.”

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