MLA gives assurance on affordable housing

A government MLA gave a degree of assurance the city won't be penalized for council's decision to not spend revenue from the tax on hotel rooms on affordable housing.

Earlier this year, the provincial government had given municipalities the option, but on Monday, council voted to continue using the levy as originally intended - to promote tourism.

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The now-three-per-cent levy on the cost of a room in the city came into effect in 2010 after receiving approval from a vast majority of hotels and motels in the city. Revenue from the levy raises about $1 million per year for Tourism Prince George.

On Tuesday, Coun. Garth Frizzell raised the matter with the select committee on finance and government services when it was in Prince George. The committee is touring the province collecting submissions on how government revenue should spend its money in advance of the 2019 budget.

It led to an exchange between Frizzell and MLA Nicholas Simmons, who said municipalities were merely being given the option.

"It's not being imposed, you're not being told to use it that way, so don't," he said. "So what's the issue with that? Just curious."

Frizzell replied that not taking the step could compromise the city's ability to get provincial government funds for affordable housing in the future.

"The challenge is that whether we have the access or don't have the access, the next step would be when we come back asking for housing without taking it away from tourism...it would be 'well, you had the opportunity to use or money to do it and you didn't take it," he said.

In response, Simmons said the provincial government is "completely dedicated to addressing the issue around housing and I don't think they're planning to do that through taking off the hotel tax."

The option was being provided in answer to the shortage of housing in some communities for workers in the tourism sector, he added.

On Monday, Coun. Jillian Merrick was the lone council member to oppose a motion against pursuing the option saying the city's vacancy rates are incredibly low and suggested the number of homeless in the city's downtown has impacted hoteliers.

"Not allowing ourselves to use those dollars if we find ourselves in a pinch is short-sighted," she said.

Speaking in favour or the motion, Mayor Lyn Hall referred to the 167-unit apartment project slated for O'Grady Road and argued using money tagged for tourism on affordable housing is "about taking away from Peter to pay Paul."

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