City red tape continues to hamper affordability in Vancouver

I woke up Monday morning facing a dilemma. What should be the topic for this week’s Courier column? 

Should I write about my recent trip to Victoria where my wife could not help but compare the beautiful planting along street medians and boulevards with the overgrown weeds at the south end of the Burrard Bridge?

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“Why can’t we plant flowers along streets like this?” she asked. “Surely the city can afford it.”

I told her that I didn’t think it was just a question of money, but rather one of attitude. While we want to be the greenest city in the world, many at City Hall regard planting flowers as frivolous and contrary to the principles of sustainability.

Another topic idea was to follow up on two recent columns.

Taxation issues related to laneway houses shocked many homeowners who had built laneway houses without any thought to income tax consequences.

In another column, I asked, “When is big too big when it comes to towers?” and alleged the height of taller buildings is often the result of financial considerations rather than good planning principles also attracted considerable attention.

The story referenced a Global News story in which Vancouver’s chief planner Gil Kelley acknowledged that to secure rental and affordable housing, there need to be trade-offs, often in the form of higher density.

Kelley went on to say that in Vancouver there are still limits set under a plan and “it’s not cowboy style negotiations. To earn the maximum height allowed under the plan the developer needs to provide a substantial amount of affordable housing and community benefits.”

While I have found Kelley to be a very genuine and sincere guy, I would suggest he spend time with Metro Vancouver real estate department officials where project-by-project “let’s make a deal” negotiations are the modus operandi.

Since housing affordability is so topical, I also considered revisiting my August 2016 Courier column about increasing supply and improving building permit times to make housing more affordable.

The Foreign Buyers Tax had just been introduced and the Empty Home Tax was coming.

I wrote then that a year from now we will have both the Foreign Buyers Tax and the Vacant Dwelling Tax “without a significant change in overall housing affordability.”

Sadly, this prediction has come true. In fact, housing costs are even higher than I anticipated a year ago.

At the time, I wrote “to truly improve the long-term outlook, we need to both increase housing supply and dramatically improve municipal approval procedures. Until we reduce the uncertainty and unnecessary complexities in our approval system that severely restrict supply, housing in Vancouver will remain extremely unaffordable. The 15 per cent tax is not the answer.”

This issue had also been addressed in a Fraser Institute report that looked at housing affordability in Toronto and Vancouver.

It too concluded that “rather than simply focus on constraining demand, we need to look at the long and uncertain approval timelines for building permits, as well as onerous fees and local opposition to new homes… which contribute to the housing supply’s inability to keep up with demand.”

A year later, the City of Vancouver is talking a lot about improving the development and building permit approval system. In March, senior officials made a presentation to Council in which they proposed various initiatives, including a program akin to the Nexus Lane.

However, since then, the city has proposed a “housing reset” offering a dramatic increase in the supply of affordable housing and new initiatives to encourage retention of character houses in single family neighbourhoods.

These will place even greater demands on staff time. So, I will say it again.

Unless there is a dramatic reduction in the time it takes to obtain development approvals a year from now, especially for purpose-built rental projects, and “missing middle” forms of housing such as row houses and stacked townhouses, Vancouver’s housing affordability will be no better than it is today.

Now you know the topic for my latest Courier column.

@michaelgeller

geller@sfu.ca

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