Housing in Vancouver will get worse before it gets better

Better use of land key to affordability in Vancouver

The last two weeks have been a bonanza for affordable housing junkies.

They started with the Housing Central Conference, organized by the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association (BCNPHA), Co-op Housing Federation of B.C. and Aboriginal Housing Management Association. It brought together more than 1,300 participants from the non-profit and cooperative housing sectors, and I was invited to deliver a version of a recent SFU Affordable Housing Ideas presentation.

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Many of the sessions focused on the need for new partnerships between non-profit housing providers, developers and municipalities. This message was reinforced by Municipal Affairs Minister Selina Robinson and Mayor Gregor Robertson, who both addressed the delegates.

Kishone Roy, BCNPHA CEO, told reporters that while he was pleased to see senior levels of government increasing funds to support affordable housing, it is going to take years before new projects come on stream. He, therefore, expects the current housing situation to probably get worse before it gets better.

I was pleased to hear him applaud temporary modular housing as an effective short-term solution. I did my 1971 university thesis on the concept of relocatable modular housing, and some Courier readers may recall that Peter Ladner and I first proposed this idea to house the homeless during the 2008 municipal election.

In my conference presentation, I urged attendees to explore better use of land. One idea was to redevelop well-located single-family lots with small low-rise apartment buildings such as those built throughout Vancouver in the 1950s and 1960s.

These simple buildings can be very cost-effective. They do not need underground parking, and while some fire code relaxations may be required, they can provide safe, decent and relatively affordable accommodation.

Another idea was to consider other uses for back lanes. Now that laneway housing has become accepted in many parts of the province, perhaps it is time to also build townhouses and low-rise apartments along lanes. Anyone familiar with English mews housing will know what I mean. Moreover, the latest West End plan allows small infill apartments along lanes.

A critical factor contributing to the high cost of housing is the price of land. I therefore urged attendees to seek out free land. For example, a 140-foot strip off the Langara Golf Course along Cambie Street could accommodate a substantial non-profit and market housing. 

The berm along West Sixth Avenue, built in the 1970s to shield False Creek residents from railway noise along the now-abandoned railway line, could offer another free land location, as might the top level of underutilized parkades.

After the conference, the federal government announced its long-awaited Federal Housing Strategy at joint events in Toronto and Vancouver. (Toronto got Trudeau; we got Jean-Yves Duclos, the federal minister responsible for housing.)

In a Nov. 22 Courier story, Mike Howell summarized the $40-billion, 10-year, 100,000 unit program, which promises to reduce homelessness by 50 per cent.

While I'm pleased to see the federal government back in the housing game, I’m sure I’m not the only one a bit sceptical when it comes to any promises to end or reduce homelessness. But we can hope.

Following the federal government’s announcement, the City of Vancouver released its 10-year housing strategy, which includes a broad array of initiatives, including approval for 72,000 new homes around the city. While I'm often critical of the city’s zoning, planning and housing initiatives, this comprehensive program has potential to offer many benefits.

I was particularly pleased with the proposal to transform low-density, single-family neighbourhoods with 10,000 duplexes, triplexes, townhouses, stacked rowhouses and low-rise apartments — something many of us have been advocating for decades.

The city is also committed to speeding up the approval process and eliminating community amenity contributions for rental housing — something which has deterred some developers from building rental projects.

Following the city’s announcement, former mayor and premier Mike Harcourt noted that even in neighbourhoods such as Dunbar, West Point Grey and Kerrisdale, where residents have traditionally defended single-family zoning, there is now more openness to change than only a few years ago.

I discovered this to be true last Thursday when Abundant Housing’s Brendan Dawe and I were invited to speak on Changing Dunbar at the Dunbar Residents’ Association annual general meeting. But that’s another story for another day.



Link to Howell’s story:


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