Hardly a day goes by when there isn’t a story in the newspapers, on radio or TV, about Vancouver’s affordable housing crisis.
Over the past few weeks we’ve heard about “shadow flipping” by unscrupulous real estate agents, disagreement over the precise number of vacant houses and apartments and the negative impacts of money laundering and foreign investment on house prices.
These are important issues and worthy of further investigation and remedial actions. However, regardless of what steps are taken, they will not significantly reduce the price of housing in Vancouver.
So then the question is: Can we do anything that will make a difference?
To address this, it’s worthwhile looking back four years to March 2012, when Mayor Gregor Robertson and Olga Ilich, who co-chaired the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability, issued their first report.
This report set out four “quick start actions”: fast-track development applications for affordable rental and ownership housing, use the Cambie Corridor redevelopment as a model for inclusionary zoning, (a form of zoning that requires affordable housing to be included within market developments), and use city-owned land to leverage partnerships with non-profit and co-ops to create affordable rental housing.
Task force members were encouraged to use their influence with the federal government to advocate for enhanced tax incentives for new rental housing and to convince the provincial government to streamline the delivery of “fee simple” row housing. Fee simple row houses are individually owned, like single-family houses, and not part of a condominium.
There were some successes. Ilich and former city councillor Suzanne Anton convinced the provincial government to change land title legislation to make it easier to build fee-simple row housing. However, the federal Conservative government did not budge on offering tax incentives for rental housing.
Sadly, fast-tracking rental housing applications has not happened. At a recent Urban Development Institute workshop intended to encourage the construction of more rental housing, local developers complained to a city representative that rental housing proposals are still taking more than three years to get approved.
The same holds true for construction of non-profit rental housing, some of which is only just getting underway on four city-owned properties, three years later.
In June 2012, the task force issued another report that looked, in part, at how to decrease housing development costs. This begs the question whether lower costs automatically translate into lower prices and rents.
Task force members correctly noted that lower costs can result in lower prices, especially when there is sufficient supply and competition in the marketplace. Sadly, this has not happened.
They also noted that within Vancouver most new housing generally comprises two major forms — single-family homes and apartment buildings.
There is little else in the housing continuum to meet the needs of families and smaller households. This is because the city’s zoning and regulatory framework generally does not allow many of the housing forms found elsewhere around the world — or across the country or even within the Metro region.
These include townhouses, stacked townhouses, clustered housing, and other options such as family-sized laneway housing.
In the report, the task force noted, “simplifying land use regulations and facilitating a more flexible and creative dialogue between developers and the City would result in more housing diversity that could meet our affordability challenges.”
So has this happened? It is starting to happen in a few neighbourhoods, including Marpole. However, the number of multi-family zoned sites is so limited, prices have not dropped. Moreover, single-family lots have become so expensive it is difficult to create affordable multi-family housing, even when they are rezoned.
The mayor’s task force presented many excellent recommendations. Housing experts are convinced that if they were systematically reviewed and implemented, Vancouver could most definitely offer more affordable housing choices.
On April 6 at SFU Harbour Centre, I am presenting a lecture titled 12 New Affordable Housing Ideas, many of which are taken directly from the mayor’s task force reports.
The lecture is free, but you will need to register at sfu.ca/continuing-studies.ca.
I hope some of you will join me. For those who cannot, watch for future columns.