OUR VIEW: New Solutions Combat Housing Squeeze

By Duncan Cavens

More and more Vancouverites are being squeezed out of their homes as housing costs continue to rise faster than average incomes. 

Although social housing and affordable non-market housing are part of the answer, we know that in order to effectively curb rising prices, both large and small players in the market will need to provide new supplies of housing at a reasonable cost.

Vancouver city council has started discussing (and sending to public hearing) a number of proposals aimed at increasing the supply of market rental housing in the city. These policies include streamlining the approval process for laneway housing in single-family areas, allowing small secondary suites in new apartments, and an 18-month moratorium on development cost levies for new rental units. Development cost levies (DCLs) are fees that municipalities charge to recover the costs associated with servicing new developments. While the proposed policies are not perfect, they demonstrate that the city can move quickly when there is political will to support it.

But more needs to be done. Vancouver has an affordability crisis. Despite some easing in the current economic climate, it is very difficult for citizens at or below the city’s median family income to afford to live here. The cost of the average detached house in Metro Vancouver is now $668,000 while the cost of the average apartment is $342,000. According to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation stats Metro Vancouver’s vacancy rate is 0.9 per cent and the average 2-bedroom apartment rents for $1,071 per month indicating that we have one of the tightest rental housing markets in the nation.

But rental housing doesn’t need to be second class housing – if there is adequate supply, with adequate protections for long term tenure, rental housing can be a sensible housing choice for many, if not most, Vancouverites (50 percent of Vancouver residents are already tenants).

Solving our affordability problem is not going to be politically easy – in order to significantly address price concerns, the city will need to find a way to reduce the cost of building housing units. Given that subsidized housing for middle class citizens won’t be politically or economically sustainable, the city needs to get creative.

Some options include:

  • making the development cost levy exemption permanent for rental housing;
  • extending the laneway housing initiative to duplex and multi-family zones across the city;
  • streamlining development approvals for rental housing, even to the point of pre-approving designs for small and medium apartment buildings;
  • creating new density opportunities in residential areas across the city, and reserving this additional density for rental housing developments.

Significantly increasing the supply of quality rental housing needs to be a long-term goal for council, with consistent, methodical policy changes to encourage the development of new rental housing. Consistently increasing the supply of market rental housing will, over the long term, relieve the pressure on affordable and social housing as well.

In addition, the city should explore ways it can support non-profit housing associations to build long-term affordable housing in the Vancouver market. One option that has worked in other communities such as Whistler is the establishment of a municipal housing authority. The housing authority would be the municipal agency responsible for managing and developing non-market housing options, in partnership with developers, non-profit societies, and senior levels of government.

This idea of a municipal housing authority received strong public support in Think City’s Dream Vancouver survey last fall, and both Vision Vancouver and COPE agreed to support it during the 2008 election campaign.

Think City believes it’s time to move forward with a housing authority for Vancouver so that fewer residents will be caught in the grip of the Vancouver housing squeeze.

Duncan Cavens is a Think City board member and was a founding developer of Roberts Creek Cohousing, one of Canada's first rural cohousing communities.

Don't forget Transportation

All the proposals for increasing density, setting up a housing authority etc. must and should be done to allow people to live in affordable housing in the city. But solving the affordable housing crisis also requires transportation policies. Many people have to be in the city for work and also because they want to enjoy all the ammenities it has to offer. For work/life balance, and to avoid hours of commuting time, people want to live as close to the city and their jobs as they can afford. If we provide better and faster public transit to satellite areas outside the city, people could live further away and yet remain part of the lifeblood of the city. This would significantly reduce the pressure on housing/accommodation in the "desired" areas of Vancouver.

Amount of Vancouver citizens who are renters

I think that the amount of citizens in Vancouver who do not own their places of residence is much higher than stated in this article. I think 75% of citizens do not own their place of residence. But there has always been a prejudice in favour of home owners at all levels of government in Canada. I think this happens because the dream of owning your own place of residence is high, but the reality is that owners are a minority in Canada. Some day the wishes of the majority will be made clear to all politicians and assistance to build rental places of residence will become the rule in all of Canada.

Affordable rental housing

All of these ideas have some merit, but they do not address the single reason we have a rental housing crisis on our hands: unscrupulous landlords who force tenants out by hiking up the rents because they 'renovated' the building. The politics of housing in Vancouver have always revolved around this problem and now that the province no longer protects tenants, we have a crisis. We need clear laws about fair rents, and an agency to address grievances. Renting is a way of life here, but city hall has never really acknowledged that fact. The city could also become a landlord because they own lots of buildings and properties and could develop them for low rental housing. But the caveat here is this: unless people have a real stake in their home, they won't take care of it. So long term leases and a guarantee that the rent is controlled by the city are necessary. Examples from cities around the world show that when people have a long term situation that promises some stability and are given a way to contribute by making gardens and looking after common areas, everyone thrives.

Affordable Rental Housing

The idea: "creating new density opportunities in residential areas across the city, and reserving this additional density for rental housing developments" is the closest to my idea. I would have the city re-zone 1 city block at a time as "affordable rental housing only" with an appropriate lower tax rate. Yes this is not without some cost to the city. But, it is better than spending millions on a symptom of the lack of affordable rental housing "Homelessness". As poorer working people are forced out of their apartments by rising rents, homeless people totals rise. That is the main reason that we have the homeless problem that we now have. Having a national or provincial rental housing program to assist with the funding, like we used to have, would really speed things up. This is a problem that every city in Canada now faces - "a lack of affordable rental housing."

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