OUR VIEW: Leadership Needed on Housing

Leadership is about having the courage and confidence to step forward when everyone else is afraid to take a risk.

In our view, the housing affordability crisis is primarily a crisis of leadership.

The lack of leadership is usually attributed to our politicians, but equally applies to developers, planners, architects, contractors, housing activists, community organizations, and other players in the housing industry.

The average one bedroom apartment in Vancouver rents for $936 per month, meaning that a household income of $37,500 is required to achieve the affordability threshold that housing costs not exceed 30 per cent of income.

The 2006 census revealed the extent of the problem – 21 per cent of Vancouver’s renters, comprising 57,000 households, pay more than 30 per cent of their income in rent. Those numbers are certainly higher now. Last year, average rents in Metro Vancouver increased almost ten times faster than inflation (as measured by the consumer price index).

And this points to larger changes to the social make-up of our city. School enrollments are dropping as families are driven out of the city. Companies report they cannot attract and retain staff in Vancouver. Any attempt to foster innovation, entrepreneurship, green jobs or cultural industries is hobbled. The housing crisis is strangling our economy.

Yes, its causes are many and complex – a very finite supply of land, a growing population, a wave of real estate speculation, the poor economies of scale of smaller households, high development costs and too much red tape, high labour costs during a construction bubble, and the withdrawal of senior government funding for building non-market units all contribute to the housing affordability crisis in Vancouver.

However, these problems are not insurmountable. What’s needed is an effective public policy response that uses market and non-market solutions and involves all levels of government.

In recent years, there has been an understandable focus on the most visible manifestation of the housing affordability crisis – homelessness. However, we believe the pursuit of an answer to housing our poorest citizens is obscuring a more complex problem.

Tens of thousands of low- and middle-income people are being squeezed by rising housing costs, causing massive downward pressure in the housing market, and ultimately, the displacement of the poorest and hardest to house.

What we need is a long-term strategic initiative that involves governments, business and advocates that is focused on the single goal of housing affordability for all citizens, not just those who are destitute and homeless. Instead, we have an uncoordinated tangle of contradictory public policies, goals and market forces.

Vancouver city council is moving ahead with initiatives intended to create more affordable housing, while at the same time adopting policies that restrict other opportunities for low- and middle-income housing development.

Very early in their mandate, the current city council initiated the short term incentives for rental housing program to address affordable housing problems by providing incentives for developers to increase the supply of rental housing. These incentives include exemptions from development cost levies and other development charges, increases in allowable density, and streamlining the development approval process.

However, this past January, council decided that protecting views of North Shore mountains from a few arbitrarily selected locations was a higher priority than taking positive steps to address the housing affordability crisis.

By capping building heights at or near present levels, the view corridor decision will make future Woodwards-model projects much more difficult to achieve. The Woodwards model is based on the policy of trading higher density (extra units) for affordability (non-market units). This model is very suited to dense, urban neighbourhoods like those in the downtown peninsula, and could provide that much-needed mix of market and non-market housing.

Another piece of the puzzle is the role of housing advocates in promoting effective solutions. Unfortunately, recent lobbying efforts by some housing activists not only failed to advance long-cherished social housing goals, but have actually been an obstacle to other low- and middle-income housing development.

Last fall, gentrification fears stoked housing activists’ opposition to any relaxation of historic area height limits in Chinatown, Gastown and the Downtown Eastside prompting city council to cap building heights. Instead of fighting for tools that could provide more affordable units, as well as protect and expand housing for the most vulnerable, activists lobbied for this deeply regressive policy decision, making it unworkable for developers to consider Woodward-model solutions in the three neighbourhoods for the foreseeable future.

More recently, demands for keeping the Olympic Village social housing intact came at the expense of converting the 252 units of Olympic social housing into two or possibly three times as many units of social housing elsewhere on less expensive city land. In the end, the city will only bring 126 units of social housing online. The other 126 units have been earmarked for workforce rental housing that comes at a hefty market price and still requires an additional $32 million subsidy from the city.

Finally, there are too many developers trying to make big profits building overpriced units for the upper end of the market. Few developers are sharpening their pencils, being creative, and building a product priced for middle class families who want to stay in the city. In the current real estate bubble, there’s simply too much easy money to be made.

For example, Concord Pacific and the city could do something innovative with the northeast False Creek site. Unfortunately, the current plan calls for yet more high-end towers to fill up the remaining space between BC Place Stadium and Science World.

Reliance Properties, the developer of the controversial Burns Block project at 18 W. Hastings St., claim to have a solution to the affordability problem – microlofts.  However, these units of 270 square feet (about the size of two parking spaces) will rent for an average of $750 per month, or $2.77 per square foot, making them some of the most expensive rental housing in the city on a per square foot basis. Although the city subsidized the project with grants and tax breaks worth almost $1.5 million, it achieved no guarantees on affordability or contributions to the stock of non-market housing from the developer.

The housing affordability crisis demands more than a single approach. All the players must come together to work on solutions to this problem. It’s long overdue.

We’re not just calling for another meeting where everyone talks about what other people ought to be doing with someone else’s money. We’re talking about an open, transparent process with clearly defined goals where everybody puts something on the table and agrees to be accountable for their part. That makes it a very radical concept.

But who will convene it? Who will step forward? Who will provide the leadership that Vancouver and the region so desperately need?

Supply and Demand

I generally liked the initial article in this series for its attempt to point out that many so-called housing advocates unintentionally work against what is needed: more supply. At the end of the day, if you want housing costs to go down, the Lower Mainland needs a bigger supply of homes (apartments, condos, single family houses, row houses, etc.). Height is one way to achieve it; so is increasing the number of dwellings on a traditional lot. And, so is reducing the size of homes. I was disappointed that you critiqued the micro apartments. They are a great option. No, they don't suit everyone, and on a price per square foot basis they may seem expensive. But where-else downtown can a single person find a brand new apartment for $750/month? And, how else can a residential rental developer make a project financially viable ($2.77 psf is a magic number, from what I understand) If 100 people currently renting elsewhere in Vancouver rent these micro suites once they're done, that frees up their current homes for others. If the micro apartments are offered in pedestrian and transit friendly places, the residents don't need cars, which also frees up space on our roads. And, $750/month isn't that expensive if you don't need either a car or a bus pass or even a bike (if you can walk everywhere).

Affordable Housing and green light on more highrises

SENIORS/THE DISABLED AND/OR LOW RENTAL HOUSING: Rental rates for these tenants are based on 30% of income. They do not meet the most basic needs when the INCOME level is at the low end of the scale. To exist by eating the most inexpensive foods and as little as possible just to stretch the dollar, is a battle too difficult for many to play. Often it will mean travelling to numerous places in order to pick up the most inexpensive groceries. Not only is the quality of food compromised by living heavily on one food group to cut costs also compromises health. The elderly and those with long term disabilities are the most effected. More funds are needed, NOT THROUGH TAX DEDUCTIONS and there should be no tax due for those in these situations. The concerns are month by month, not once a year. We all need quality food, a modest but comfortable place to live (not a 4x6 box). We also require the ability to purchase clothing once or twice year in order to feel part of humanity, a movie now and then, possibly camping with family or friend, a few important birthday gifts, house repairs or replacements such as bed sheets, towels, new bed after 15 years and those unexpected emergencies that come up in everyone's life. These basics provide a sense of oneness with others that creates the incentive needed to discover a way they too can contribute and be part of the society. When the needs are not met, depression sets in and after years pass, the deterioration of self worth is certainly evident and the whole spectrum of health problems follow from malnutrition, substance abuse, mental disorders or even a danger to themselves and others. The good news - we've come a long way baby and so has transit. Olympic Village: I am impressed at the move to increase low rental housing which include the highrises but not sure the olympic village plan of low rental housing is the right area. I hope this was thought through carefully. New Highrises: We live in location that cannot be expanded so it's obvious we must go up in the downtown core. Those that are paying for an unobstructed view of English Bay or Coal Harbour should retain it but elsewhere, build the highrises with MINI-parks slipped in here and there. I'm however still opposed to the community garden on Davie street. That should be a park for all to use regardless of age or a highrise with shops on ground level. .

Tax Relief for Affordable Housing

Looking at purpose taxes for co ops and low income housings, Looking to get a new vision on house to provide housing over the long haul with investments from individuals that are in it for a long term and not a quick buck, taxes should reflect the purpose of the building and it occupants rather than resident or business in areas that had co ops build in yrs before and now the taxes will start to make it impossible for people on social assistance or low income be able to afford basic housing, I live in a co op .. for now .. dont know how long can continue to live here pass 2012 .. cause there will be no subsidy from feds when our lease is up and we dont own our building but lease it, A lot of people are going to be affected not only me but seniors handicap etc,, We have to change the way we do things for a substainable and livable city for all it citizens, from Boundary Rd to Fraser Rive to Stanley Park to Burrard Inlet.

pre fab housing

For affordable housing modular prefab units come in many designs; the problem is where to park them. There is plenty of space in the burbs yet but the problem is bylaws. Its ok to build a monster mcmansion on ALR land, a golf course, or horse riding/boarding stable, and get farm status with a chicken coop or bunch of blueberry bushes and resultant property tax savings. There is lots of unused greenbelt land in Richmond for example, which could easily have serviced pads installed for prefab housing with a change in zoning. And in Vancouver homeowners should get a break in developing rental suites, biggest problem is most people still want a car, even in Kitsilano.

Housing

An excellent piece. It's regrettable that anonymous May 13 felt the need to blow off so much steam without taking the time to read the article. The key point here, I believe, is that taxation and development policies at all levels of government have had the effect of restricting the supply of housing for people with average incomes. This is an acute problem in the City of Vancouver, but it also has significant impacts in nearby municipalities. Various models or solutions from around the planet that could be adapted to improve the situation. Governments and political leaders owe it to us to become familiar with these models. However, we have to recognize that Vancouver's problem is partly embedded at the popular level, a perverse consequence of the 1970s "save our neighbourhood" movement that has had so many positive outcomes. Jane Jacobs helped to wake us up to the advantages of city living, and importance of community in the city; many of her followers seem to think this means putting a permanent freeze on development in existing communities. Mayor Sam Sullivan's "ecodensity" debacle uncovered an anti-development coalition that spans geographical and political differences in a remarkable way. The left-wing housing activitists that Anonymous May 13 is so cranky about make things even worse by insisting that there should be no private-sector development anywhere until their unstated quota of social housing units has been constructed. My proposals, unimaginatively, are these. First, Think City should keep on making noise on this subject. In the local marketplace of ideas around housing, the shelves are pretty bare, and the number of influencers is small. Even a modest effort will help to expand the space where governments can act. Second, part of the solution lies in looking out region-wide. The regional plan of the early 1990s contemplated the creation of meaningful employment in North Surrey, Coquitlam Centre and other places as well as in downtown Vancouver. Concentrated job creation boosts concentrated residential development, to everyone's benefit. The partial successes we have seen in the fulfillment of the 1993 plan are due almost 100 per cent to the promise or the reality of rapid transit. Folks in the City of Vancouver could actually do themselves a favour by supporting the construction of rapid transit to the 'burbs.

Many people are pushing for

Many people are pushing for affordable and social housing, but governments at all levels are dragging their feet. Money that could go to fund housing for all is being spent on freeways and bridges. We have to demand that priorities change in favor of People not Pavement and Homes not Highways.

Leadership Needed on Housing

Your article was thoughtful and addresses many of the issues around affordable housing in Vancouver. In particular you mention the City's STIR program which provides incentives to Developers to build market rental projects. You also discuss how low and middle income people/families are cut out of the housing market certainly by the high cost of purchasing housing, but also by rapidly increasing rental rates. I believe the STIR program should be supported, particularly in the West-end where I reside, as it will add to the rental stock and support more stable rental rates. The opposition however is incredibly strong, and seems to be focused on preventing additional high-rises being built. Though I recognize that increased density does necessarily require high-rise projects, higher density is required to make to make these projects economically viable particularly with the cost of land. Opponents to STIR projects in the West-end should realize that this is a short term program (2 1/2 yrs.starting June/09),attempts to address the strong need for market rental housing,and because of the time period cannnot in a rash of high- rise construction in the West-end. The city of Vancouver through Planning Dept. and Design Panel review will help ensure that the scale and character of projects will fit in the West-end retaining the valued neighbourhood streetscapes/landscape setbacks whether or not the Projects are high-rise. The City must renew and we should all support incentives that are more inclusive of all ranges of society.

Housing

Vancouver spends considerably more per capita on social housing than any other city in Canada. Our property taxes over the last 6 years have been exceeding inflation by far_8% last year! At a time that many property owners received no increase or even a decrease in income themselves! Yet we have a writer like the one above demanding that we spend even to house a select few! Is your strategy to force all lower and middle class taxpayers out of their homes to pay for your housing_when many of their own kids (who would also like to remain in Vancouver), moved out to the Burbs or wherever they could better afford to live. Yet these same parents sometimes hanging on by a thread themselves, are expected to continue to pay for ever more housing to house someone else's kids, preferably in the center of the city. Many of the social advocates should take 2 and 3 jobs like others without money do, in order to get into housing. As Shelly Fralic pointed out in her column in the Sun this week, there is plenty of real estate available at much lower prices outside of the city. Why do so many housing advocates expect that they should be housed at taxpayer's expense. Lower your expectations as many people who own property today did in the earlier decades of their lives. They lived in basement suites, attics and the like and saved to buy something. Often they did not begin in the city. When the federal government was more involved with public housing, there was lots of abuse. Sometimes money just went into developer's or builder' s pockets. And of course, the bureaucracy created to administer ensured that comparatively little ever got down to the people for whom they were built. Also building was very shoddy. The gain for tax dollars spent, was not justifiable. A good reason for having the federal government get out of the business. (Years ago I once read that for every dollar spent on a social program, only one dollar actually reached the people for whom it was declared. Likely worse today!)) When taxpayers are stretched as they are now but are still expected to pay for the wish lists of others, even more people end up finding housing unaffordable. My preference would be to keep the cost of living lower by taxing less so that more people can afford to rent or buy if they are prepared to work and save and delay some of their discretionary spending a couple of decades like many of us who now have property, have done. Will everyone who wants to live in Vancouver be able to do so? Of course, not. Will everyone who wants to, be able to retire early? Just setting up another program complete with bureaucracy and benefits, only ensures taxes will continue to rise, that more people will find the City unaffordable and many of those who actually deserve to stay will have to move out to more affordable places. People do not owe you housing. Instead of spending all your time 'advocating', why not upgrade your skills, work and save and buy where you can afford to buy. Even if it is not in Vancouver. Most people do this rather than expect cash strapped taxpayers to somehow provide housing for themselves and you. That is what responsible people do. This demand for 'affordable' housing is another example of a generation that has been acculturated to feel entitled before they have done anything to earn their keep. Easier to beg ('advocate). If you are not disabled or aged, we don't owe you. That includes single moms with school age children. (Again why do some moms do everything they can to remain independent so that they can be an example to their kids while others expect others to look after them and thus help to further this culture of dependency that has become so prevalent today.) Can governments in order to pay debts to donors, keep spending the wealth of future generations by printing money to provide for some of you today? Greece among a number of other countries, show what happens when beneficiaries (eg unions) take more out of the economy than the economy can support. The beneficiaries of fictitious national wealth have stolen the futures of so many of their fellow citizens and their children. Now they shamelessly take from the efforts of a harder working German population which receives fewer benefits. Yet these same Greeks don't like the fact that some restrictions accompany the German largesse! Again, an unjustified sense of entitlement that lacks any conscience. If your groups would like to do something useful, it would be to put pressure on governments to create laws around campaign financing which currently distort our economy and the benefits some citizens, unions, corporations, advocacy groups receive at the expense of others.

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