Affordable housing needs systemic changes
By Elizabeth Murphy, Vancouver Sun, Saturday August 27, 2016
Increasing housing supply is often promoted by government, and vested interests, as the solution to the affordable housing crisis. In fact, the current record-breaking level of rezoning and development in the City of Vancouver contributes to property inflation that is making the city less affordable. We need other approaches.
The city’s consultant’s report confirmed that the city has sufficient capacity in existing zoning and approved community plans to accommodate supply to beyond 2041 at the recent pace of residential development. This was without including the new capacity created in the just-approved Grandview Woodland Community Plan.
The city recently confirmed they are building way more than required in the Regional Growth Strategy and are leading the region on permit approvals. The city says, “this data demonstrates that new housing supply is at record levels and exemplifies the fact that we are approving significant new housing stock”.
However, when real estate is disconnected from the local economy due to global capital flows, simple supply and demand economics no longer work. Increasing zoning has proven to create speculation that drives land inflation. This adds to the cost of housing.
So from this we can see there is no rush to force yet more zoning supply that does more harm than good. Solutions to affordability are complex and multifaceted.
Although broader public policies regarding the social safety net, immigration and taxation play important roles in housing affordability, land-use policies are the focus in this article.
There are several planning principles that need to be followed to create a system that supports an affordable built environment.
- Do no harm. Protect vulnerable people, cultural and heritage buildings, community amenities and the environment.
- Upgrade, improve and adaptively reuse good-quality existing buildings.
- Plan very carefully for future new development and implement incrementally to avoid land inflation.
Although not fully followed, these principles generally were reflected in the city’s planning process from the 1970s to 1990s.
The proposed freeway through downtown was stopped in the 1970s. Then “Local Area Plans” were created in the inner-city neighbourhoods of the West End, Strathcona, Mount Pleasant, Grandview, Kitsilano and Marpole. These were comprehensive participatory plans that included a planning office in each neighbourhood and a strong social planning role. They resulted in plans that were community supported, with detailed design guidelines, and they lasted intact until 2006 when EcoDensity changed this direction.
Rather than embracing these area plans as models for future growth, the city embarked on a new direction of making increasing density as the primary objective. It has resulted in renter displacement and homelessness at record levels. Many people are being economically forced out of the city altogether.
The signal to industry that everything is at play, has resulted in older rental apartment buildings being bought for their redevelopment potential rather than rental income values. These apartments were mostly built before the Strata Act. Now that strata projects are so much more profitable, the older rental building stock is limited and important to retain.
Yet this older affordable legacy is being dismantled by increasing zoning where these apartment buildings are mostly located. Since 2010, these recent community plans in the West End, Downtown Eastside (Strathcona, Hastings, Chinatown), Marpole, Mount Pleasant, and now Grandview, have led to land speculation, assembly, and the resulting inflation.
Although rate-of-change policies are intended to protect rentals, most replacement units tend to be smaller and more expensive. Affordable rentals lost. People displaced.
Similarly, transit planning signals massive upzoning along new transit lines. Dogmatic application of transit oriented tower development undermines local planning processes without reasonable consideration of community scale and character. Broadway west to Arbutus is reported as being in the midst of a “land rush” in speculation of a subway that has yet to be finally approved and is potentially decades from completion if funded. This is driving land values ever higher.
So the key to housing affordability is to slow down the industry’s expectations that everything is up for rezoning and development. Spot rezoning has become the new normal. This has to change.
Then perhaps staff will have more time to process the backlog of permits that currently is taking so long to get through an overburdened city hall. It should not take many months, sometimes over a year, to get a simple interior renovation approved like many applicants are currently experiencing.
It also increases cynicism in the electoral process when people can see that the big money going into political parties is coming from the same people who get large rezoning approvals.
Worse yet is that at the civic level there is no requirement even for reporting donations between election years. So with a four-year term, three years of donations go unreported unless reported voluntarily.
Although provincial parties must report donations on an ongoing basis, there are no donation limits on amounts or bans on corporate or union donations. Civic campaign finance legislation is under the control of the province that is reluctant to make changes that would require provincial campaign finance changes as well.
So campaign finance reform, at both the civic and provincial levels, is essential to creating checks and balances that help to moderate housing prices by reducing the enormous political influence of vested interests on land use policy.
In summary, there are a number of principles with checks and balances that need to be implemented to create a system that supports more stable affordable urban living. These systemic changes, as well as other land use options that will be discussed another day, are essential if Vancouver is to have a future as more than just a resort city for the rich.
Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and was formerly a property development officer for the City of Vancouver’s housing & properties department and for BC Housing.
Print edition Vancouver Sun, Saturday, August 27, 2016 page A17