Vancouver growth targets don’t add up
By Elizabeth Murphy, Vancouver Sun, June 7, 2019
The current Vision agenda needs to change if we are to have an affordable sustainable future for the people who live and work here in Vancouver. Elizabeth Murphy _____________________________________________________________
Vancouver’s housing strategy is based on population growth targets that are much higher than projections that census data would justify. City policies, programs and budget are based on faulty underlying assumptions. These unit projections were high even during the housing market expansion and do not reflect the current market correction. The housing strategy needs to be reconsidered.
The former Vision council approved these directions before being tossed in October’s election. Yet the new council has approved the plans and policies set in place, including the budget to implement them. Staff have been pushing through their agenda by guiding a mostly inexperienced council with advice that continues to be blindly followed.
An exception is Coun. Colleen Hardwick, who has been raising questions of staff at council meetings regarding the disconnect between unit targets and projected population growth.
The last census in 2016 showed a population increase for the city of about 28,000 people from 2011 to 2016 at a total of 631,500 people. Total private dwellings were 309,000 (including 25,500 unoccupied or occupied by temporary residents) with an average household size of 2.2 persons per unit. That averages 5600 people per year over one of the highest housing growth periods in Vancouver’s history.
Even if the population growth continued at this pace for the next 10 years it would only mean 56,000 more people. At 2.2 persons per unit that should be 26,000 more units.
However, the city’s targets for the next 10-year period is for 72,000 more units. That is more units than the 56,000 new people, if increases kept up with recent growth trends and almost three times the number of units that would be reasonably justified by population projections.
So in summary, the city is targeting to add 72,000 more units from 2017 to 2027, while population projections only justify 26,000 units. Vancouver’s housing strategy is based on this fundamentally flawed assumption.
And further, even the recent census rates of growth may not be achievable given the current market correction. Many condo buildings are opting not to go forward for development so there is a downturn already underway.
Unit growth targets are being used to justify unsustainable growth that has created the affordability crisis we currently are experiencing. Since Vancouver is mostly built out, any new development will be demolishing existing buildings, often including older, more affordable housing that displaces current residents and is replaced with more expensive new developments.
The whole growth agenda is unsustainable from a social and environmental perspective, creating much waste and hardship. The shift in 2011 from the Livable Region Strategic Plan to the Regional Growth Strategy is proving to be the policy error it was expected to be. The city has been rapidly losing its existing, more affordable buildings with the demolition of older character and heritage buildings.
It is precisely this demolition of existing, more affordable rental buildings in commercial arterial districts that Coun. Jean Swanson’s motion going to council on June 12 is intended to address. The motion requests that C2 zones be required to have one-for-one replacement of existing rental units, like what is currently required in most apartment zones. Although not an outright moratorium on demolition, the policy has had a history of encouraging retention of older apartment buildings.
This is a step in the right direction but much more needs to be done to reconsider the current growth agenda.
Who is the endless quest for growth benefiting? Certainly not the people who live and work here.
Is a base economy that is so dependent on development and growth sustainable? Not unless the objective is to be a high-end resort city.
Even the city admits that we can’t build our way to affordability, but their policies intended to address the issues are only making things much worse. The current rental incentive programs are a case in point.
Rental 100 waives development fees intended for community amenities, waives parking requirements, and gives height and density bonuses as incentives to build unaffordable rentals that most locals cannot afford. It also has been inflating rents throughout the city.
A new pilot program is intended to replace Rental 100 program, with 20 projects that have yet to be approved, that gives much greater density bonuses for a small 20 per cent of moderately affordable units. But it still means that 80 per cent of the units are unaffordable market rentals while the scale of the buildings are creating unsustainable precedents.
For example, the former Denny’s site at Birch and Broadway was already upzoned to 16 storeys. Under the new pilot program it is proposed to go to an astonishing 28 storeys, with a floor space ratio of 10.5 in an area that is mostly low-rise buildings. This is getting back to the scale of the failed Short Term Incentives for Rentals (STIR) program that was cancelled because of the unsupported size the buildings tended to be.
Another proposal is at Alma and Broadway that was originally applied for as a six-storey rental building but has been increased by Wesgroup to a 14-storey, 5.8-FSR tower in West Point Grey at the boundary of Kitsilano as one of the new pilot projects. This would be a precedent for the area.
These kinds of projects increase development expectations all around the adjacent neighbourhoods. The next condo project will look at this scale as a new starting point once the precedent is made. It starts the process of speculation that will put other older buildings at risk.
Even before a Broadway subway to UBC has been approved, it is already being used to justify tower development that is not within the character of the neighbourhoods they land in.
Instead of massive density increases as incentives for rentals, there needs to be tax incentives that make building, buying and holding rentals more economically feasible. Additional options also include co-op and social housing programs that all require involvement of the federal and provincial governments. The city can’t do it all on their own.
These out-of-scale developments are unnecessary to meet future growth. There are plenty of existing major project sites across the city, either already approved or in process. There is enormous existing zoned capacity that would only require a fraction to be developed to meet census growth projections.
As Councillor Hardwick keeps saying, we need to “press pause” to re-evaluate growth expectations and the plans, policies and budgets that follow for implementation. The current Vision agenda needs to change if we are to have an affordable sustainable future for the people who live and work here in Vancouver.
Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and was formerly a property development officer for the City of Vancouver’s housing and properties department and for B.C. Housing. email@example.com
Vancouver Sun Print Edition – Saturday June 8, 2019 – page H2
Copyright Elizabeth Murphy 2019 all rights reserved.
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Are there really “a million more people coming to Metro Vancouver”? Is this an urban myth or just a convenient number thrown out by policy planners and target for developers? Planners say, “let’s imagine a scenario when there will be a million more people here”, yet developers hear, “let’s build, ‘cos they’re coming!”, and it’s the developers, not the planners who are going in front of councils every day demanding increased density for their visions, not the planners!
In the simplest form, assuming continued growth at ANY non-zero rate, at SOME point in the future, there will be a million more people than there are now. The point is, in what timeframe? I’d really like to see someone dig up the original source and more importantly, the timeline associated with this projection and how this has evolved since.
A quick search reveals this Fraser Institute report:
The Greater Vancouver Regional District and the Livable Region Strategic Plan (Oct 2007)
Click to access UnlivableStrategiesGVRD.pdf
In 1992, planners for the first time offered the public some options (which was curious since the GVRD had supposedly just finished a new plan). A million more people were coming to the region by 2021, and the question was where to put them.
This Metro Vancouver Backgrounder document:
Metro Vancouver Growth Projections – A Backgrounder (Dec 2018)
Click to access OverviewofMetroVancouversMethodsinProjectingRegionalGrowth.pdf
From a 2016 base population of 2,570,000, it is anticipated that the population will increase by about 1 million to 3,600,000 by the year 2050.
So, almost 25 years later, we’re still expecting a million people at some point in the future. Brilliant!
Yet, Wikipedia shows that we are very close to reaching that original million mark since 1991:
1991 1,602,590 +37.0% (since 1981)
1996 1,831,665 +14.3%
2001 1,986,965 +8.5%
2006 2,116,581 +6.5%
2011 2,313,328 +9.3%
2016 2,463,431 +6.5%
Does that mean we only have another 150,000 before Metro Vancouver is full? Certainly feels that way on the 99B or Skytrain! If nothing else, 1M from 1992 – 2021 (29 years), 1M from 2016 to 2050 (34 years) shows a slowing projection as does the definite existing trend listed above, but that’s imperceptible on the chart on p3 in the second link.
Maybe the 2050 projection is wrong, or a developer’s wishful thinking?
It’s time governments urban planners stopped focusing on an arbitrary number and instead walked the talk and worked on designing complete, livable neighborhoods across the region, implemented in a manner and timeframe that meets the community’s and region’s needs first. That will determine how many people will fit into a projected future city and what the growth will be.
If planners (horse) had to go to council and formally request concrete, increased rezoning density
(after community and regional consultation) and developers (cart) were only allowed to build to what was zoned, I think you’d have a very different landscape in Metro Vancouver than we do today.
Even the article’s headline tells you something is wrong: a growth “target” is something to be aimed at and hit, while a projection is the realm of planners.