Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Opinion Vancouver Courier: Vancouver’s once controversial False Creek South community now a model of innovation

 This week marks the 10th anniversary of Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics. While they got off to a tragic start with the death of a Georgian luge athlete, they ended well with gold medals in hockey and a tremendous sense of civic pride.
     The same holds true for the Athletes’ Village in Southeast False Creek. It too got off to a rough start following the receivership of the developer and debts exceeding projected revenues.
While I was critical of the city’s management of the project marketing, including a sign on the sales centre door telling potential buyers not to park on the street or they would be ticketed, today the Olympic Village is a very successful community.
     The Olympic Village is not the only city-sponsored community to have a rough start. The same applies to False Creek South, located on 55 hectares (136 acres) of formerly industrial lands between Cambie Bridge and Granville Island, where land leases for many cooperative and non-market rental projects will soon expire.
     Today False Creek South is considered one of the most attractive and livable waterfront communities in Canada. However, in the 1970s it was mired in controversy.
     Then mayor Art Phillips and UBC planning professor and Alderman Walter Hardwick, father of today’s city councillor Colleen Hardwick, proposed a truly visionary community with a broad income mix and variety of building forms. However, many civic organizations were vehemently opposed.
Park Board commissioner George Puil argued that all the land should be a park and many residents agreed with him. Craig Campbell, a 35-year old city planner working on the project made headlines by quitting his job after proclaiming “I believe the city-owned land on False Creek to be among the very worst spots in the entire city to build a lot of housing.”
     Alderman Harry Rankin urged skid road residents to fight the city’s plan to mix low- and high-income people and even the Board of Trade opposed the development.
With half of the public wanting a waterfront park and the other half supporting a planned residential community, the city did the politically astute thing and created a park on half the property and housing and commercial uses on the balance.
     In 1974, during the False Creek debate, I arrived in Vancouver as the assistant architect-planner for CMHC. Many of my CMHC colleagues were convinced the community would be a failure and worried that any association with it would limit their future career opportunities. 
     I believed otherwise and in 1975 was appointed CMHC’s Special Coordinator for False Creek South.
     Despite project leadership by Doug Sutcliffe, a well-respected former Dominion Construction executive, none of Vancouver’s developers wanted to be involved with the community. (Note: the banks didn't want to either. The city threatened to move its accounts in order to secure a lender.)
     For one thing, they questioned the market viability of condominiums on leased land since it had never been done before in Canada.
     Consequently, the city coerced two well-known contractors, Stanzl Construction and Haebler Construction, to become condominium developers. In return, they were offered contracts to build some of the rental and social housing projects.
     False Creek South was innovative in so many ways. Thanks to generous senior government funding programs, it was possible to create a community with one third low-income, one-third mid income and one-third higher income residents.
     The first phase included neighbourhood shops and a school, along with experimental planning concepts and building forms. These included stacked townhouses and mixed-use mid-rise apartments that were unprecedented in Vancouver.
      False Creek South was planned as a model sustainable community with pedestrian-only streets and reduced parking. To ensure public transit was in place the day the first residents moved in, Art Phillips proposed an innovative funding arrangement to subsidize BC Transit by levying a $5 per month charge on every housing unit until there was enough ridership.
      Over the coming months we will hear and read much about False Creek South as the residents, many of whom have lived in the same dwellings since the very beginning, demand new affordable leases from the city.
   In a future column I will share some ideas on future redevelopment opportunities that will allow both residents and the city administration to have their cake and eat it too.

Friday, January 31, 2020

OPINION: With so many empty rooms in Vancouver, why isn’t there more home sharing? Vancouver Courier

 Last week I received a phone call from Stephanie, a Montreal flight attendant for Air Canada Express who’s relocating to Vancouver in March. She has been searching on Craigslist for accommodations close to the Canada Line so she can easily get to the airport. However, like many Vancouverites, she has found home-hunting a very challenging and distressing experience.
     One of the most disturbing things is the number of scammers and swindlers out there attempting to trap unsuspecting people desperately seeking rental accommodations. This was addressed in a Courier story last fall by John Kurucz and numerous other online articles.
A Vancity blogpost reported that an estimated 51 per cent of renters in Vancouver and Victoria have encountered a scam.
     Given the high price of rental housing in Vancouver, especially compared to Montreal, Stephanie contacted me because she was hoping to find an affordable room in a house owned by another person.
During her internet searches, she came across a Courier column I wrote about the number of empty bedrooms in Vancouver, and benefits of home-sharing, both for those seeking housing and those owning homes with empty rooms.
     According to Paul Smetanin of the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis (CANCEA), the number of spare bedrooms in Vancouver is equivalent to 15 years of construction at the current rate of building.
     The challenge is to match those owning empty bedrooms or basement suites, and willing to share, with those seeking affordable accommodation.
     Think of it as a VRBO or Airbnb but offering more permanent housing.
     While organizations and private companies have sprung up in the United States to meet this demand, including Boston’s Nesterly, founded by a young lady from Cortes Island, only limited options are available in Vancouver.
     Last August, CBC’s Early Edition broadcast a five-part radio series produced by Amanda Poole titled Roomies, which looked at various aspects of home sharing, including multi-generational sharing. It examined both the economic and emotional benefits that can arise, along with the challenges.
     The series featured on-the-ground examples of shared living, as well as one matchmaker service called Happipad. It was started in the Okanagan in 2017 by a UBC student looking to match those with empty bedrooms and student renters, and describes itself as a cross between Airbnb and a dating site.
     Happipad now serves all of B.C. through its home-sharing web app.  It currently has more than 30 live listings in Vancouver, and more are popping up every week.
     Happipad connects anyone with a spare room with those looking for affordable accommodation options. It is not limited to intergenerational connections between seniors and students, although these connections do happen.
     Happipad's newest initiative is #ConnectAMillion, by which it hopes to connect a million seniors with compatible housemates by 2025 to tackle social isolation. 
The CBC series included examples of relationships that worked, and some that did not work, and explored the legal considerations of entering what is essentially a landlord-tenant relationship.
The series concluded with an interview with a community psychology consultant who has enjoyed intergenerational home sharing relationships for over 30 years. He pointed out that while Vancouver’s zoning bylaws do not prevent home sharing, they limit the number of unrelated people who can legally share a dwelling.
     Home sharing is not a new idea. In the 1980s, former alderperson Marguerite Ford created HomeSharers that successfully matched seniors until its CMHC funding dried up. Sadly, it did not continue.
     On the North Shore, Joy Hayden of Hollyburn Family Services has been working on a seniors' home sharing registry to match senior homeowners with seniors and others seeking accommodation.
Over the phone, Stephanie sounded like a bright, intelligent young lady. I referred her to Happipad but also offered to try and find her a suitable place to live.
     If any Courier reader has a home near the Canada Line, and would consider renting to a flight attendant moving to our city, please write to me and I will put you in touch with each other.
I would also like to hear about other home sharing experiences, since given the number of empty bedrooms and people seeking accommodations, home sharing seems like a practical idea whose time should come.

OPINION: Taxing our way to housing affordability in Vancouver is like bombing for peace Vancouver Courier

 Each new year offers the opportunity to look back and look forward and, for some of us, a compulsion to make resolutions and predictions. I expect 2020 to be just like the past year, but more so.
     Once again, addressing homelessness, the opioid crisis and deteriorating conditions in the Downtown Eastside will be top of mind for many.Worsening housing affordability will continue to dominate social and mainstream media and remain a hot topic at parties and dinner conversations.
     Debates over neighbourhood planning will continue, especially if Vancouver’s mayor and “abundant housing” activists continue to believe housing affordability should trump all else.
Let’s take a closer look at these three issues and others that will need our attention in the coming year.
     Due to poor planning, insufficient affordable housing, poverty, mental illness and drug addiction, conditions in the DTES worsened in 2019. They will likely continue to get worse as long as each level of government looks to the others to act.
     In the coming year, we need to offer a broader range of accommodation options for those suffering from mental illness, including institutional care. We also need to expand family reunification programs, employment and grooming services, and create more places for people to congregate during the day.
     We also need to prevent the expansion of homelessness into other neighbourhoods, bringing with it the despair and unsanitary conditions increasingly found in the DTES.
One just needs to visit neighbourhoods in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco to see what could happen here.
     When it comes to housing affordability, while rezonings that double or triple existing densities will result in some moderate rental suites, in the absence of overall planning, future projects will become more expensive and the quality of the urban environment will decline.
     For one thing, the city will not be able to provide adequate physical and social infrastructure. This is already happening along the Cambie Corridor where new developments are now subject to an additional tax to pay for upgrading sewers and water.
      Vancouver planners used to require 2.75 acres of new park space for every 1,000 new residents. While the mayor and others support higher density rezonings along Broadway and elsewhere, where are the additional parks? Or has the city decided this park space requirement is no longer applicable?
Many architects and planners privately worry about excessive densification in the name of affordability. While we are embarking on a city-wide planning process, we need more public discussions on when is big too big?
      Meanwhile, expect an increasing number of longstanding Vancouver households to cash out and move to Victoria or elsewhere around the province.
      In 2020, we need to address the negative impact B.C.’s property assessment system is having on the character of our commercial highstreets since, currently, properties are assessed on their highest and best use, not current use.
      As a result, excessive property taxes are forcing out many beloved, legendary businesses. While property assessments will come down in 2020, taxes will not. Indeed, taxes will be higher once the seven per cent property tax increase kicks in.
      One solution is to offer tax relief to longstanding businesses, regardless of the value of the property as a redevelopment site, like the provisions of Section 19(8) for longstanding residential property owners.
      B.C. Assessment should also review its residential assessment system in 2020. Rather than calculate taxes solely on property value, municipalities should apply different mill rates for single-family and multi-family properties.  While this will increase taxes for owners of detached dwellings, it will reward those choosing more sustainable housing forms.
      In 2020, the city’s so-called empty home tax will increase to 1.25 per cent since the mayor promised during the election campaign it would triple. I continue to label it a “so-called empty home tax” since it also applies to residents’ homes that are regularly occupied, but less than six months a year.
     Many of these second homeowners have now sold their homes and moved into rental accommodation, where they can live three or four months a year without paying the tax. Expect others to take the city to court in the coming year.
     Taxing our way to housing affordability is like bombing for peace. Let’s hope politicians stop doing this in 2020.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

My 2019 Vancouver Courier Columns in Review

My goodness. Where did the year go?

     In 2019, I wrote 26 columns in the Courier. Seven addressed different aspects of housing and community planning, with an emphasis on increasing the supply and affordability of rental suites.     Three columns questioned whether new city and provincial taxes would improve affordability, and another three examined the deteriorating condition of city streets, parkades, and our growing lack of civic pride.
     Two columns focused on what I expect to become a major topic next year, namely the negative effects of pollution and urban noise on our health. They looked at how planting hedges along busy roads has reduced the negative effects of pollution.

     Six deplored Vancouver’s increased homelessness and offered suggestions on improving living conditions in the Downtown Eastside.

     Following the tragic burning of Notre Dame Cathedral, my column looked at the broader topic of heritage restoration.
     After federal rebates were announced for electric vehicles, my column explored the benefits and challenges of owning one.
     Another column reported on Ozzie Jurock’s unique brand of real estate advice and life philosophy.
     In the year’s first column, I wrote that I did not expect any significant increase in house prices, especially for single-family properties. Nor was I expecting a major crash in prices.
I predicted that while the so-called speculation, empty home and new school taxes would cost some homeowners more, housing affordability would remain a serious problem for Vancouver buyers and renters. Sadly, I was right.
     While these taxes generated government revenues, and encouraged some single-family homeowners to rent their properties, we did not see 10,000 to 25,000 empty homes return to the rental market as politicians promised.
     Ironically, many owners of second homes sold their condos and started renting. The result was the exact opposite of what was intended.
     Over the years, I often shared urban planning lessons gleaned from cities around the world. This year I wrote from a city in southern China where gas-powered motorcycles and scooters had been banned. Instead residents got around on electric scooters without the noise and fumes experienced in most Asian cities.
     Several columns looked at the city’s planning process. While I supported an increased supply of rental housing, I questioned the appropriateness of spot-rezonings, including one next to a hospice, in the absence of overall neighbourhood plans.
     I also questioned some of the city’s ridiculous requirements such as demanding an arborist’s report on trees within the front boulevard of a house, when the applicant was building a laneway house in the back.
     In the spring, I hoped a column about the sorry state of urine-soaked city-owned EasyPark parkades and downtown streets would prompt a discussion about the need for more public toilets around the city, especially in locations frequented by the homeless.
     A subsequent column, complaining about graffiti covered buildings and structures, attracted considerable media attention and a response from a Courier reader who, at his own expense, had beautified 17 electric signal boxes along the Arbutus Corridor.
     Several columns expressed concern about the increasing number of homeless people camping out on major city streets, both during the day and evening. They generated considerable criticism from those who questioned where I thought the homeless should go. In response, I proposed less expensive relocatable modular housing like that found in northern work camps, offering small sleeping units, with and without private bathrooms.
     In several columns, I urged government officials and community activists to adopt a more comprehensive approach to addressing homelessness.This would include increased addiction treatment and employment programs such as EMBERS Eastside Works, as well as family reunification programs and personal grooming and dental care.
     We must also try to prevent future generations from becoming homeless by supporting programs such as KidCare Canada, which educates new parents, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, on how to take care of their babies.
     In my last column, I suggested institutional care is needed for some people suffering with mental illness who don’t belong on the streets and need more than just housing.
     While none of my 2019 columns likely solved any of the many problems facing our city, hopefully each contributed in some small way towards a broader discussion of possible solutions.

     Thank you for taking the time to read them. Happy holidays.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Geller's 2019 Holiday Greeting 'Card'

For 37  years, since setting up my own company, I have designed and distributed a holiday greeting card. In the old days, I would hand write personal notes and mail them out. However, for the past few years, I have reverted to an electronic card. Not as good, but a lot less expensive and greater scope. This year's card is a revised version of my 2011 'card' offering affordable housing ideas, that was very popular. Unfortunately most people don't bother reading it to the end, which is a shame because some of the last few ideas are the best! Do let me know which you like best!