Thursday, November 30, 2023

Vancouver Council considers "Uplifting the Downtown Eastside and Building Inclusive Communities that Work for All Residents"

This is how the DTES looks today. I don't want it to look like this in 9 years. That's why I addressed Council yesterday and urged it to consider allowing condominium housing in this neighbourhood, so that there is community buying power to start filling up these storefronts.

Yesterday, Vancouver City Council considered a motion by Cllr Rebecca Bligh focussing on the Downtown Eastside. A copy of the lengthy motion can be found here:

Although the motion was highly aspirational, I was pleased that Cllr Bligh proposed it since it acknowledged that the DTES Local Area Plan approved in 2014 has not been working. Sadly, I spoke to Council at the time and predicted it would not work. More specifically, the proposed 60% social housing/40% rental housing requirement that was intended to help deliver social housing units without government subsidies would not work. In fact, it has resulted in only two projects in 9 years. 

I also opposed the proposed ban on condominium housing which staff said was necessary to keep land values low, and in turn result in more social housing without the need for government subsidies. Not only did this ban fail to result in new projects, it ensured that the heart of the Downtown Eastside would remain an ugly, low-income ghetto with an increased number of vacant, derelict storefronts. While few will say it. This neighbourhood is a disaster.

Following an interview with CTV's Isabella Zavarise earlier in the week, I decided to sign up to speak at Council yesterday. It was a most unsatisfying experience. For one thing, it was recommended that I make my presentation by phone, which I did. However, a phone conversation is less productive than appearing in person. Or a video presentation. Why doesn't the city allow video presentations in this day and age?

Furthermore, whereas I had 5 minutes to speak in 2014, yesterday speakers only had 3 minutes. I didn't know this when I prepared my remarks. Also, due to a new policy, councillors were not allowed to ask me questions or seek clarifications. 

Below are some of the remarks I intended to make. While I didn't hear all the previous speakers, I am led to believe that I was one of only two speakers who argued that the future plan and zoning should allow condominiums in the area. The other was former mayor Sam Sullivan! 

Geller Speaking Notes


I have been actively involved with the planning and development of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside for five decades. So. it has been difficult to condense my thoughts into 5 minutes.

I want to thank Councillor Bligh for bringing forward this motion. I agree with its comprehensive proposals but there is one further action I would urge you to include.

The current DTES DEOD plan, approved by Council in 2014, includes a ban on ownership housing. The forthcoming review should reconsider this ban. Please do not again close the door on ownership housing.

Some fear allowing condominiums will result in the gentrification of the neighbourhood. I disagree. There is already enough social housing, and much more to come, to ensure it will always remain a predominantly low-income community.

But a healthy community needs a broad mix of households. This will only come with a broader mix of housing, including ownership housing.

Ownership housing will also bring greater buying power that is necessary if the many derelict storefronts are to fill up.

As former City Manager Penny Ballem once told an Urban Land Economics audience, while getting homeless people off the streets is essential, only once the vacant stores fill up will we know that our planning is succeeding.

In other words, allowing ownership housing will not result in gentrification. But it will result in regeneration.

So why do I feel so strongly about this?

My background experience in the DTES

I first started working in the Downtown Eastside in 1974 as CMHC’s Program Manager-Social Housing. Even then, there was a desire to replace the SROs with self-contained units, and CMHC funded many new projects, including one at 124 Dunleavy Street developed by the City’s then newly formed Non-profit Housing Corporation.

 I should note that this building has already been demolished and replaced. This is indicative of just how old I am. Or how badly the city's building was constructed.

CMHC recognized replacing all the SROs with self-contained apartments was not likely to happen for decades, so it agreed to depart from its policy and funded the renovation of 2 SROs while I was there.

Sadly, in the ensuing years, the city did not enforce its Maintenance Bylaws and these SROs and many others have deteriorated to the point that many residents prefer to live on the streets.

In the 1990’s I was retained by the provincial government to advise on the purchase and renovation of the Washington and Sunrise hotels. Since then, the Province has purchased more than twenty-two additional SRO hotels.

I was also involvement with the Woodwards building, initially on behalf of the province, prior to its purchase of the building, and subsequently on behalf of SFU. I consider this building a success. I would like to see more similar projects with a mix of market and non-market housing, and other community uses.

In 2008, along with Michael Clague, and the late Joe Wai and Milton Wong, I was a founding director of the Building Community Society (BCS) which hoped that by bringing together different interests, solutions could be found to improve the neighbourhood. 

I left BCS to run for city council since I thought I might be more effective there. I was the NPAs first loser. 

To conclude, I am pleased a review of the plan will hopefully proceed. But based on my five decades of experience in the DTES, as I urged Council nine years ago, please do not again close the door on ownership housing in the DEOD, and do not insist that retail primarily serve local low-income residents. As we have learned since 2014, this will not work.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

West Vancouver Council defeats proposed Rental-Only Zoning Bylaw

Further to my last blogpost, to the surprise and disappointment of many residents, especially renters, West Vancouver Council defeated the motion to impose rental-only zoning on 30 rental buildings in Ambleside. A good account of the meeting can be found here.

As noted in the article, councillors who voted to defeat the motion (with Cllrs Lamber and Gambioli supporting the staff recommendation) said they didn’t want to approve the zoning change before talking to building owners. It seems that staff didn't formally notify the building owners, which seems very odd.

They also spoke about the need to provide more financial incentives for landlords to build rental apartments, including greater density or buildings which combined rental and strata units. As I noted, going from 1.75 to 2.0 was not sufficient to encourage anyone to redevelop a property with rental housing.

I would now urge council to impose rental replacement and limited tenant protection policies as soon as possible, pending revisions to the zoning bylaw. Just don't go so far as Vancouver or other municipalities that require developers to allow former tenants to return to new units at the same rent as they were paying before. This creates too much uncertainty for all involved.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

How best to protect West Vancouver's aging purpose-built rental housing buildings

There's an important discussion taking place in West Vancouver this week on how best to protect the more affordable rental housing stock in older purpose-built rental buildings. While I agree something must be done, I also agree with those who question the appropriateness and benefit of imposing Rental-Only Zoning on 30 properties with just a very modest FAR increase from 1.75 to 2.0.

A preferable approach could be to impose rental replacement and tenant protection policies similar to those in place in Vancouver and other municipalities and zone the properties to allow for future infill or redevelopment with a mix of rental and ownership housing at a greater FAR, say 3 to 3.5 depending on site size.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

More Small-Scale Multi-unit Homes coming to BC November 1, 2023

Those who have followed this blog or endured my columns in the Vancouver Courier and Vancouver Sun will know I have been an ardent supporter of what is often referred to as 'gentle density' or 'missing middle' housing for a very long time. It was even featured it in my 2021 year-end Holiday Greeting Card which The Tyee kindly reproduced.

I have also questioned why there had to be so many rezonings, especially when proposals were in accordance with an Official Community Plan. This applied to all municipalities, including Vancouver where every Cambie Corridor application went through a lengthy, time consuming and expensive rezoning.

I was therefore delighted by this announcement from the province yesterday that deals with both 'gentle density' and other approval procedures. There are however two key pieces of missing information. The first is what will be the allowable density in terms of FSR? Will there be a provincial standard, or will it vary by municipality? The other key question relates to tenure. Will there be limits on the number of ownership units, as distinct from rental units.  

Yesterday, after writing this blogpost, I was advised that the tenure of housing will NOT be dictated by the provincial government. Rather it will be left up to each municipality to determine. I suspect the same may hold true for the permitted FSR and site coverage, etc. but this remains to be seen. 

Below is the provinces announcement.

The province is introducing new housing legislation to deliver more small-scale, multi-unit housing for people, including townhomes, triplexes and laneway homes, and fix outdated zoning rules to help build more homes faster.

“Anyone looking for a place to live in a community they love knows how hard it is – and outdated zoning rules are making that even harder,” said Premier David Eby on Wednesday. “Constructing mostly high-rise condo towers or single-family homes means B.C. isn’t building enough small-scale multi-unit homes that fit into existing neighbourhoods and give people more housing options that are within reach. That’s why we’re taking action to fix zoning problems and deliver more homes for people, faster.”

According to the government, historical zoning rules in many B.C. communities have led most new housing to be built mostly in the form of condos, or single-family homes that are out of reach for many people, leaving a shortage of options for the types of housing in between. Zoning barriers and layers of regulations have also slowed down the delivery of housing, making people go through long, complicated processes to build much-needed housing in communities.

“The housing crisis has made it harder for growing families looking for more space, seniors looking to downsize, and first-time homebuyers who can’t find a home that meets their needs and budget,” said Ravi Kahlon, Minister of Housing. “This legislation strengthens the vibrancy of our communities, while building the type of housing that will help us address the housing crisis.”

The proposed legislation and forthcoming regulations will permit one secondary suite or one laneway home (accessory dwelling unit) in all communities throughout B.C.

In most areas within municipalities of more than 5,000 people, these changes will also require bylaws to allow for:

* three to four units permitted on lots currently zoned for single-family or duplex use, depending on lot size;

* six units permitted on larger lots currently zoned for single-family or duplex use and close to transit stops with frequent service.

Municipalities covered by the legislation may permit additional density if desired, but cannot have bylaws that allow for fewer permitted units than the provincial legislation.

The legislation will also speed up local housing development approvals, by shifting local planning and zoning processes to happen up front. It will require municipalities throughout B.C. to expedite and streamline permitting by updating community plans and zoning bylaws on a regular basis, to ensure that they have enough housing to meet the needs of both their current and future residents. This will help create more certainty for both community members and home builders.

New proposed changes will also phase out one-off public hearings for rezonings for housing projects that are consistent and aligned with the official community plans. Instead, there will be more frequent opportunities for people to be involved in shaping their communities earlier in the process when official community plans are updated.

Modelling future scenarios cannot account for unforeseen circumstances, the changing nature of housing, real estate markets and other factors, but preliminary analysis indicates the province could see more than 130,000 new small-scale multi-unit homes in B.C. during the next 10 years. Other jurisdictions have had great success using similar policies to deliver more small-scale multi-unit homes faster. Auckland, N.Z. made similar changes in 2016. Research has shown these actions have led to the creation of more than 20,000 additional new homes over five years.

To support implementation, the Province will continue to provide local governments with resources to speed up approval processes, including the recently announced $51 million to support local governments in meeting the new density zoning requirements, and $10 million for the Local Government Development Approvals Program.

Additional legislation to support delivery of housing, support transit-oriented development, and help communities provide much-needed infrastructure, amenities and more certainty for projects will be introduced in the coming weeks. This legislation is part of the Province’s Homes for People action plan. Announced in spring 2023, the plan builds on historic action to deliver housing since 2017, and sets out further actions to deliver the homes people need faster, while creating more vibrant communities throughout B.C.

Little Mountain: Vancouver City Council approves Holborn request for leniency - November 1, 2023

I have been following the redevelopment of the former Little Mountain public housing project since 2007 when the provincial government first announced the property would be for sale. I subsequently advised one of Vancouver's major developers who submitted a bid on the property. However, the Holborn Group, a Malaysian-based developer with limited Vancouver experience, blew the other bidders out of the water with their excessive bid. 

While the bid amount wasn't made public at the time, we subsequently learned it was $334 million. However, only 10% was paid as a downpayment. Moreover, the provincial government gave Holborn $211 million in interest free loans for 18 years. Interest does not accrue on the loans until Dec. 31, 2026. 

As a key condition of the deal, Holborn had to complete 234 social housing units before they could obtain Occupancy Permits for any of the market housing. Unfortunately, the provincial government and its lawyers did not impose deadlines in the legal agreements for the construction of the social housing. If they had been included, it is likely that they would have been met, or have allowed the province to take back the property. 15 years after buying the property, only a small percentage of the social housing units have been built.

I have often written about my concerns about what was happening, or not happening at Little Mountain. In March 2011 I posted this article 

It concluded with the following: "
My prediction? If we’re not careful, just as happened at the Olympic Village, government will not get the huge amount of money and social housing that the developer promised. I hope I’m wrong, but somehow, I doubt it. "

A year later, I was interviewed by a Vancouver Sun reporter who wondered why there was so little progress with the development. After his story appeared, the developer complained to the Urban Development Institute about my criticism of them.

Over the years, many others have written about the sad situation, including Kerry Gold

Last week, it became public that Holborn was seeking Vancouver City Council's approval to remove the condition requiring completion of the social housing before the first market housing, since they claimed they couldn't arrange private financing. When I first heard about this on X (formerly Twitter) I objected, noting this was a fundamental aspect of the deal. It seemed grossly unfair and a terrible precedent to allow the winner bidder to change the deal, especially since they had made so little progress, yet so many promises to proceed with the construction, including this 2021 agreement.

I subsequently spoke to others knowledgeable about the current situation who assured me that while they too were extremely disturbed by Holborn's request, they had concluded that it was the best solution to ensure the social housing units are built and the province receives some or all the outstanding land payment. This is no doubt the reason why seven members of Council agreed to Holborn's request. However, I must confess I sympathise with those who voted against the deal.

On a related matter, while many owners of vacant land are being charged the Empty Home Tax, oftentimes unfairly as is the case with one of my clients, at the council meeting we were advised this developer is excused from paying the tax since the property is a 'phased development'. Here is the relevant section of the bylaw:

(A rezoned property is excepted from the EHT, where either: 

  •  a complete development permit application has been submitted for at least one parcel of                residential property which is part of the phased development and is under review by the City in the vacancy reference period; or 
  • a development permit has been issued by the City for at least one parcel of residential property which is part of the phased development and work under the development permit is, in the opinion of the General Manager of Development, Buildings and Licensing or the General Manager’s delegates, being diligently pursued and without unnecessary delay
Hopefully city staff will again review whether a DP has been "diligently pursued and without further delay." If it is determined they are liable to pay the tax, I estimate the 2023 bill at $9.9 million.

Now that Council has agreed to Holborn's request, hopefully the company will now borrow the private funds it claims it needs to install infrastructure and finance market housing so that the balance of the social and market housing, and various community benefits can be built.

But if I may be allowed another prediction, before this project is completed, Holborn will be back to Council asking for greater height and density, claiming without this they can't complete the project. Let's again hope I'm wrong.

One final thought
Throughout this discussion, many have suggested governments must never sell land to private developers. Furthermore, all the other older public housing projects should only be redeveloped by non-profits and only with social housing. I disagree.

Long term leases, such as those used at UBC and SFU's UniverCity can offer more control than a land sale. I therefore hope other public housing projects will be regenerated with a mix of non-market and market rental and ownership housing. One of my last acts at CMHC, where I worked for 10 years, was to contribute to a paper on "The Regeneration of Older Public Housing Projects" While Little Mountain has been a disaster, there are very successful examples of what can and should be done, including Regent Park in Toronto. 

So, let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. 

ps. A bit more information. Late today, one of my favourite journalists, Mike Howell, just published this excellent article providing a lot more detail on the project.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Looking Back and Forward. SFU Lecture October 18, 2023

Many of the people making major planning decisions around Metro Vancouver were not even born when I arrived in Vancouver in 1974 to begin working with CMHC. Most are unaware of the history of CMHC housing programs and the major zoning and development decisions that have shaped our region, and other factors which have contributed to the unaffordability crisis we face today. 

Earlier this month Andy Yan of the SFU City Program helped organize a program 'Looking Back and Forward'. It reviewed some of the significant government decisions and projects over the past five decades that should not be forgotten. Joining me on the stage were Ray Spaxman, Vancouver's former director of planning from 1973 to 1989; Michael Epp, a former Director of Planning for the City of North Vancouver and currently Director of Housing, Planning and Development for Metro Vancouver; and Zoe Brook, a co-director of the Young ULI and an emerging real estate and development consultant.

A video of the presentation can be found here:

For those who don't have enough wine or other spirits on hand to sit through the entire evening presentation, below are 12 'solutions' I put forward to address some of the housing affordability challenges we now face:

It seems we always focus on the cost of land when discussing housing affordability, but these other cost components can be equally significant. In another SFU presentation that can be found online, I review how to reduce the other cost components.
What many don't understand is that by allowing higher densities, a landowner may realize a financial gain, and the land cost may be reduced for a particular project. But developers buy land the same way most of us buy meat or the pound, or in the case of land, by the square foot. As a result, higher densities do not always translate into more affordable housing. You pay $100 psf regardless of the FSR
While we have a shortage of industrial land, I see many opportunities to combine light industry and housing around the region. I don't see housing replacing industry, just adding to it. In some cases, modular homes could be sited on the roofs of these buildings. Seriously!
Sadly, there were more extensive public transit networks in place 100 years ago, when compared to today. As these maps illustrate, Interurban and Electric Rail lines once served Richmond, Chilliwack and other communities. We need to replicate these networks, but not with SkyTrain. Rather we should place greater emphasis on light rail, rapid bus, etc. And reuse the existing tracks to Squamish.
 and elsewhere.
Growth should finance growth. But it's a mistake to burden new homeowners and renters with all the costs associated with new infrastructure, sewage treatment plant upgrades, etc. That's what is happening now. In the past, existing residents paid for new infrastructure over time. Unfortunately, as the price of new housing rises, all the existing housing rises too. A rising tide lifts all boats. The same applies here.
If we are going to tax existing property owners along with new homebuyers and renters, we should also revise BC Assessment classifications. There should be different mill rates for single-family and multi-family housing. For one thing, single-family lots often require more services. Also, why not reward those choosing to live more sustainably?
There was a time when municipalities could not sell density. Now that has changed. But while planners will deny it, some projects are approved at densities and heights greater than they should be from an urban planning perspective, so the municipality can charge higher Community Amenity Contributions.
This might seem like a minor point, but there is no reason we should require the same exiting requirements for a 3-storey building and a 30-storey building. By permitting a single exit, this could make it easier to design more cost-effective 'missing middle' buildings, like those in the past. 
While inclusionary zoning and density bonuses result in some more affordable housing, realistically, the private sector cannot build the very affordable housing that we need. In the 70s and 80s, it was the non-profits who built truly affordable homes with government money. We need to do more of this in future.
When we were young, many of us shared housing. However, today, most of us don't want to. But that said, the easiest way to create more affordable housing is to make better use of all the vacant bedrooms and other spaces that currently exist. What we need is a way to pair seniors with other seniors, and young people with seniors. The benefits could be very significant. It will happen, but let's promote it.
I must smile when I hear politicians talking about the hundreds of thousands of new homes that we are going to build annually. What they ignore is that our construction industry isn't geared for such dramatic increases in supply. But one way to increase supply is through greater use of factory-construction.
Better designed balconies may not make homes more affordable, but they will make them more livable. In Europe, retractable glass panels often make balconies more functional, especially in the late fall, winter, and early spring. Some Metro municipalities now allow their installation without the balcony area counting as part of the suite area. But Vancouver is not one of them. At least not yet! 
Thirty years ago, Ray Spaxman proposed the idea of an 'Urbanarium' - an urban museum where models of the city and new developments could be put on display. An Urbanarium would also be a place to foster discussion about planning and other urban issues. Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing and other cities have created such places. It is time for Vancouver build a gallery to showcase our planning successes.

Monday, October 2, 2023

Deli and Yom Kippur in Montreal

My guess is that there is about a pound of smoked meat in Smoke Meat Pete's giant platter.

From the NOTL school reunion, I travelled to Montreal. Initially, I booked the train from Union Station since I have fond 60's and 70's memories of the Rapido between Toronto and Montreal. However, shortly after making a reservation I received a message from Via Rail telling me there would be track maintenance and resulting delays. So, I flew.  Driving in from the airport was a terrifying experience. For one thing, there was incredible congestion due in part to excessive road construction. 

Unfortunately, the GPS on my huge Chrysler rental (it's all they had available with GPS) did not know which roads were closed off. Consequently, a 28-minute trip turned into an hour and 28 minutes before I finally made it to my Sherbrooke Street hotel. Since I'm accustomed to driving a smaller Tesla, I could barely manoeuvre the Chrysler into and through the extremely tight parkade. 

That evening, I took a taxi up to Schwartz's on The Main for the first of several smoked meat experiences. (I was determined to drive as little as possible in a city that was essentially a major construction site.) As always Schwartz's was packed and I was not disappointed with a bone-in rib steak with a side of smoked meat, followed by a smoked meat sandwich. (If you are not a smoked meat aficionado, at Schwartz's you can order lean, medium, medium fat, or fatty. I order medium fat.)

Saturday, I again left the car in the garage and took a hop-on, hop-off bus tour of the city. While impressed by many of the buildings, I wasn't impressed by the statue of John A Macdonald that was missing John A. Of course I toured old Montreal where I once managed two projects for CMHC and MSUA (now defunct Ministry of State for Urban Affairs) and was reminded that at one time, Montreal was the capital of Canada.

Montreal has become a city of murals, and few more photographed than this one of Leonard Cohen.

I liked the way the venerable Ritz Carlton has been modified to include some condominium residences

I stopped at Dunns on Metcalfe for what I hoped would be another smoked meat delight, but when I saw a filthy bathroom covered in graffiti, I decided to leave. But not before asking for the manager and questioning why he would allow this to happen. His answer? They were open 24 hours a day. And what does it matter? (I subsequently learned Dunns restaurants are now franchised, but Metcalfe is the main downtown spot . If I owned Dunns, I would fire that manager.)

Saturday night I experienced a wonderful dinner at a Pois Penche, a French restaurant across from 2000 Peel Street where my friend Jon Wener has his Canderel offices. It was an excellent meal and evening . I sat at the bar and by the end of the evening had new friends. 

Since I didn't know whether to have the bouillabaisse or duck confit, (and would be fasting for a day) I had the bouillabaisse followed by the duck confit. No disappointment there. As each glass of wine was consumed, my French improved.

On Sunday I returned for another bus tour around the city but forgot the marathon was on, thus eliminating a few of the stops. This was followed by a late deli lunch at Snowden Deli on Decarie before the start of Yom Kippur 

I attended the Kol Nidre service at Shaare Zion Beth El where I was warmly greeted by those around me who realized I was a visitor. Everyone had family or friends in Vancouver. Coincidentally, the rabbi had recently arrived from....Richmond. Why? For one thing, Richmond was too expensive a place to raise a family! But Shaare Zion is also one of Canada's most established Conservative synagogues in a very impressive building. The choir and cantor were superb.

Yom Kippur lunch? Well, this was a Yom Kippur lunch. 

But I had a fabulous 'breaking the fast' dinner at Jon Wener's home. Jon is one of Canada's great real estate success stories and everyone who knows him speaks about him in superlatives. He is, after all, a bigshot! Here's his story. Watch it. You'll know what I mean. 

Before heading back to Vancouver, I had to explore one more deli. Smoked meat Pete is not a Jewish deli. But it's owned by the family that once owned The Main, across the street on Saint Laurent from Schwartz's. (Sadly, it closed down in May.) But Smoke Meat Pete isn't likely to close in the near future. Although located away from the downtown, it is well worth a trip. As I ordered my smoked meat platter food from Cherie, part of the family, I discovered she once lived in Kitsilano. I asked her why she didn't stay in Vancouver and open up a decent smoked meat restaurant here. She gave me the same answer as the rabbi. "Vancouver's too expensive." What a Pity.

After three days I took the car out of the garage and headed off to the suburbs where I would stay for the Canadian Seniors Golf Association annual tournament. But that's another story for another day.

I think I know what they meant!