Sunday, February 17, 2019

Opinion: City of Vancouver speeds up development process, but it could do more Vancouver Courier February 13, 2019

While many people think the answer to more affordable housing is taxing the rich or those owning more expensive or second homes, I think more could be accomplished by increasing supply, especially the right supply. And yes, subsidizing those who need support. 

For this reason, I have written many columns trying to highlight the need for a more rational approval process, especially in Vancouver. Here is my latest effort, written following a recent city presss release on efforts to improve the approval process. 

Need to speed up permitting process one of mayor’s campaign promises

One of the most common complaints from developers, homeowners and local business owners in Vancouver is the amount of time it takes to get a project approved at city hall.

Last April, I wrote a column about the impacts of “red tape” on the cost of housing, which included a photograph of rolls of architectural drawings, attaché cases and knapsacks lying on the pavement outside of the city’s Development and Building Department offices.
article continues below
     They belonged to people who were holding their early morning place in line outside in hopes of submitting permit applications that day.
     Processing delays are not a new problem. I recall discussing this matter while president of the Urban Development Institute with former city manager Ken Dobell in the 1980s.
     At one meeting, following a litany of complaints about how long it was taking to get permits, a frustrated Dobell exclaimed, “What do you want us to do? Work weekends?”
     “Yes,” we replied and offered to pay overtime rates if necessary.
Soon most developers were paying the overtime rates. And while approval times were initially reduced, it wasn’t long before processing times returned to what they were before.
     Another innovation was the introduction of “certified professionals” to review plans on behalf of city staff paid for by the developers. While the union didn’t particularly like this practice, it did work, and to this day the city continues to allow certified professionals to assist with the review of applications.
     However, since then, the number of items reviewed by city staff has increased, and conflicting demands by an increased number of city departments are causing further delays.
     Two years ago, the city hired new senior staff, including Kaye Krishna, general manager of development, buildings and licensing, to help solve the problems. She quickly impressed many with her acknowledgement that too often the city unnecessarily prepared “bespoke” documents and legal agreements. She also proposed a “Nexus Lane” for experienced consultants and developers. While Krishna was achieving encouraging results, sadly she will soon be leaving the city to join the provincial government.
     To his credit, Mayor Kennedy Stewart identified the need to speed up the permitting process as one of his campaign promises. This week, under his leadership, the city tabled a staff report and released a press statement proclaiming significant results in reducing processing times. It noted that permits for 900 affordable housing units were issued in as little as 12 weeks, and some single family and laneway home permit processing has been reduced from 38 weeks to six weeks.
This has been accomplished by moving more permit applications online, training more than 230 staff in new development policies and procedures, and hiring 42 new staff in 2018, with a further 43 planned for 2019.
     Gil Kelley, general manager of planning, urban design and sustainability has promised that the city will do more.
     To help him, I would like to offer a few suggestions.
     A recent press release from the city noted the number of rezoning applications has increased 97.5 per cent since 2010. Why? Because the city continues to improperly zone land in order to charge developers rezoning fees and Community Amenity Contributions.
     For example, every new building along the Cambie Corridor has been the subject of a separate rezoning. This is not necessary. If the city wants to impose charges, fine. But why put everyone through a two-year process?
     Secondly, staff should write shorter reports to council. Most Cambie Corridor reports exceed 50 pages, and many reports are much longer. While I wouldn’t dream of commenting on the current councillors, I know for a fact that in the past, few councillors read the entire reports.
     Thirdly, make more use of certified professionals. In many instances, they are more knowledgeable than city staff when it comes to the building code.
      Speaking of the building code, why is Vancouver the only city in Canada with its own building code?
     Finally, become more sensible in terms of what is being asked. For example, my friend was recently asked for an arborist’s report for trees in the front of his house, even though his application was for a laneway house at the back. Is this really necessary?

"Why do some British people not like Donald Trump?

     A friend sent this to me today. Notwithstanding all the other things I could be writing about, I thought it was well worth sharing, especially with those of you who (like me) are Brits, or appreciate British sensibilities.
Someone on Quora asked "Why do some British people not like Donald Trump?"
Nate White, an articulate and witty writer from England, wrote this magnificent response:

     "A few things spring to mind.Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem.
For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace - all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed.
     So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.
Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing - not once, ever.
      I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility - for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman.
But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is - his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.
     Trump is a troll. And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers.
And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults - he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.
There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface.
     Some Americans might see this as refreshingly upfront. Well, we don’t. We see it as having no inner world, no soul.
     And in Britain we traditionally side with David, not Goliath. All our heroes are plucky underdogs: Robin Hood, Dick Whittington, Oliver Twist.
     Trump is neither plucky, nor an underdog. He is the exact opposite of that.
     He’s not even a spoiled rich-boy, or a greedy fat-cat.
     He’s more a fat white slug. A Jabba the Hutt of privilege.
  And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully. That is, except when he is among bullies; then he suddenly transforms into a snivelling sidekick instead.
     There are unspoken rules to this stuff - the Queensberry rules of basic decency - and he breaks them all. He punches downwards - which a gentleman should, would, could never do - and every blow he aims is below the belt. He particularly likes to kick the vulnerable or voiceless - and he kicks them when they are down.
So the fact that a significant minority - perhaps a third - of Americans look at what he does, listen to what he says, and then think 'Yeah, he seems like my kind of guy’ is a matter of some confusion and no little distress to British people, given that:
* Americans are supposed to be nicer than us, and mostly are.
* You don't need a particularly keen eye for detail to spot a few flaws in the man.
     This last point is what especially confuses and dismays British people, and many other people too; his faults seem pretty bloody hard to miss.
After all, it’s impossible to read a single tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form; he is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of shit. His faults are fractal: even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum.
God knows there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid.
     He makes Nixon look trustworthy and George W look smart.
     In fact, if Frankenstein decided to make a monster assembled entirely from human flaws - he would make a Trump.  And a remorseful Doctor Frankenstein would clutch out big clumpfuls of hair and scream in anguish:
     'My God… what… have… I… created?
If being a twat was a TV show, Trump would be the boxed set."

Monday, February 4, 2019

Vancouver Courier column on China generates very mixed responses

Don't worry. This will never be approved in Kerrisdale!
At this driving range, you hit your balls into the water. They float!
Since writing my last Vancouver Courier column about China, I have been surprised by the variety of responses I have received. While a number of people wrote to agree on how clean and technologically advanced many Chinese cities are, especially when compared to what they expected,  others wrote highly critical letters damning me for praising any aspect of China, given the country's human rights record.

A number of people also posted comments on the Vancouver Courier website which I am pleased to reproduce here, since I generally agree with the points made. That said, I would welcome further comments regarding the level of homelessness in Chinese cities compared to Vancouver and other Canadian cities.

  • Do you suppose there were no visible homeless because the local authorities do such a good job of caring for people that are destitute, vulnerable, or mentally unstable? Or do you think it might have more to do with coercive measures that keep them out of sight?
    Homelessness was much less visible in North America, years ago, but then we also had laws against vagrancy and loitering. We gradually realized that afflicting the miserable in order to soothe those better off was not really compatible with notions of fairness and justice.
    I am happy that the lives of many Chinese citizens have improved vastly in the past two decades. But, I am also reminded of a timely quote by Fyodor Dostoevsky. “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons". There were also many glowing reports of progress submitted by visitors to the 1936 Olympics. I pray that we will not some day be drawing parallels to that time.
  • Avatar
    Great article, I remember when I first traveled to SE Asia back in the 1990s. I was shocked at how much more advanced was the urban technology versus what we had in Canada. Shocked because I had the naive view that we lived in The Best Place on Earth (TM). I've been back several times since to ~ 5 different SE Asian countries. Highlights for me were, in no particular order, LED billboards showing how full to capacity were parking garages (e.g. 85%), the current air quality at specific sites, computerized highway signs showing traffic volume ahead and on alternate routes to facilitate flow, beautifully lit multi-colour riverside walks, superior urban and regional transit (e.g. high speed trains), and so on. Every place has pros and cons, including SE Asia, but there is a lot to love and as the author writes, Vancouver could learn a tremendous amount in terms of making our city wonderful. One barrier to this would, however, be the opposition to spending money to improve the city for productive residents - for which I'd expect howls of rage from the usual Poverty Inc. hostile minority; "how can you spend money on ... taxpayers when we have addicts/ prostitutes/ excons that are going to take those public funds?!?" And as such, the chance to improve Vancouver could well be stolen before there was even a chance.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Opinion: Trip to southern China offers lessons for Vancouver Vancouver Courier January 29, 2019

  I write to you from Nanning in southern China where I have spent the past week. With an administrative area population of seven million, it ranks as the country’s 40th largest city. That’s not a typo.
     I was invited here by a Canadian client to tour housing developments and resort-oriented communities, and not to sell condos as suggested by one internet troll.
article continues below
     On the contrary, I discovered many Chinese have warm feelings towards Canadians as a result of Canadian doctor Norman Bethune who did much for the Chinese people.
     It was also noteworthy that the latest China Daily account of Meng Wanzhou’s confinement blamed the Americans, not Canadians.
     This was my fifth trip to China. While somewhat familiar with other cities, I did not know what to expect in Nanning. What I found was a surprisingly green, clean, smog-free city. In the coastal city of Beihai, I enjoyed a sparkling white sand beach and sunny 20 plus degree Celsius day.
These cities offered some interesting lessons for Vancouver.

Nanning has banned gas-powered motorcycles and scooters. Instead residents get around on electric scooters without the noise and fumes often experienced in Asian cities.
     While the ban was to reduce pollution and GHGs, the local authorities also care about noise levels. This was apparent in Nanhu Park, Nanning’s version of Stanley Park, where an electronic display constantly monitored nearby noise levels in decibels.
     I would like to see Vancouver ban excessively loud motorcycles.
     While I only saw a small part of the city, the streets were exceptionally clean and often lined with manicured hedges and street trees. In comparison, with a few exceptions, Vancouver streets often have weed-strewn medians and need a good cleaning.
An example of the beautiful landscaping found along many major streets in Nanning. Photo Michael Geller
Some commercial streets resembled Vancouver’s leafy residential streets with a solid, continuous tree canopy. They were particularly beautiful because the wiring was underground. While Vancouverites take overhead wires for granted, we shouldn’t. Too many of our streets and lanes look like they belong in a developing country.
     Nowhere did I see any graffiti or homeless people camped out with their sleeping bags like I often see at Burrard and Georgia and in the Downtown Eastside.
     On the Beihai waterfront, dozens of people were dancing outside on a plaza. In a Nanning park I came across an outdoor roller-skating rink and other attractions. While Vancouverites generally applaud the removal of the zoo and commercial activities from Stanley Park, perhaps we have gone too far. The same might be said about our waterfront walkway system where additional vendors would add vitality.
Vancouver could learn from Nanning's downtown pedestrian street network.
When my host took me to a major new shopping centre, I was shocked to discover we didn’t have to stop to get a ticket or pay at a machine. Instead, a transponder in our vehicle automatically registered when we entered and when we left. Each month a bill is sent to the owner. The transponder also calculates tolls on certain roads, while on other tolled roads you stop and pay.
At night, many office buildings are lit up like giant TV screens. Photo Michael Geller
     Along some major roads, I was astonished to see large, colourful overhead digital displays that monitor traffic congestion and advise on the best routes to take.
At night, surrounding office towers were lit up like TV screens.
     While many Chinese love to visit Vancouver, I can highly recommend China as a tourist destination. Don’t worry about not speaking the language. In many places English signs can be found, although sometimes they are more comical than informative.
     If you use a “Roam like Home” phone program, despite claims to the contrary, Google is available. You can also download Google Translate to read menus or enjoy a conversation. If you are not familiar with this app, check it out. It’s marvelous.
     My visa was relatively easy to obtain and allows multiple entries for up to 60 days, for five years.
Villas and highrises surround one of the only two golf courses in Nanning.
     Notwithstanding the high-level political tensions between our countries, I found China to be most friendly and welcoming. I am sure you would too.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Opinion: Faced with new taxes, more B.C. seniors are deferring their property taxes Vancouver Courier January 14, 2019

     Two weeks ago, I wrote about the increased taxes many Vancouver residents will be paying as a result of the latest BC Assessments and new provincial taxes. These include the so-called School Tax and so-called Speculation Tax, recently renamed the Speculation and Vacancy Tax even though it will apply to second homes occupied up to 182 days a year.
     In the article, I informed Courier readers about section 19(8) of the BC Assessment Act, which allows a property to be assessed at less than market value if it has been a principal residence for at least 10 years and assessed at a higher value because of its redevelopment potential for townhouses or apartments. I invited readers to email me for further details.
article continues below
     I subsequently heard from many of you.
     Some questioned whether the recent Vancouver policy allowing duplexes in single family zones would allow an appeal under section 19(8). It will not.
     Others thought the School Tax was particularly unfair since it will not be used to fund schools, and unlike good taxes, is not proportionate to one’s ability to pay.
     A few worried how the city could operate if it didn’t receive property taxes.The city will continue to receive money to operate, but it will come from the province, not the taxpayer.
     Many readers, worried about paying their increased tax bill, were disappointed to learn their properties would not qualify for a reduced assessment under section 19(8).
     I suggested that they consider deferring their taxes under the provincial program. While some agreed it is probably time to start doing so, others did not like the thought of a government lien against their property, having worked so hard to pay off their mortgage.
     I noted that while the program’s interest rate has increased, it is only 1.45 per cent for those 55 and over and 3.45 per cent for the Families with Children and Financial Hardship Programs.
Fortunately, no one asked me to explain why lower-income households with children or those suffering financial hardship must pay a higher interest rate than wealthy seniors who take advantage of the deferment program since it is not means tested.
     According to a recent report by seniors’ advocate Isobel Mackenzie, the number of seniors in B.C. who deferred their property taxes in 2017-18 grew by 53 per cent over four years. The total amount of property tax deferred last year was $208.8 million.
     Like me, Ms. Mackenzie believes the tax deferment program can be a good, cost-effective program for lower-income seniors struggling to pay their taxes, who could use the additional money to hire more help around the house.
      There are, however, some negatives associated with the tax deferment program. For one thing, should a homeowner want to take out a reverse mortgage or home-equity loan, they will likely have to pay the outstanding taxes at that time. Also, this program does not apply to those living on leased land.
     As the additional School Tax on homes over $3 million kicks in, expect more seniors to start deferring their taxes. Indeed, several people told me that while they hadn’t deferred their taxes in the past, they will now because of this much-hated tax.
     It is somewhat ironic that the School Tax was brought in to generate additional revenues for the province. However, the province may now need to borrow more money to give to the municipalities since more seniors will defer their property taxes.
     Before leaving the topic of property taxes, I must again question why the province has not reconsidered its Homeowner Grant Program. It offers grants of $570 or $700 to B.C. residents, regardless of their income, if their home is assessed at $1,650,000 or less, anywhere in the province. Properties assessed over that amount may receive a partial grant.
     In most B.C. locales, $1,650,000 will buy you one of the nicest properties in town. Why is the province giving a grant to these homeowners? Or any high-income homeowners for that matter? Why not provide more grants to low-income renters instead?
     By the time you read this, I will be on my way to China from where I’ll be writing my next column. It will not be about property taxes.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

From Malcolm Parry's Town Talk Vancouver Sun January 5, 2019

LIKE IT IS: In The Vancouver Sun Dec. 29, architect-developer-writer Michael Geller reviewed his 2018 real-estate predictions and made fresh ones for 2019. Missing was mention of his own West Vancouver Vinson House project that was completed in July. The scheme entailed moving a heritage home rearward and developing its lower floor and two new adjacent structures to make four residences on the erstwhile single lot. When the market softened and what looked to be sales pitches appeared in a community-newspaper article and in Geller’s emailed seasonal greetings, a colleague suggested that they might make him seem desperate. As smoothly as a showbiz comedian, Geller promptly wisecracked: “I am desperate.”

Opinion: Don’t expect big changes in Vancouver's housing market, except maybe your tax bill Vancouver Courier January 3, 2019

Of all the columns I have written over the past 4 1/2 years, this one has generated the greatest consumer response. There are a lot of people out there who normally don't complain about government policies who are incensed by the so-called School Tax. While I doubt that we can do anything about it until a Liberal government is elected in Victoria, as noted further in this column, those homeowners who are facing extraordinary property assessments because their property is located in an area that has been approved for higher density housing or mixed use development, can seek relief under secition 19(8) of the BC Assessment Act. Further details can be found here:

Speculation taxes, empty homes taxes and school taxes could pile up for some homeowner

     What’s going to happen to the housing market next year?
Hardly a day goes by when I’m not asked this question, whether in the grocery store or my club’s hot tub.      The fact is, there is no one housing market. There are many different markets. They include high-end single-family properties, entry level condominiums and new townhouse and apartment developments catering to move-down buyers ready to move out of their single-family homes.
     Another fact is none of us knows what is really going to happen. Just look at the 2019 outlooks from the national and local real estate associations. While the BCREA reports the downward trend in B.C. home sales is largely behind us and starting to trend upwards, the CREA contradicts this by predicting a further decline in sales.
     I am not expecting any significant increase in house prices, especially for single-family properties in the coming year. However, I am also not expecting a major crash in prices.
     What I do believe is that housing affordability will remain a serious problem for both Vancouver buyers and renters one year from now.
     There’s another thing about which I am quite certain. Many of us will be taking a much closer look at our property assessment notices when they arrive in early January. That’s because for the first time, “high-valued properties” will now be subject to the province’s so-called School Tax.
     This is not to be confused with the school tax that has appeared on your regular annual property tax notice and charged to every property in B.C. regardless of whether you or your family use the public or private school system.That tax remains.
     However, starting in 2019, an additional school tax applies to residential properties’ more than $3 million in assessed value.
     The additional tax rate is 0.2 per cent on the assessed value between $3 million and $4 million, and 0.4 per cent on the residential portion assessed over $4 million. For those of you for whom math was not your best subject and fortunate enough to own a $4.5-million home, this translates into an additional $4,000 on top of your regular property taxes which last year would have been just over $11,000.
     Now, if you own a home that is not your principal residence and not rented for at least six months of the year, you will be in for even more dramatic tax increases. That’s because you’ll have to pay the city’s so-called Empty Home Tax and the province’s so-called Speculation Tax.
     On a $4.5-million home, the city’s tax will be $45,000 (that’s not a typo) and the Speculation Tax will be an additional $22,500 to $90,000 depending on whether you are a B.C. resident, a Canadian citizen who does not live in B.C., or someone who lives outside of Canada.
     While many are applauding these additional taxes, I am not. For one thing, they are going to impact new housing supply in the coming years. This in turn will reduce the number of jobs in the construction industry as well as furniture and decorating sales, and so on.
     Ironically, a housing slowdown will also reduce the permit fees, Development Cost Levies and Community Amenity Contributions to which the city has become addicted in recent years.
While on the topic of property taxes, I would like to remind readers of something from my Courier column of a year ago.
     Homeowners facing dramatic tax increases due to Community Plan or zoning changes can often qualify for much lower taxes under Section 19(8) of the Assessment Act, which allows residential land to be assessed at less than market value where the owner occupied the property as their principal residence continuously for 10 years.
     For some Marpole or Cambie Corridor bungalows, the reduced assessment and taxes may be less than half of what an investor would pay for an identical property.
     To qualify for this tax relief, the owner should have submitted a completed application form to B.C. Assessment by Nov. 30. However, if you didn’t take my advice last year, contact the local B.C. Assessment area office as applications received until March 15 may qualify for processing through the assessment review process. Email me if you want more details.
     Best wishes for an affordable 2019.
Twitter @michaelgeller