Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Opinion: Housing affordability? It’s time for province to offer both long-term promises and short-term solutions Vancouver Sun January 17, 2018

     What should the B.C. government be doing to create more affordable housing in Vancouver? This is a question I, and many other so-called housing experts, are being asked daily as we await next month’s provincial budget.
     Given that the Liberal government lost the last election because it paid insufficient attention to housing affordability, British Columbians are hoping for many housing announcements in the budget. But really, what can, or should the B.C. government, be doing to make housing more affordable for residents throughout the Vancouver region, and elsewhere in the province?
     During the election campaign, the NDP promised to introduce an annual, two-per-cent tax on foreigners who buy B.C. property but don’t pay tax here. They estimated this would generate $200 million a year to fund affordable housing. While I don’t disagree with the proposal, here are two other ways to free-up more funds for affordable housing: Overhaul the Homeowner Grant and Property Tax Deferral programs.
     While I’m told it’s political suicide to end grants to 92 per cent of B.C. homeowners, I think it’s time to phase out the Homeowner Grant Program and redirect the money to those in greater need. To begin, why not establish different price thresholds for regions around the province? Surely it makes sense to differentiate between Kerrisdale and Castlegar, where $1.65 million buys one of the nicest houses in town.
     Secondly, why is this program not means-tested? This could be accomplished in part by making the grant a taxable benefit, rather than tax-free.
     While the Property Tax Deferral Program may be necessary for low-income seniors wanting to stay in their homes, it too should become income-tested. Far too many, who can afford to pay property taxes, take advantage of cheap provincial loans, currently at less than one per cent.
     While directing funds saved from these programs into rent subsidies for the needy, and low-interest loans for non-profit housing would be beneficial, there is much more the province can do.
     Ten years ago, during Vancouver’s municipal election campaign, I first promoted the idea of setting up temporary modular housing for the homeless on public and privately owned vacant land. Thankfully, the government is now promoting this idea through a provincewide program. However, relocatable modular housing could accommodate a much broader range of households seeking affordable homes.
     The province could encourage this housing by offering property-tax relief to owners of vacant lots, just as it now does for those creating community gardens. Instead of growing expensive tomatoes, these properties could accommodate one-, two- and three-bedroom homes for millennials who might otherwise leave the province.
     We often hear that one way to create more affordable housing is to increase supply. While I agree with those who argue we also need the right supply, a major challenge facing private and non-profit developers is obtaining zoning, development and building-permit approvals. They really do take too long, and cost too much.
     While the responsibility for approvals generally rests with municipal government, except for the City of Vancouver, municipalities are legislated by the Municipal Act. Why should it often take a year or more to approve a single-family house or three years to approve rental apartments?
     To speed up approvals, there is an urgent need to review and overhaul our current planning and approval procedures through Municipal Act amendments, wherever necessary.
     One way to accelerate approvals would be for the province to encourage a greater role for Independent Certified Professionals in the issuance of development and building permits. Regular audits could be carried out to ensure zoning bylaws and codes are being met.
     Another factor contributing to the high cost of new housing is the Community Amenity Contributions (CACs), which are usually charged by municipalities whenever a property is rezoned.
Four years ago, the provincial Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, in consultation with local governments, the development and building sectors, and legal and academic communities, prepared a document titled, Community Amenity Contributions: Balancing Community Planning, Public Benefits and Housing Affordability. It was well-researched and thoughtful, and put forward many sound recommendations. Sadly, it appears to have been all but ignored or forgotten.
     As CACs, combined with other municipal fees and charges often exceed the cost of land, it’s time for the province to play a role in insisting that municipalities abide by the recommendations set out in this document.
     Sadly, even if all these suggestions were implemented, the cost of renting or buying a home in B.C. will continue to be out reach for too many. However, by combining long-term promises with practical, short-term solutions, B.C. can play an important role in increasing affordable housing in years to come.
Michael Geller is a Vancouver-based architect planner, property consultant and developer with five decades of experience in the public and private sectors. He also serves on the adjunct faculty at SFU. His blog is found at and he can be reached at

Opinion: What the next mayor of Vancouver can learn from past civic leaders Vancouver Courier January 16, 2018

      Last week, Gregor Robertson announced his decision not to run for mayor in the forthcoming municipal election.
      I first met Mayor Robertson over breakfast 10 years ago following his election as the Vision Vancouver mayoral candidate, and my election (by acclamation) as an NPA council candidate. Some might say the rest is history.
      Over 10 years, I found the mayor to be likeable, but oftentimes na├»ve. While many blamed him for his government’s actions, I tended to blame the people behind him and around him, especially the cunning Mike Magee and bullying Penny Ballem.
While my colleague Mike Klassen has written a scathing review of the mayor’s three terms, rather than offer my list of accomplishments and failings, I prefer to examine the qualities we should seek in our next mayor.
      But before doing so, let’s look back at the city’s previous seven mayors.
When I first arrived in Vancouver in 1974, Art Phillips was mayor. Founder of a new reform-minded political party TEAM, Phillips introduced an entirely new approach to city governance and planning following six years of Mayor Tom Campbell’s pro-expressways, pro-development reign.
      Phillips was an investment banker who valued fiscal prudence. A natural leader, along with new planning director Ray Spaxman, he reshaped Vancouver through numerous initiatives including redevelopment of the south shore of False Creek, creation of the Property Endowment Fund, and an effective local-area planning program.
      Phillips was followed by Jack Volrich, with whom I had little contact since I returned to Toronto and Ottawa during his term. However, when I came back to Vancouver in 1981, Mike Harcourt was mayor.
      Harcourt, a community activist and lawyer, was a born politician and leader. President of his high school student council, he went on to become a city alderman and mayor, and eventually premier. Harcourt had a keen interest in housing, and while he initially opposed the transformative Expo 86, he eventually became one of its biggest boosters.
      Harcourt was followed by Gordon Campbell who served three terms from 1986 to 1993. Once Mayor Art Phillips’ executive assistant and former Marathon Realty employee, he understood politics and real estate development. He too went on to be premier.
      During his tenure, new communities were started around False Creek, Coal Harbour and at Collingwood Village. The city also partnered with Jack Poole’s VLC Properties in the construction of rental housing on city-owned lands.
      Campbell was followed by Philip Owen in 1993 who was twice re-elected. A small businessman from a prominent Vancouver family, Owen was first and foremost a gentleman who proudly maintained the city’s Triple-A credit rating.
      While he was mayor, the engineering department introduced a program of upgrading two per cent of the city’s infrastructure each year, so that the total sewer and water systems would be replaced every 50 years.
      Owen would pick up a stray piece of paper off the sidewalk and engendered a strong sense of civic pride.
      In 2002, Larry Campbell was elected COPE’s first mayor. A former RCMP officer and coroner, many believe he was elected because people confused him with the titular character of TV’s Da Vinci’s Inquest. As mayor, this Campbell was a disappointment. Although he had a broad appeal, and could have done much to address the problems of the Downtown Eastside, he didn’t.
      Campbell was followed by Sam Sullivan, Vancouver’s most unlikely mayor. A quadriplegic who once suffered depression while living in social housing, Sullivan is best known for his flag-waving role at the closing of the 2006 Olympics and introducing “EcoDensity” to the city.
As an external advisor on his EcoDensity initiative, I recall urging him to include housing affordability as a key benefit, since I didn’t believe most Vancouverites shared his passion for saving the planet. On this, my view hasn’t changed.
      So what qualities should we seek in our next mayor?
      I would like Vancouver’s next mayor to have Art Phillips’ leadership and fiscal prudence, Mike Harcourt’s activism and housing knowledge, Gordon Campbell’s intelligence and real estate acumen, Philip Owen’s desire for a beautiful, clean city, Larry Campbell’s populist appeal, Sam Sullivan’s big ideas and language skills and Gregor Robertson’s relationship with the city’s millennials.
Although Vancouver’s first 39 mayors were all men, the 40th mayor need not be.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

January 14th. Happy Birthday Dad

Today would have been my father's 106th birthday. While I never expected him to live to 106, he never expected to survive a Second World War German prisoner-of-war camp, let alone live to 92!

Those who met my dad knew him to be a true gentleman, with a great sense of humour. He was the sort of person who always kept his word, and couldn't understand why someone would expect a reward for returning something that wasn't theirs.

He was a fan of Edward de Bono, and enjoyed creative thinkers.

He always wanted to be a journalist but for much of his life was a barber, before becoming a librarian in York University's Scott Library, thanks to the initiative of my sister Estelle Paget

While I miss him, I'm glad he didn't live long enough to see Donald Trump as president. He'd be so disgusted! Happy Birthday dad!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Opinion: Benefits of tax relief should be extended to commercial properties Vancouver Courier January 4, 2018

Note: Until recently, I was not aware of the details of Section 19(8) of the Assessment Act which allows certain property owners experiencing dramatic assessment and tax increased due to rezoning/OCP changes to reduce their assessments . Unfortunately, many other residential property owners who might benefit from this provision of the act are not aware of it either. But that's just half the story. Read on!
Assessing the latest property assessment numbers
   This week, owners of more than 522,000 properties throughout Greater Vancouver can expect to receive their 2018 assessment notices.The new assessments can also be found on-line at All you need do is type in your address or, for that matter, your neighbour’s, relative’s or ex-spouse’s address to see what their homes may be worth. related

      I say “may be worth” since many property values have changed since July 1, 2017 when valuations were carried out.
      Unlike last year, when assessment increases of 30 to 50 per cent were typical for single-family homes in Vancouver, North and West Vancouver, Burnaby, Tri-Cities and New Westminster, and typical condominium increases throughout these areas were in the 15 to 30 per cent range, this year’s adjustments are generally much more modest.
      According to BC Assessment, within Greater Vancouver new single-family assessments ranged from a five per cent drop to a 15 per cent increase. Condominiums generally increased between five per cent and 35 per cent. In Vancouver, the overall increase was 5.63 per cent.
This still translated into an increase of more than $1,000 a day for many West Side Vancouver homeowners.
      Other property owners witnessed even more dramatic increases if their property was within a neighbourhood rezoned for higher density development or so designated in a community plan. Vancouver examples include Grandview-Woodlands, Cambie Corridor and Marpole, to name just three.
      It is important to remember that assessment increases do not automatically translate into property tax increases. Rather, changes in property tax are determined by the overall municipal tax increase — in Vancouver, council approved a last-minute 4.24 per cent increase — and a homeowner’s change in a property assessment compared to the municipal average.
      As regular readers of this column are aware, many households who cannot afford to pay their taxes, or do not want to pay can defer payment.
      While some may worry the city will struggle to provide services if taxes are deferred, they need not. The province pays the taxes on behalf of the property owner.
      It is important to note this program is not means tested, although it should be. I defer my taxes every year since the interest rate charged is less than one per cent.
What is not generally known is that households facing dramatic tax increases due to Community Plan or zoning changes can not only defer their taxes, in many instances they often qualify for much lower taxes.
      This is because Section 19(8) of the Assessment Act allows residential land to be assessed at less than market value where the owneroccupied the property as their principal residence continuously for 10 years effective Oct. 31 of the year preceding the tax year, and provided the property has redevelopment potential for a more valuable use than its current use.
      In the case of some Marpole or Cambie Corridor bungalows, the reduced assessment and taxes may be less than half the assessed value and taxes of the property next door.
      To qualify for this tax relief, the owner should submit a completed application form to BC Assessment each year by Nov. 30 to receive the benefit in the following assessment/taxation year.
If a property owner cannot, or did not apply by Nov. 30, they should contact their local BC Assessment area office, as applications received between Nov. 30 and the following March 15 may qualify for processing through the assessment review process.
      Application forms and additional information on the special valuation treatment provided under section 19(8) may be obtained by calling BC Assessment at 1-866-825-8322.
      For many reasons, I believe this is a very good provision of the Act. However, it may be time to introduce a similar provision for commercial properties.
      Increasingly, due to redevelopment pressures, small, longstanding family-owned businesses are facing municipal property tax bills greater than the rent being charged by the landlords.
      This is one of the reasons we are seeing an increased number of “for lease” signs in many of our favourite neighbourhood shopping areas. While the city does allow tax averaging and other measures to reduce the impact of higher taxes, more needs to be done.
      But that’s another story for another day.