Talk Housing to us, but tell us what you really mean
What on Earth are Vision trying to say in their latest confusing policy pronouncement?
Ask Vancouverites what is the most pressing issue facing our city and many will respond that it is the cost and availability of affordable housing. For this reason, the city’s recent Housing and Homelessness Strategy 2012-2021 that went before Council on July 26, 2011 is a very important document.
As a former official with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and a housing planner and developer with a longstanding interest in ‘affordable housing’, I was particularly interested to read what the city was planning for the coming decade, and next three years. While the document offers some lovely words and obtuse statements, there is a paucity of details to help the reader fully understand what the city planners and politicians really have in mind.
So, for those of you who have not taken the time to read the report, or may never have the time or inclination to do so, I would like to share a few observations. In setting out these thoughts, my intention is not to criticize those who wrote the document or directed its preparation. Rather, I would like to offer some perspectives that will hopefully lead to better and more cost effective housing policies, and more coherent strategic actions.
I should note that I did attend one of the city’s numerous ‘consultative’ workshops related to rental housing and homelessness leading up to the preparation of this report. It was not a terribly satisfying experience, since rather than have a genuine opportunity to offer ideas, I felt that I was there to hear what the city housing planners had already decided. I was not alone in this observation. Downtown Eastside Community activist Jean Swanson, with whom I worked 35 years ago during my tenure at CMHC, felt the same way. Although she seemed to really enjoy the food being served during her session.
The report to city council includes a lot of numbers, totaling 38,900 units over the next ten years. Yes, 38,900! However, of these 7,900 are non-market housing (supportive and social housing); 11,000 are Market Rental Housing including ‘purpose built’ and secondary market (basement suites, laneway housing, etc.); and 20,000 are Condos and Affordable home ownership. While this seems like a lot of units, some analysts point out that when one looks at the number of non-market housing units already underway, (thanks in large part to the efforts of the past administrations), and other exemptions, the number of non-market units being proposed over the next three years, is actually less than what was proposed in previous housing strategy reports.
While I question whether the city should be subsidizing 11,000 market rental housing units, and am curious how and where the 20,000 condos and affordable home ownership units are going to be built, of greater interest is the underlying intent behind many of the somewhat obtuse strategies set out in the report.
- One of the strategic directions is to refine and develop new zoning approaches. What does this mean? I have heard that some city housing planners and politicians have been considering the creation of ‘rental zones’ in the city, where only rental housing would be built. Is this what is intended? I do hope not.
- Another strategy is to pursue a new business model to enhance affordable housing delivery. Now what does this mean? During the last municipal election, Cllr Geoff Meggs and I were invited to debate the merits of setting up a City Housing Corporation as one way of facilitating the delivery of affordable housing in the city. Is this what’s intended? If not, what is being said between the lines?
- Another strategic direction proposes maintaining and exploring opportunities to improve Rate of Change regulations…The Rate of Change bylaw was introduced in the 80’s during the tenure of former City Councillor George Puil as a means of protecting the older rental housing stock in the city, especially in neighbourhoods like Kerrisdale and the West End. In some respects it has succeeded. However, in others it has failed in that many of the properties have been allowed to deteriorate. And while they provide more affordable rental housing, especially to longstanding senior residents, soon some of these buildings may be uninhabitable. While I agree with the need to improve the regulations, it would be helpful if the city planners shared what they are thinking. Will it be possible to demolish and replace some of these units under certain circumstances? I do hope so.
- The document seems to support the continuation of the STIR program, and other similar programs. While I am the first to admit that this program has encouraged a few developers to build market rental housing, rather than just condominiums, I am not convinced the results are worth the expense. Indeed, in many respects, the program has done more harm than good. Personally, while I support reduced parking requirements, fast-tracking applications, and reasonable density bonuses for rental housing, I do not support the kind of subsidies the city has approved to date. I would rather see limited City dollars directed towards the creation of affordable rental housing, not market rental housing.
- There is another idea in the report that does worry me…the establishment of a Rent Bank by the city and other partners, to prevent evictions due to tenants’ short-term financial crisis. While I can understand the underlying benevolent intent, I must question the appropriateness of the city participating in such a venture, given the potential financial and administrative costs, let alone the propriety of such an undertaking. When I questioned this idea during a recent CKNW Civic Affairs Panel, fellow panellist Frances Bula seemed to defend the idea noting that both the City of Surrey and Toronto had established similar Rent Banks. While I would like to learn more, this does not seem like a good reason to undertake such a potentially questionable idea.
- Another proposition in the report is to make City lands available at a reduced cost for affordable housing. Personally, I can support this idea, since it is similar to an initiative undertaken at SFU’s UniverCity community. However, at SFU, there was considerable debate about the notion of equity, and who might qualify for such housing. In the end, it was decided that the housing would only be available to faculty and staff, especially those with children. According to an interview with Cllr Louie in today’s Vancouver Sun, the city has some ideas about how such a program might be implemented. However, they are not set out in the report. I think it is important that the city share with us which sites might be made available, the potential costs to the city, and how it intends to address the question of equity.
- Finally, this document is significant for what it doesn’t include. For example, there is absolutely no reference to how best to deal with the ‘20% social housing sites’ that have been set aside by Concord Pacific and Marathon Realty, that remain undeveloped due to a lack of capital and operating funds. To my mind, this is a very pressing issue since it not only addresses supply, but also the desire for socially mixed communities, something which compelled the city to retain at great cost, the very expensive social housing units at the Olympic Village (which also is not mentioned anywhere in the report). I believe there are solutions that would result in affordable housing on these sites, at no cost to the city, which I would be happy to share, if asked.
In conclusion, this is an important document. However, to be truly meaningful to the taxpayers of the city and potential partners in future endeavours, it needs to be fleshed out with substantive details, specific examples, and more complete financial implications. I would urge the authors to now revise the document by adding a 'for example' at the end of every strategic action. Then we all might better understand what the authors and City Council have in mind.
Please don’t keep us in suspense.