Thursday, December 8, 2011

Priority Number One: Housing Affordability

On Monday, the new Vancouver City Council was sworn in, and in his inaugural address, the Mayor focussed on his goal to create affordable housing for all. He proposed a 'blue ribbon Task Force" to examine various solutions, including 'leveraging' city owned lands. Coincidentally, last week, I was contacted by Carlito Pablo of the Georgia Straight who was interested in my thoughts of the city's ambitious plans to create affordable housing, including the use of city lands for below market condominiums. His story can be found here.

Today, three stories by Pete McMartin, Daniel Fontaine and Charlie Smith appeared in various publications. I was pleased to speak to all three during the preparation of their stories

Both McMartin and Fontaine correctly noted that as long as we continue to try and make Vancouver more and more attractive and yes, the Greenest City in the World, it will place additional pressures on housing affordability. (While some like to say green housing doesn't cost more, there is no doubt that really green housing does cost more!)

Both wrote that Detroit has very affordable housing; but we don’t want to become Detroit.

Frances Bula also wrote about the Mayor's objectives on her blog.

The following notes are based on comments I posted on the Fabula blog in response to what she and her readers wrote, a well as in response to the McMartin and Fontaine stories:

Unlike my dear and mysterious friend Glissy, and Randy Helten, I am happy to acknowledge that the election is over and it’s time to move on. That being said, I do think it is important to learn from some of the decisions made in the past (by all administrations) particularly related to the Olympic Village and STIR.

I think David Hadaway has raised some good issues when it comes to public sector development, and non-profit housing development.

He’s probably right that the city is not likely to create a revitalized Housing Corporation and undertake direct development of significant amounts of non-market and market housing. I say ‘revitalized’ since the city does have a Housing Corporation (remember Morris Jerroff?) which built a few projects with CMHC money in the 70′s. (I know, since I approved the loans!)

However, for decades Toronto successfully played a significant role in direct housing development. Unfortunately, some of the recent ‘scandals’ with their Metro Housing Corporation may have altered the public perception of this as a way to go.

We should, however, look at how Toronto has overseen redevelopment of Regent Park, and then compare that with the Little Mountain project. While it may be too late to restructure the redevelopment of Little Mountain, I think the Toronto Community Housing model offers lessons for the regeneration of other older public and social housing sites, and any significant city owned lands.

In this regard, I must note that while much is made of ‘levering’ city lands, I’m not aware of just how much Vancouver city-owned land can be developed over the next three years.

I am aware of some ‘social housing sites’ that the city can acquire from Concord and others, and smaller sites scattered around the city, but I’ll be interested to see just how much land is readily available in the near future.

As an aside, I know of some land that can be redeveloped 30 years from now eg: South Shore False Creek, but that is another story! However it is an issue that needs to be discussed now.

(Maybe we can redevelop portions of the park between the two main South Shore False Creek housing enclaves since they were supposed to be housing until George Puil and others argued the whole site should be a park! )

David Hadaway may be wrong when he says the city is unlikely to stimulate non-profits and other enitities, like the British Housing Societies to become more active in housing development. To this list I would add Community Land Trusts and Community Housing Trusts, and unlikely bedfellow arrangements between non-profits, charitable groups and developers.

I think there is a potential role for non-profits and charities that have land (often it’s a parking lot or unused portion of their land) that could be redeveloped, especially if parking requirements can be reduced.

I agree with those who rightly note that ‘affordable’ means different things for different groups. I’m glad we will be focussing on more than just the homeless since, as Patricia Canning recently reminded me, for some time I have believed that housing the homeless has hijacked a broader discussion on housing affordability in Vancouver.

As the Mayor rightly notes, there are a lot of people who are not homeless, who may have good incomes, but are having a real problem finding acceptable, affordable housing. (His children may soon fall into this category; my children are in this category; and no doubt many Fabula readers fall within this category.)

One way to address affordability for a broad spectrum of people is to increase supply for all kinds of housing, but especially ground oriented family oriented housing for sale; and rental housing.

To do this, we are going to have to rezone suitably located single family blocks around Vancouver, especially since according to the recently approved Metro Growth Management Strategy, we are no longer allowed to redevelop industrial lands for housing. (Personally, I believe it will be possible to combine new housing with industrial development, but that too is another story.)

Both Frances and Wendy are right to raise the thorny issue of who should benefit from various forms of city subsidies.

Yes, we want to help the poor, but I’ll always remember my former boss and mentor at CMHC who was troubled by the ‘poor’ moving into government subsidized low income housing such as the False Creek Coop, who he considered ‘the deliberate poor’!

They were not the downtrodden, unfortunate souls who had been dealt a bad hand, or experienced difficulties due to marital abuse, disabilities, family tragedy, etc.

No, they were well educated, healthy people who had made a deliberate choice to take on low paying careers …they were academics, musicians, writers, artists, and others happy with low paying jobs. He was very troubled when they got to move into some of the best new government subsidized housing on well located city and provincially owned lands.

In summary, there are a lot of people in the city who have had considerable experience in the public and private devlopment of various forms of market and non-market housing. People like Cameron Gray, Michael Goldberg, David Podmore, and Al Poettker immediately come to mind. I hope they and others who like me have experienced both successes and failures will participate in future discussions on how best to translate the Mayor's broad policy objectives and goals into detailed, practical action plans.


Anonymous said...

In the McMartin article he quotes Somerville as saying "for someone wanting to live on the West Side but ending up in Burnaby because they can't afford to buy on the West Side doesn't strike me as a problem."

Well it is a problem because they drive up demand in Burnaby forcing would-be residents out to Coquitlam or Surrey. Then we have to build the Evergreen line and widen Highway 1 to get them back to Burnaby where they wanted to be in the first place. What happens in Kerrisdale does not stay in Kerrisdale.

I like your idea of using semi-detached and row housing as a way of keeping people in the areas they want to be in at a price they can afford. Ground oriented housing is very important to a lot of people. If the choice is a tiny condo in town or a house in Walnut Grove a significant percentage will choose the backyard and 2 hour commute.

The availability of row housing may not convince everyone, but every family that chooses to live closer to existing services saves a 1/4 acre of Fraser Valley land and all the associated public and private costs that go with it.

jesse said...

More bold in the Sun piece was a suggestion that low-density areas bear more of the burden of costs. There are thousands of acres of "prime" real estate within miles of the downtown core that stubbornly remain low density.

There is no problem with that per se but we should acknowledge that this low density elicits a burden on other areas and transportation networks.

Tough choices. Focusing density in certain areas and not others misses some low-hanging fruit. Perhaps it's time to pony up.

Anonymous said...

The low density areas already bear their share of the burden through a really simple thing called assessed value. Those big houses in the Churchill Secondary catchment cost $2.5-4.5 million dollars and pay proportionally higher property taxes than the $800k Vancouver specials on east 3rd Avenue.

All the same, the burden is only being carried fairly if the property is being occupied by a suitable number of people. Vancouver real estate is often used as an investment rather than a place to live. Some non-resident owners turn their properties into rentals and thus help absorb growth and offer an alternative to home ownership, but some do not. It is the latter category that attracts negativity toward "foreign" ownership and brings forth suggestions like non-resident taxes.

I think there's a mistaken assumption on the part of McMartin that RS-1 means single family. Having been a UBC student I know there are a lot of secondary suites in West Point Grey, perhaps as many per block as you'd find in single family zoned areas on the east side. Then again West Point Grey is a bit of a special case because of its proximity to UBC.

I suspect the real target of the burden shift is those areas where there's no 33-foot lot in sight, but if you look closely you'll see that even some of those areas are transforming. Entire blocks along Cambie, Oak and Tisdall are being bought up and converted from single detached to higher density forms of housing. Those changes make perfect sense as they lie along or adjacent to transit lines.

At the same time I have sympathy for areas like Norquay that feel powerless to stop 24 storey towers from invading their neighbourhoods. The east side does seem to get the short end of the stick in that regard.

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Anonymous said...

Affordable housing is the Indian government's new mantra. President Pratibha Patil mentioned it in her speech on Bharat Nirman, a project that plans to double the construction of low-cost houses to 12 million units. This move, it is hoped, will cascade into more demand for steel, cement and construction material. For this to happen, the government is banking on public-private partnerships. In the past, even if developers were willing to build housing structures for the poor, they found it difficult to come up with suitable ways to finance them. Now, given the fresh optimism in the market, it seems like affordable housing is an idea whose time has come, writes Bangalore-based writer Shoba Narayan in this opinion piece.

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Affordable housing is the Indian government's new mantra. President Pratibha Patil mentioned it in her speech on Bharat Nirman, a project that plans to double the construction of low-cost houses to 12 million units. This move, it is hoped, will cascade into more demand for steel, cement and construction material. For this to happen, the government is banking on public-private partnerships. In the past, even if developers were willing to build housing structures for the poor, they found it difficult to come up with suitable ways to finance them. Now, given the fresh optimism in the market, it seems like affordable housing is an idea whose time has come, writes Bangalore-based writer Shoba Narayan in this opinion piece.

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