Thursday, March 31, 2016

Opinion: Vancouver Courier March 30, 2016 It’s time to revisit mayor’s task force on housing affordability

If recommendations were implemented, Vancouver could offer more affordable housing choices
The Cowie Row houses at 33 and Cambie are the only recent example of 'fee-simple' row houses in Vancouver. Pity!
Hardly a day goes by when there isn’t a story in the newspapers, on radio or TV, about Vancouver’s affordable housing crisis. Over the past few weeks we’ve heard about “shadow flipping” by unscrupulous real estate agents, disagreement over the precise number of vacant houses and apartments and the negative impacts of money laundering and foreign investment on house prices.
These are important issues and worthy of further investigation and remedial actions. However, regardless of what steps are taken, they will not significantly reduce the price of housing in Vancouver.

So then the question is: Can we do anything that will make a difference?

To address this, it’s worthwhile looking back four years to March 2012, when Mayor Gregor Robertson and Olga Ilich, who co-chaired the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability, issued their first report. This report set out four “quick start actions”: fast-track development applications for affordable rental and ownership housing, use the Cambie Corridor redevelopment as a model for inclusionary zoning, (a form of zoning that requires affordable housing to be included within market developments), and use city-owned land to leverage partnerships with non-profit and co-ops to create affordable rental housing.
Task force members were encouraged to use their influence with the federal government to advocate for enhanced tax incentives for new rental housing and to convince the provincial government to streamline the delivery of “fee simple” row housing. Fee simple row houses are individually owned, like single-family houses, and not part of a condominium.

There were some successes. Ilich and former city councillor Suzanne Anton convinced the provincial government to change land title legislation to make it easier to build fee-simple row housing. However, the federal Conservative government did not budge on offering tax incentives for rental housing.

Sadly, fast-tracking rental housing applications has not happened. At a recent Urban Development Institute workshop intended to encourage the construction of more rental housing, local developers complained to a city representative that rental housing proposals are still taking more than three years to get approved. The same holds true for construction of non-profit rental housing, some of which is only just getting underway on four city-owned properties, three years later.
In June 2012, the task force issued another report that looked, in part, at how to decrease housing development costs. This begs the question whether lower costs automatically translate into lower prices and rents.

Task force members correctly noted that lower costs can result in lower prices, especially when there is sufficient supply and competition in the marketplace. Sadly, this has not happened.
They also noted that within Vancouver most new housing generally comprises two major forms — single-family homes and apartment buildings.

There is little else in the housing continuum to meet the needs of families and smaller households. This is because the city’s zoning and regulatory framework generally does not allow many of the housing forms found elsewhere around the world — or across the country or even within the Metro region.

These include townhouses, stacked townhouses, clustered housing, and other options such as family-sized laneway housing.

In the report, the task force noted, “simplifying land use regulations and facilitating a more flexible and creative dialogue between developers and the City would result in more housing diversity that could meet our affordability challenges.”

So has this happened? It is starting to happen in a few neighbourhoods, including Marpole. However, the number of multi-family zoned sites is so limited, prices have not dropped. Moreover, single-family lots have become so expensive it is difficult to create affordable multi-family housing, even when they are rezoned.

The mayor’s task force presented many excellent recommendations. Housing experts are convinced that if they were systematically reviewed and implemented, Vancouver could most definitely offer more affordable housing choices.

On April 6 at SFU Harbour Centre, I am presenting a lecture titled 12 New Affordable Housing Ideas, many of which are taken directly from the mayor’s task force reports.
The lecture is free, but you will need to register at I hope some of you will join me. For those who cannot, watch for future columns.

Note: I understand the talk is now sold out but a wait list is being kept. If you are interested, please add your name to the list since arrangements are being made to 'simulcast' the talk in an experimental manner, but only to those on the wait list!

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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A story behind Whistler's Audain Art Museum

Jim Moodie joined Gloria Macarenko to make a toast to the Queen
It's not often that I get an invitation to the opening of a friend's art museum, but that's what happened earlier this month. While much has been written about Michael Audain's most generous and impressive gift to Whistler and the people of British Columbia, I wanted to share a few personal anecdotes and photos.
It's difficult to get the RCMP to march on command for a photo, but that's what happened here!
One of the most surprising things about Michael's decision to build the museum in Whistler is that he really had no prior connection to the community before deciding to locate there. He's not a skier; and unlike his colleagues Nat Bosa, Moh Faris, Victor Setton or Joe Houssian, he never built a project there. He didn't even own a cabin.

But Michael had a friend with a longstanding connection to Whistler, Jim Moodie. Once a principal of Sutcliffe Griggs Moodie, Jim was very involved with the creation of Whistler as we know it today. He is a skier. He does own a cabin. And over the years, he has done a lot for Whistler.

His Whistler Olympic Village (well, it wasn't just his....Eric Martin and a lot of other people helped out) didn't make headlines in the Vancouver Sun, because it was so very successful.

Jim knew Michael wanted to build an Art Museum to share his extensive collection; and while there appeared to be other, more logical locations, Jim had the foresight to appreciate that Whistler could be an exceptional venue. And he was right.

Not only did Jim help locate the museum at Whistler, he also worked with Michael and his team in overseeing the project from beginning to end. Today he serves as Vice-Chair of the Audain Art Museum Board.

While the people who work behind the scenes are not always recognized, some of the loudest applause at the opening gala were for Jim, because most of the people in attendance knew how much he had contributed to the creation of this wonderful legacy.
Chor Leone was a surprised guest at the opening gala. It is probably the first time they have sung in front of cedars
Michael Audain and Yoshi Karasawa enjoyed the opening as much as their guests
Michael says he'll miss these masks....they were like good friends in his home
While not everyone thought these were a good use of golf bags, they were wrong. Works by Brian Jungen
This view through the crystal glass will only get better when the landscaping is completed.
Jim Moodie and a friend.
As noted in the brochure handed out at the opening, The Audain Art Museum was established for the purpose of bringing the art of British Columbia from early times to the present day to the attention of the public from our province and beyond. Visitors will be exposed to a collection of art that will surprise and enthrall. Plus temporary exhibitions will feature art from around the world.

The museum is now open to the public. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend that you go before the crowds arrive this summer.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Opinion: Addressing homelessness starts with hearing their stories Vancouver Courier March 17, 2016

Pop-up city halls, vacant housing study, 'Greyhound therapy' capture columnist’s attention
One of the enjoyable challenges of this column is choosing the topic to write about. Last week, three stories caught my attention. 

The first was the release of the City of Vancouver study on vacant housing. When CBC called to ask for my initial observations, I had to confess I was surprised by the results. I was not sure if this was because the methodology and conclusions were wrong, or whether I, like so many other Vancouverites, had been duped into believing there were far more vacant units than there actually are.
I suspect the number of vacant units is higher than reported. Nonetheless, what is clear from this report is that regardless of the precise number, this is not the main cause of Vancouver’s housing affordability problems.

The second story was the announcement that the City of Vancouver and CP Rail had reached an agreement on the purchase and sale of the Arbutus Corridor. While I would have preferred a deal that did not require so much up-front money, I was generally pleased with how the city resolved this long-standing issue. I was also delighted to see “pop up” city halls on Saturday inviting community discussion on the future of the corridor. 

While each of these stories warrant further commentary, this week I want to address the third story. It tells the tale of two Saskatchewan homeless young men put on a Greyhound bus by the Saskatchewan government, and sent to Vancouver. This incident introduced many of us to the term Greyhound therapy, known in the mental health field as the practice by some authorities of buying a ticket on a Greyhound Lines bus to get rid of someone they would rather not have to look after.
I agree with Coun. Kerry Jang, who said that what the Saskatchewan government had done was “inhumane” and “callous.”

While I understood Rich Coleman’s comments to the effect that this is a free country and we cannot really stop people from going from one province to another, I did not appreciate Christy Clark’s welcoming comments. Would she have said the same if her colleague Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall was not in the middle of an election campaign?

The sad reality is that Vancouver and many B.C. cities are struggling to address homelessness with inadequate help from Premier Clark. Vancouver’s shelter facilities are operating at capacity. The night the Union Gospel Mission took in these two men, it had to turn 12 other homeless people away.
There was another aspect to this story that disturbed me.

A local businessman, moved by the TV account of the mens’ arrival, offered one of them a job. While this was admirable, I could not help but think about other, more faceless people in Vancouver who are homeless, on disability or welfare, who would also like a job.

I learned about their plight first hand during the 2008 election campaign when I was introduced to an organisation called the Eastside Movement for Business and Economic Renewal Society (EMBERS).
It is a community economic development non-profit organization located in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. It helps people facing barriers to lead more productive, fulfilling lives by offering economic and employment opportunities. This includes job placements, training and support. EMBERS is constantly seeking job opportunities for its clients.

Vancouver’s homeless and welfare recipients face complex challenges. Many suffer from mental illnesses or addictions, or both, that prevent them from holding down full-time employment. Many have difficulty finding jobs because of their appearance; their teeth need fixing, they need grooming and suitable clothing.

While we can continue to build more shelters and housing for the homeless, a better way to address Vancouver’s homelessness problem is to help people find full or part-time employment.
EMBERS and other caring organizations are trying to do this. However, most of us prefer to avoid dealing with homeless people unless we happen to talk to them, and get to hear their stories.
While I was disturbed by the arrival of these two young men from Saskatchewan, if their story leads to greater assistance for those already here, it may not be such a bad thing.

Perhaps we need to regularly profile Vancouver’s homeless on the nightly TV news.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Opinion: Housing alternatives exist if preferred neighbourhood too pricey Vancouver Courier March 3, 2016

Housing alternatives exist if preferred neighbourhood too pricey
Radio real estate therapist tackles Vancouver hot topics

Last Saturday, I went to see a therapist. No, not that kind of therapist. A real estate therapist.

Joannah Connolly does not sit beside a couch. Instead, the editor-in-chief of Real Estate Weekly and numerous other publications, sits beside a microphone in the Roundhouse Radio studio. Every Saturday morning, she hosts a call-in show and invites a guest to join her in addressing listeners’ housing concerns and questions.

This week, I was her guest, and we discussed top-of-mind topics for so many Vancouver residents. What should we do about foreign investment? Should you buy or rent? If you can’t afford Vancouver, where should you live?

In her opening editorial, Connolly responded to the province’s recent budget announcement that it is going to begin collecting data on foreign purchasers of real estate.

While on the surface this seems like a reasonable undertaking, Connolly questioned whether it will be possible to collect accurate data on the citizenship and country of residence of buyers. She worried this exercise could lead to misleading information that might do more harm than good.

More importantly, rather than question where investment came from, she thought we should accept it, and try and benefit from it. She applauded the recent proposal from UBC and SFU academics to tax vacant foreign-owned properties, provided we used the funds to build affordable housing.

As readers of this column know, I have long questioned the effectiveness of trying to discourage foreign investment by taxing vacant properties. Instead, we should enforce our current tax regulations by charging income and capital gains taxes where due, and not allowing non-residents to claim principal residence status.

We then turned to calls. One of the show’s listeners wanted advice on where to buy, noting she and her sister could not afford to buy in Fairview Slopes or the Olympic Village, two areas where they both would like to live. Three different responses came to mind.

The first option was a shared purchase of a home with her sister, or another household. Since she mentioned Fairview Slopes, I told her about Fairview Village, a low-rise development completed in the early 1980s by my former employer Narod Developments. This development was built under the Multiple Unit Residential Building (MURB) program, a federal tax-shelter program that encouraged rental housing construction by offering investors significant tax write-offs. However, units were strata-titled and could be sold off as condominiums after so many years.

What was special about this development was many of the units were designed as ‘co-mingling’ homes. More specifically, by designing each bedroom as a ‘master bedroom’ with its own ensuite bathroom, and separating the bedrooms from one another by the living/dining/kitchen area, the units were specifically designed to be attractive to two separate households willing to share a home.
While many of us recoil at the thought of having to share a dwelling, I believe this can be an effective way for households to buy into a market they might not otherwise afford. Two households sharing a $700,000 property are likely to get much more than by each purchasing a $350,000 unit.

The second option was for the listener to select another municipality. I suggested she consider New Westminster or Port Moody, two municipalities that offer a high degree of livability and amenities, at a lower price.

Another choice might be North Vancouver. However, housing costs in North Vancouver have increased significantly since I first started recommending it as a place for younger households looking to buy their first home.

The third option was not to buy, but to rent. While renting does not result in the housing nest-egg that many North Americans have come to expect, the negative stigma associated with renting is slowly dissipating.

I pointed to Germany where 59 per cent of the population rents. (I would add that 62 per cent of Swiss citizens are renters.) While renting a home can come with its own challenges, it should not be dismissed at all as a potential option.

Connolly and I discussed many other things, including my concern that the real
estate industry and mainstream media are increasingly complicit in creating Vancouver’s affordable housing crisis. But that’s another story for another day.