Affordable housing in Vancouver? Why bother?

Short commutes and easy access to an Ethiopian restaurant are not the natural order of things.

 An interesting artlicle posted in the Vancouver Sun March 22, 2012 by Pete McMartin

The Vancouver real estate market continues to soar.

The Vancouver real estate market continues to soar.


Photograph by: Mark van Manen , Vancouver Sun


When I moved to Vancouver 36 years ago, I blanched at the cost of housing. Buying a home inside the city was impossible.

It was marginally less so when my wife and I got married. But the houses we looked at came with big prices and small promise.

We had a family to raise. We moved to the suburbs.

We rented for eight years, raising our three kids in that time. It was only with the help of my in-laws that we could afford our first house, and then only after cashing in all our assets, including all our RRSPs. Then we borrowed big from the bank.

Ours was a typical middle-class story, and still is: help from the parents, an outward move, a mortgage.

And then as now, Vancouver’s real estate was unaffordable. Nothing in that regard has changed.

What has changed are expectations. There are those who feel that the lack of cheap housing in Vancouver is an abomination. They feel that the convenience of a short commute or the proximity to a really good Ethiopian restaurant should be the natural order of things.

That feeling is often expressed in tandem with a loathing for the suburbs, and for the cultural vacuum that, for them, the suburbs represent.

What has also changed is that these feelings have been politicized. They are now an Issue; witness the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability. And as an Issue, reasons that are ostensibly sociological in nature have been made to propel it.

Such as:

Affordable housing makes for healthier neighbourhoods. Affordable housing makes for more diversity. Affordable housing provides housing for middle-class families with children.

These reasons, it should be said, are also urban-centric.

That is, they continue to make the distinction between urban and suburban, as if the “real” city stops at the Vancouver border and the rest is overflow.

But that doesn’t apply any more, especially here. More than three-quarters of Metro Vancouver’s population growth is now taking place outside of Vancouver proper, and with that population growth has come more jobs and businesses than Vancouver has been able to produce lately.

It has also rejuvenated once-moribund suburban neighbourhoods. Even in my own neighbourhood in Delta, scores of young families have moved in, bought old-stock housing and updated it. Those young families have also brought with them more cosmopolitan tastes. The suburbs are filling up, and feeling less and less suburban with each passing year.

Conversely, in many respects, the city of Vancouver is feeling more and more like the suburbs. There’s been a steady conversion of industrial land into housing. The major growth in the downtown core has been in condominium construction. And the central political issue preoccupying Vancouverites is not jobs or taxes. It’s housing — the tension between densification and affordability. Vancouver has become its own bedroom community.

Vancouver, of course, will always be the centre of things in the Metro area. It has history and critical mass on its side.

And by its very nature, it is going to attract people who want to come here and live in the city.

But should that be a concern of government? Should there even be a task force? And can it have any effect on affordability?

I doubt it: without government subsidies, the market will propel any kind of property here into the stratosphere.

But task force member Michael Geller, who is both a developer and an adjunct professor with Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Sustainable Community Development, believes the task force could usher in a greater selection of housing types than what Vancouver has now.

“One of the more affordable forms of housing being built in Toronto, for example,” Geller said, “is stacked townhomes — a two-storey townhouse being built above another.”

Those Toronto townhouses, Geller said, start at $309,000. In Vancouver, Geller admits, they would be much more.

“There’s nothing that this task force can do to make Vancouver as inexpensive as Toronto or Edmonton. But I do believe it will mean changes in the processing of building permits, and in the wording of zoning bylaws that ultimately will lead to increased competition and more affordable housing choices.”

It would also mean densification.

Geller thinks there is an appetite for it; I’m not so sure.

University of B.C. professor Tsur Somerville, director of UBC’s Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate, agreed with Geller that the task force could give rise to new forms of housing.

“But I haven’t seen anything,” Somerville said, “that won’t anger the neighbourhoods of the city that don’t want densification.”

As for affordability:

“The only thing that’s going to make housing in Vancouver cheaper,” he said, “is a collapse in housing prices.”

Hands up, you well-meaning social engineers, who want that.


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