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Vancouver Tenants Union has successful launch — and now …

May 5th, 2017 · 1 Comment

The newly formed Vancouver Tenants Union got well over 200 people out to its founding meeting on a Saturday last week, which was a promising start in don’t-like-to-commit Vancouver. It got a lot of coverage from media, including me/Globe.

Now the trick will be to see what the group, started by some active in the Downtown Eastside but others who are just fed up as well, will be able to do next. There is some real possibility of momentum given how insecure Vancouver’s many renters feel. And those aren’t just people in small West End apartments or Downtown Eastside residential hotels.

I’ve talked to renters paying $2,000 and $3,000 a month who feel just as precarious. They weren’t at the meeting (or I didn’t spot any of them, at any rate), but they have just as many issues as others on other parts of the housing ladder.

There’s a West End meeting scheduled for May 31. We’ll see what happens next.


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Libs not touting it in speeches, but policy position is that referendum still needed for regional share of Broadway, Surrey lines

April 27th, 2017 · 10 Comments

In the 2013 election, Premier Christy Clark was quite vocal about requiring a referendum for any new tax, fee or whatever that the mayors wanted to help pay for the regional share of transit.

This time, candidates have stayed away from that.

However, the Liberal Party made it clear — in its response to the TransLink mayors’ council questionnaire — that a referendum will still be required when mayors are trying to decide this time how to come up with the rest of their share for the 10-year, $7.5-billion plan for transit improvements. The feds and province have kicked in about $5 billion at this point and the mayors have approved some property-tax and fare increases, but none of that is enough to cover the full bill.

(My Globe story on this in today’s paper here.)

The party also said it will fund one-third of the Pattullo Bridge as long as there is a “strong business case.” I always thought the strong business case was that the bridge is about to fall into the river, but I guess I know nothing.

I couldn’t understand why that wording would suddenly appear until I remembered that the Libs also promised a cap on all tolls in the region. And the planning for the bridge had always factored in tolls. In fact, at a transit panel that I moderated recently, TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond said that the one thing TransLink would do differently to avoid the problems the Port Mann Bridge has had with finances is to ensure that no money has to come out of the operations budget to help make the mortgage payments on the bridge.

So, if the possibility for revenue from tolling the bridge is now limited, that means TransLink will have to develop a new business case.

Anyway, transit planners must be praying for an end to this election campaign, before any more little grenades can be thrown their way.

As I noted last week, that started with the two major parties competing to reduce or eliminate tolls altogether, to the dismay of mayors and rational policy-makers.




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Board of Trade issues report endorsing “missing middle” forms of housing and alternatives to home ownership

April 19th, 2017 · 9 Comments

I have to say, it’s a sign of the times that 350 people, many from the business and development community, would turn out to a five-hour session on housing policy. But that’s what they did yesterday, when the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade organized a set of panels to go along with a report they issued on housing solutions.

My story in the Globe that condenses it all is here, plus I tweeted throughout yesterday, for those who missed it.

As I noted a couple of times, the report is exclusively focused on supply, to the dismay of those who believe that demand controls are part of the solution. And there were some people talking about the need for local residents to alter their expectations, which produced some scathing pushback on Twitter.

But the report showed there is a slightly different approach to supply these days. It’s not just build more condos. There’s a big emphasis on rental, a form that does help keep some housing out of the speculative-investor market. And there were even references to alternative models of home ownership, the kind usually espoused by small housing collectives or non-profit groups. Things like shared-equity ownership models, cohousing, and more.


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A rare housing choice: Living in a rowhouse without having to be in a strata

April 19th, 2017 · 5 Comments

For almost as long as I’ve covered the urban-issues beat in Vancouver, people have talked about how great it would be if we had fee-simple townhouses — that is, townhouses where the owners don’t have to belong to a strata. They just own their particular row/townhouse individually, with some agreement about how to handle common walls — just as many Ontario and Quebec owners do.

I thought the dream was still unrealized when Michael Geller tweeted out a picture of some fee-simple townhouses in Coquitlam. There was an ensuing Twitter discussion, with me expressing surprise. Then Surrey’s city manager, Jean Lamontagne, contacted me by email to tell me that such rare things were starting to appear in Surrey.

Hence, my story in the Globe, which took a look at the little shoots of experimentation happening in various places, including Nanaimo, on this issue. (Thanks to whomever tweeted about Nanaimo, which also prompted me to call there.)

So why care about this form of housing? As more than one person has told me over the years, a lot of older couples don’t want to move to condos because they don’t want to have to have their lives governed by a committee. As a result, they stay parked in their four-bedroom homes all over the city, which is an inefficient use of housing. If this could catch on, it might encourage more of those people to pass on their homes to people who actually need four bedrooms.

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Will putting social-housing buildings in the hands of non-profits save them? Or doom them?

April 6th, 2017 · 1 Comment

B.C.’s auditor general came out with a quietly scathing report on BC Housing’s move to transfer its remaining social-housing assets — about 9,000 units of housing when they started — into the hands of non-profits.

That process, when it started a couple of years ago, sparked fears that private developers would be gobbling up these buildings. But they are all going to non-profits, it turns out.

In spite of that, AG Carol Bellringer said the selection process is murky; there doesn’t seem to be any assessment or requirement of the non-profits that they expand the social housing they’re inheriting. And, she said, the province really didn’t come up with any good argument about how this was going to ensure that social housing remains affordable and continues to be a part of the services in a community.

I started getting calls from non-profits after that, saying her report was somewhat unfair. In the story I wrote later, they said that they will likely be better protectors of social housing. They, for instance, won’t sell off a massive site to a private developer, as the province did with Little Mountain. (That happened 10 years ago today, something that housing advocates are marking with a ceremony Saturday.) That sale turned into a bit of a mess after the developer, Holborn Group, first insisted that everyone be cleared out of the existing 224 units, then demolished the units, and then did nothing. Today, only one new social-housing building has been erected on the otherwise vacant site, where the developer is required to eventually replace all 224 of the former units.

Kishone Roy of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association said, for sure, there are real threats of losses of social housing. But, he said, that is a threat that applies to all of it — the 60,000 units already owned and run by non-profits, as well as the 9,000 units that were still being run by BC Housing. He expanded on that in a story by my colleague, Jen St. Denis at Metro, saying that groups are constantly being squeezed by the government and its payment system to reduce the number of subsidized units.

That’s been happening for years already. At BCNPHA conferences I’ve gone to in the past, non-profit operators have fretted that they have to shift the ratios of subsidized vs. unsubsidized units in their buildings to keep paying the bills. The AG said about two-thirds of all social housing in the province is subsidized. But it’s actually less than that in the non-profit sector, whereas most of the BC Housing units, inherited from the federal government, charge rents that are geared to income so that people only pay 30 per cent of their income or the shelter portion of welfare.

But tenants elsewhere, like those at Stamps Place, one of the complexes that was sold, worry that there is nothing to ensure that non-profits won’t, at some point, reduce subsidies or re-develop with a private partner as a way of trying to generate some cash to expand. (In fairness, that’s what the province said it was doing with the Little Mountain sale: selling for $300-million so that it would have more money to put into social housing elsewhere.)

I guess the question is: Who do you trust more to protect it? Provincial governments now and in the future? Or non-profits whose mission it is to try to provide affordable housing?

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Infill housing could be part of solution to shortages — if cities would approve more of it, say home builders

April 6th, 2017 · 1 Comment

Infill housing is what many politicians and housing advocates are chatting up these days as a way to inject a little density into single-family neighbourhoods, some of which are managing to lose population even while the region expands by 30,000 a year.

The Greater Vancouver Home Builders’ Association commissioned some special research from Landcor, which has provided a valuable resource now on some key housing statistics, to show how slow the infill-construction business is actually going.

Vancouver is doing the best, largely because it outright approved laneway houses in all RS-1 (standard single-family housing) zones in the city. But even Vancouver takes a long time to give out approvals and charges a lot of money for permits.

Some other cities are even worse, because almost every infill has to go through an individual rezoning process, along with the lengthy approval time and the money for permits.

Here’s my story on all of this and a link to the association’s report. (It has an interactive component. Go play!)



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Someone is happy about seeing the river of Chinese capital coming to Canada: the hotel industry

April 6th, 2017 · 1 Comment

Just got this news release from Colliers International about how thrilled everyone is about the volume and prices of hotel sales. Foreign capital account for 67 per cent of total transaction volume.

2016 a Record-Breaking Year for the Canadian Hotel Real Estate Market; 2017 Poised for Continued Robust Activity

— Canadian hotel industry capped off 2016 with $4.1 billion in transaction volume, with 2017 expected to see over $3 billion in overall transaction activity —

Toronto, April 6, 2017 – The Canadian hotel real estate industry posted record performance in 2016, making it the best year for transaction volume in the current cycle, according to Colliers International Hotels’ 2017 Canadian Hotel Investment Report that released today.

2016 saw the hotel real estate market complete $4.1 billion in transaction volume, the second- highest amount on record, and almost 70% higher on a year-over-year basis. The year also set a new high for traditional price per room metrics ($99,000) and cross-border investments. In fact, foreign capital accounted for 67% ($2.75 billion) of total transaction volume, and 100% of strategic transaction activity; strategic transactions, in turn, represented 62% ($2.54 billion) of the year’s total transaction volume.

“The low Canadian dollar, the outflow of Chinese capital, hospitality assets’ generally higher yield, and hotels’ strong operating performance are increasing liquidity in the market,” said Alam Pirani, Executive Managing Director, Hotels. “A weaker loonie offers investors greater purchasing power. Canada’s stable economic and political environment is an ideal destination for capital flight from China. Hotels deliver returns that averaged 210 basis points higher than those of other real estate investments in 2016. And the industry continually exhibits strong operating performance, with demand outpacing new supply over the past decade. All these aspects are driving the industry to fire on all cylinders, and deliver the level of results we saw in 2016,” he stated.

2016 likewise witnessed rapid growth in key markets, with the report citing the fastest-growing areas in Canada, in terms of revenue per available room: Windsor, ON; Toronto Downtown, ON; Vancouver/South Surrey, BC; Vancouver Airport, BC; and Banff, AB according to Smith Travel Research.

The industry’s upward trend is expected to continue through 2017, which is poised to see over $3 billion in sales volume – Q1 already saw the completion of a $1 billion portfolio transaction.

“2017 is shaping up to be another banner one for the hotel industry,” said Robin McLuskie, Vice President, Hotels. “We expect foreign capital to keep flowing into our borders. We anticipate annualized supply growth to reach between 1.5% and 2% in the next two to three years. Hard-hit energy markets are rebounding, setting up these regions for increased activity. Plus the combination of Canada’s weak dollar and significant promotion around the country’s

150th anniversary should make 2017 a peak year for travel into Canada. These factors put the hotel real estate market on track towards yet another banner year.”

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The biggest housing challenge of all: affordable apartments for the developmentally disabled

March 28th, 2017 · No Comments

This story came my way in the most random way. I was at the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association dinner last fall and talking to the man across the table who, it turned out to be the CEO of the Community Living Society.

So what, I asked Ross Chilton, is the big story in your world? He said: the problem of finding housing for people with developmental disabilities.

As I started on this story, I was surprised to discover that those with developmental disabilities don’t get any kind of priority status for subsidized units — in fact, they get fewer “points” because they’re not at risk of homelessness (since their parents are usually heavily involved in helping them out). And they don’t get any kind of extra subsidy for housing — just the standard $375 a month that is the allowance for anyone on disability or welfare.

My story is here, with some really compelling stories from parents about what they have gone through to try to ensure that their adult children get set on the path to independent living.


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Surrey: It’s harder to build a suburban downtown than it looks

March 28th, 2017 · 3 Comments

I’ve been curious about how Surrey will evolve ever since former mayor Dianne Watts set out to transform the city’s image and its reality.

Besides the music festivals and the beautification and the stunning new pools and other facilities built in the city, Watts also promised to create a downtown for Surrey out of almost literally nothing.

It’s been 10 years since she started talking about that. I took a closer look at what kind of development there has been — and what hasn’t arrived yet.

There are towers here and there, none of them yet forming a critical mass that feels urban. And there seems to have been a pause in development.

Some of that delay is because certain property owners are waiting to see exactly what the alignment of the new light-rail transit line will be.

But one Surrey watcher wrote to me afterwards with these observations.

Besides, as the story noted, a certain drop-off in energy and boosterism characteristic of the Watts noted, this writer said:

The other problem with slow growth in the City Centre is the lack of focus and the fact that this Council seems more concerned about courting political favour in neighbourhoods and with developers who want to build elsewhere. Also, the City Centre Plan covers too large an area. Even the Anthem property, across King George Boulevard, seems like it is in an area too distant from where development should be concentrated.

Finally, a lot of developers are waiting to learn what will happen with transit in Surrey City Centre. Everyone seems confident that LRT is coming, but station locations have shifted a few times and I believe the reason was that they were trying to accommodate larger station platforms to show that they can have longer trains and compete with SkyTrain, likely in response to some in Victoria who are pushing to replace the LRT plan with SkyTrain. This uncertainty, I believe, may have delayed some development.

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Community pools in Paris, Madrid, Lyon, San Francisco — a great way to get away from tourists

March 17th, 2017 · No Comments

I love community pools, as I think many of you know. I mourn the loss of the Mount Pleasant pool near me and I’m an ardent fan of New Brighton. The NPA campaign promise that got me the most excited was the one to build three new outdoor pools.

As a result of all that, when I travel, I’m a sucker for any hotel, agriturismo, resort, or Airbnb listing with a pool involved.

But what I love the most is not those private pools (though I do have a particular fondness for the one on the rooftop of the hotel I stayed at in Montevideo). It’s the local city pools wherever I go.

Here’s my Globe travel story on same.

I didn’t get to mention a few other anomalies I’ve discovered as I’ve swum my way through various cities

  • We in Vancouver don’t realize how lucky we are in how many pools we have and how much they are open. In Minneapolis, I could not find a community pool in the middle of summer. The Y was closed, the city pool was open only to members. I guess that’s a function of the fact that they have multiple lakes in the city that are open for swimming, which is where I ended up going, but still. Not a single pool in a building for visitors? In Seattle, many of the pools are closed on Sundays — can you imagine anyone going for that here? And in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the lovely local pool in a gorgeous old building was only available to members who paid a hefty sum per year — more than was worthwhile even for a week of swims there.
  • Pools show you the hidden side and the changes going on in a city. In Portland, the pool on the far east side of the city took me through areas where there was very little sign of the Portlandia hipsters who have become the caricatured symbol of the place At the pool in the Mississippi district, an area that has been undergoing a transformation from predominantly black area to hispter haven, it was obvious in the aquafit class, where there was a  mix of both demographics in the pool.

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