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Almost everything you have read or heard so far about the Vancouver’s task force on housing affordability is misleading, off-base or just wrong

October 11th, 2012 · 63 Comments

I have seen some strange media circuses in my life, but the one that happened the last two weeks — as people attempted to report on the final report from the housing affordability task force — was one of the weirder ones in the annals of communications.

I will attribute some of this fiasco to the city. The 15-point priority action plan in Appendix A was just too big a wad of policy to swallow for many people. Yes, I know all of you at the city have been working on this forever and it’s crystal clear to you what’s going to happen. But there were too many nuances and technical terms for reporters, even some hard-working ones, to get everything that was in there.

As a result, I hear people — calling in to the NW show that I’m on, talking about this in general conversations, writing letters to various editors and blogs — who are so mixed up that it’s kind of sad to listen to. At this point, as far as I can tell, there are an awful lot of people who think:

1. The whole city has been rezoned without public consultation to allow towers on main streets and a bunch of apartment buildings on the streets next to main streets

2. The city is looking for 20 streets that can be reduced by half, with the other half going to social housing, apartments and other kinds of housing — the so-called “thin streets” projects.

3. The city was going to do that, but there was such an uproar from the gentle citizens that the city totally backed off on that part of the plan.

4. The Vision council is just letting its big developer friends do what they want all over the city.

5. Everything that’s going to be built will be constructed by private developers, who will just charge whatever they can get, so how will that be affordable?

6. It’s all part of an evil plot.

Okay, maybe not everyone believes the last one but some do. And none of it is true.

I’ve been as big a critic of any of some of the Vision approvals of spaceship towers in Vancouver neighbourhoods recently. But a lot of the criticism that’s currently circulating is based on a completely erroneous interpretation of what Vision/the city is doing. If I could point out some facts:

– The city has not been wholesale rezoned. There was an interim rezoning passed that is going to allow some six-storey buildings around neighbourhood centres and on main streets — two storeys higher than what is allowed now — and will allow 20 rowhouse or stacked townhouse projects around the city, no more than two per neighbourhood.

When the first 20 are in, staff have to report back evaluating how they are working. If/when the Vision council decides it does want to create a new form of zoning that allows stacked townhouses/rowhouses on either side of all the city’s arterial roads, that will require a public hearing and everyone will get a chance to weigh in.

– The thin streets projects and the stacked townhouses/rowhouses projects are two different things. There will be 20 townhouse/rowhouse projects allowed, and applications are about to start coming in. There are NO, repeat NO, thin-street projects even close to becoming reality. The report said only that the concept should go out to the three communities that currently have planning processes underway, to see if one project per community could be included in the plan.

– The city didn’t really back away from anything with respect to that. If you read closely, the deputy city manager said that communities will get to decide on whether those projects are included in the plan. That was always the intention. Absolutely nothing has changed.

– The new forms of housing proposed are actually not the kind that Vision’s “big developer friends” would have any interest in building. Six-story apartment buildings on main streets, stacked townhouses and rowhouses, little bits of housing on part of a narrowed street are the very last thing that Westbank, PCI, Wall Developments or anyone of that ilk would contemplate building. They do big stuff.

The builders who will benefit are the small operations, the kinds of people who put up one four-storey condo project after another on Kingsway, slowly creating more housing stock without anyone noticing because they’re so busy fighting the latest tower.

Or it’s the kind of smalll company that will do a small eight-unit rowhouse complex — the kinds of companies that can sometimes build lower-cost housing because they’re not going through the big, expensive rezoning fights and they operate on much, much smaller margins than the big developers, who generally cream off 15 to 35 per cent of a building’s total sales revenue as their reward for risking the millions needed for a large tower.

– Everyone seems to have missed that the city is putting conditions on the rowhouse/townhouse projects to require some level of affordability and that it would continue to own the land under any “thin streets” housing, so it could also use its equity to create some affordability.

These are the conditions that were set out for any rowhouse/townhouse development:

Projects that would be considered are:
 where 100% of the residential floor space is rental housing
 where units are sold for at least 20% below market value and include a secure
mechanism for maintaining that level of affordability over time (e.g. resale
covenant, 2nd mortgage, etc.)
 innovative housing models and forms of tenure such as co-housing, when they
can demonstrate enhanced affordability as determined by the City
 where a Community Land Trust model is employed to secure increasing
affordability over time.

And, although it’s not spelled out in the thin streets project, various staffers and politicians have said elsewhere that city would likely retain control of any reclaimed street pavement and lease it out long-term. That way, the city could start offering the kinds of innovative housing deals that Simon Fraser University and the University of B.C. have been putting in place for their faculty and staff.

For example, a row of houses along one thin street could be sold at 80 per cent of normal market value for that area and size of lot to various buyers. Then, when the owners sold later, they would get back 80 per cent of whatever the normal market value is at the time of sale. Whoever buys next would get the same 80-per-cent deal, which keeps that below-market house as an asset for future residents forever.

(I should point out that the “thin streets” concept also envisioned having other uses besides housing. Some of the land could be used for park space, community gardens or anything else besides road pavement.)

As I keep droning on here endlessly, the controversial part of all this is not really the fact that the city is experimenting with these new forms. It’s going to be how they decide who gets access to these below-market units. Then we’ll really see the fur fly.

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