Frances Bula header image 2

Vision and NPA offer significantly different ideas on how to create affordable housing

October 31st, 2011 · 52 Comments

I caught part of Vision Vancouver’s town hall meeting Sunday night that was focused on housing issues, where it was obvious that there’s high anxiety among regular voters over the cost of housing in the city and uncertainty about what the city can do.

“David” asked what the city can accomplish given that the price of housing is dependent on the free market. “Robert” was worried about the fact that his kids won’t be able to live in the city.

I can’t imagine that Mayor Gregor Robertson’s answers gave either of them much assurance, since they were all filled with talk about leveraging city land, maximizing affordable housing, creating more density on arterials, (especially on Cambie), and so on. Vision may have some great ideas, but I couldn’t figure out what they were specifically from that kind of non-specific bafflegab.

Nor, I have to say, does the platform from the NPA/Suzanne Anton fill me with confidence about how affordable housing could be created. Lots of talk about cutting red tape (wow, never heard that before in a civic election) and pre-zoning areas in order to speed up development.

In both cases, the parties seem to be unable to come up with a clear way to communicate exactly what they plan to do, especially for the critical demographic of people who are not homeless, not on welfare, but entrenched solidly in the lower middle of the 99 per cent.

Those people don’t want to hear about smaller units or increased density on arterials or pre-zoning for Cambie Street.  They want to hear, in particular, about how the city might create affordable units that are suitable for young families who don’t want to live in some cramped box 10 floors above the street for the next 20 years.

It’s relatively easy to create small units. The city has experimented with that in the past and could do more of the same. But townhouses or low-rise apartments with two, three or four bedrooms with some kind of access to green space is what is the hardest to do and what you want to try to create for young working- and/or middle-class families.

It would be great if both parties could articulate that more clearly.

As far as I can tell, the NPA’s approach is strictly to increase supply by reducing friction in the development process: establishing a flat rate for the money developers contribute towards community benefits, speeding up application processing.  Developers certainly argue that’s the best way to increase affordability. I always wonder what mechanisms there are to ensure they pass on those savings to buyers, but have to rely on their word that, if they can find a way to offer their product at a lower price, they’ll take it, as that increases their pool of buyers.

Vision’s approach, on the other hand, seems to be focused more on offering developers incentives (density especially) or providing discounted city land to try to create new housing, some of it with specific guarantees about the price it will be sold or rented at. That’s tricky too, because as soon as you create a category of below-market-value units, you then need a process to figure out who is entitled to get access to it.

No point creating $800-a-month apartments if just anyone can rent them. So that requires a whole bureaucracy to monitor that. The city’s two universities, UBC and SFU, have both been running affordable-housing experiments systems, in order to be able to attract faculty and students, so it’s not as far-fetched as some might assume. But it does take work as well.

That’s all for the, as I said, working residents of the city.

As for homelessness, well, that’s a whole nother set of issues. As I note in my Globe story today, Vision’s achievements in reducing street homelessness could start to move backwards this winter. That’s because the reduction is street homelessness has largely depended on the province’s willingness to fund winter shelters.

The province has declined to provide the operating capital for four of the shelters outside the downtown. That’s 160 people for sure out on the street this winter.



Categories: 2011 Vancouver Civic Election