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Is it possible for Vancouver to do an affordable home-ownership plan, given our insane land prices?

June 5th, 2016 · 4 Comments

Vancouver has said it’s going to start a small “affordable home-ownership” program, with an initial 300 units over three years.

It’s hardly the first city to do this. There are programs all over the continent that have started up as resort towns, universities, mid-sized cities, and large cities have all tried to find a way to ensure that one group of potential residents — people making decent but not fabulous incomes — can find a place to live in their communities.

In a recent story for the Globe, I talked to the people who run some of the programs elsewhere: Toronto, Whistler, UBC. One woman who’s been doing this for a while, Heather Tremain, had serious reservations about how Vancouver is going to be able to do this, given land prices.

In a recent speech to the UDI, Bob Rennie (marketing guru, Svengali, adviser and fundraiser for a wide variety of politicians) suggested that Vancouver should stay out of this game because, even with a 20-per-cent reduction in price that it’s proposing, that isn’t any better than what the same buyer could get by moving to Burnaby or Coquitlam.

My very certain guess is that Vancouver will pay no attention to Rennie on this one. Yes, it’s true, all housing problems can theoretically be solved by telling people to drive until they find something they can afford. But many civic leaders, housing advocates, regular folks are uncomfortable with that.

One: That then risks producing a city populated by only two kinds of people, the extremely wealthy and a service class, willing to cram into tiny, shared spaces in the cheaper parts of town. That’s not a healthy mix.

Two: It takes away a choice that many feel should be on offer. That is: if you really, really want to be in the heart of your community and you’re willing to accept less space and less of a profit on your home, we will find an option for you.

After all, affordable home-ownership plans, the ones that survive, aren’t really offering a discount. They are offering to let someone buy at below-market rate, in return for selling at below-market rate. Many people won’t like that deal. Either they aren’t that wedded to the city and they’ll move to Burnaby or Coquitlam, where they can buy outright and perhaps get something bigger. Or they’ll find a way to stretch to buy at market price in Vancouver, so they can get the full profit.

I should say that I continue to hear from people about one of the niggling problems with these programs, which is enforcing the rules. One affordable home-ownership effort that BC Housing took part in turned out to be somewhat disappointing. People got a deal to be able to buy — and then their units started showing up as rentals on Craigslist, in completion violation of the spirit and the letter of their agreements.



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