July 4, 2012

Real-estate affordability key concept in Vancouver

Mayor’s task force interim report offers worthy ideas, but constrained land supply limits effect


This week, the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability issued its interim report. The task force, co-chaired by Mayor Gregor Robertson and Olga Ilich, was set up earlier this year and included a mix of real estate experts, housing developers, architects, and community representatives. It was created to examine conditions in Vancouver that may act as barriers to the creation of affordable housing, the steps necessary to protect existing affordable housing and identify opportunities for increasing affordability.

I was invited to chair a separate Roundtable on Building Form and Design, to identify design and building-code requirements that are adding costs to the provision of quality affordable housing, as well as design changes that could increase the supply of affordable housing.

The report identifies a number of new steps the city can take to increase and protect the stock of affordable housing. (Of course, “affordable housing” means different things to different people. For the purposes of this study, the task force set a range of $21,500 for an individual up to a combined annual household income of $86,500, and assumed people would pay approximately 30 per cent for housing. In other words, it was not addressing the needs of the homeless, but the needs of more “ordinary people” struggling to rent or buy a home.)

Non-profit corporations that manage land on behalf of residents are an option.

Let’s take a look at some of the recommendations. The first is to increase the supply and diversity of affordable housing through density increases in large comprehensive developments like Marine Gateway and southeast False Creek, and in transit-oriented locations. I thought the recently approved 32-storey Marine Gateway development at Cambie and Marine was too large for its site, and feel the new development around the Olympic village is very dense. Therefore, I hope the task force is not advocating even higher densities in these areas.

However, I strongly agree with the recommendation to create “transition zones” between higher-density development along arterials or transit hubs and adjacent single-family housing. This was one of the recommendations of my roundtable and one that could result in significantly more strata-titled and “fee-simple” row houses and stacked townhouses. The latter can offer a more affordable alternative to apartment living, with each suite having its own entrance from the street.

Another recommendation is to enhance the capacity of the city and the community to deliver affordable rental and social housing. The task force proposes the creation of a housing authority with its own board and a mandate to develop social and affordable housing on city owned lands. Whistler and Toronto have done this with some success. I support this idea in concept, but need to see which city lands will be offered for development and the financial implications of building primarily rental and social housing. Most of us do not want to see a repeat of the Olympic village scenario, where expensive social housing was built by the city on prime waterfront sites.

The task force also recommends the creation of Community Land Trusts. These are non-profit corporations that acquire and manage land on behalf of community residents, in a manner that preserves affordability. While common in the U.S., there are not many examples in Canada. However CLTs could facilitate new community-based housing developments by leveraging donations of land and funding from private and non-profit partners.

The report also addresses Vancouver’s development approval procedures. Recommendations include increasing certainty, efficiency and transparency and clarifying regulations. I suspect that most people who have tried to obtain development and building permits from the city will agree with this recommendation. An interesting task force suggestion is to create a NEXUS pass-type system for applicants with a proven track record of successful projects. While intriguing, I will not hold my breath waiting for this to happen.

The task force also addressed my long-standing concern related to how the city determines Community Amenity Contributions to be paid by developers whenever they rezone land. Rather than continue the current “let’s make a deal” approach, it recommends more certainty in what charges will apply. This could allow the “pre-zoning” of land, something I believe could increase the supply and affordability of housing.

However, this raises a key question that is on many minds. Will reduced costs for developers and home builders translate into reduced prices for renters and buyers? It is my view that by increasing supply and greater competition in the marketplace, reduced costs will ultimately translate into lower prices. However, as long as Vancouver’s land supply is constrained, and we continue to be an attractive place to live, homes here will never have the more affordable prices of those in other Canadian cities.

In other words, rather than title the report: Bold Ideas Towards an Affordable City, it might be more aptly titled Bold Ideas Towards a More Affordable City. 

Michael Geller is a Vancouver-based architect, planner, real estate consultant and property developer. He also serves on the adjunct faculty at SFU’s Centre for Sustainable Community Development.

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