Not that long ago, the idea of a sitting council in Vancouver jamming through a change that allows duplexes in virtually all of the city’s low-density, single family neighbourhoods would have been considered electoral suicide. But times change. So do political agendas.
Not to be petty here – because, ultimately, the policy change is a good one – but the fact that it was made as Mayor Gregor Robertson is readying to bow out of the job is noteworthy. Had he been gearing up for another election this fall, there is little chance he would have been as enthusiastic to weather the criticism and voter backlash the move has precipitated. Where was this courage two, three, four years ago when it might have really helped?
The fact that Mr. Robertson and his Vision Vancouver teammates on council spent much of the past decade watching a desperate housing situation degenerate into a full-blown crisis certainly detracts from their late-inning moves to mitigate matters. Generous people would say better late than never. More clear-eyed observers, however, might say Vision is trying to do the impossible: get the affordability genie it allowed to escape back in the bottle.
It remains to be seen to what degree this decision goes toward addressing the so-called “missing middle” in the housing market. That middle is supposed to be homes that families can afford in the city. And by homes, we mean something that isn’t a 400-square-foot condo in Yaletown. Something, in which, Molly and Dan and their two kids can reside comfortably. Maybe even have their own small patch of grass on which to roll around.
There are, of course, duplexes already. And townhouses, which offer a similar type of accommodation. Let me say that very few of them, at least those that have gone up on the west side of the city in the past three to four years, would meet any reasonable person’s definition of affordable. Townhouses that went up a few years ago along Oak Street, a main city artery with all the heavy traffic that goes with it, started at $1.7-million and climbed quickly north of $2-million and beyond. Yes, that is cheaper than the $3-million you would have to fork out to buy a single detached home in the same area but reasonably priced it is certainly not.
More duplexes and fewer single detached homes will increase housing stock, which is a good thing. Who ends up buying them remains to be seen.
This, of course, isn’t the end of the disruption necessary to make any kind of inroad into even partly solving the affordability conundrum. Although Mr. Robertson, his fellow Vision councillors as well as mayoral candidate Hector Bremner, who also voted in favour of the measure, did the next council a huge favour by getting this nasty bit of business out of the way before the new gang had to. But the next mayor and council need to go even further.
Duplexes are fine, but Vancouver needs its neighbourhoods rezoned for the kind of four-storey apartment buildings that were a common-place housing option a century ago. The west end of the city is still home to many of them. (Although condo dwellers living in some have sold out to developers who have put up luxury high rises in their place). They are a sensible option for a city that needs to increase density in the hopes of bringing down prices, but also doesn’t want condominium towers to be the only way of doing this. It is still possible to maintain a “neighbourhood feel” with a four-storey building on a leafy residential street. They should not be the sole preserve of busy thoroughfares. They should be allowed, within limits, everywhere.
That said, I’m not sure who, among the current list of mayoral candidates, is going to have the nerve to begin this discussion. The many contenders for the job are offering a mix of solutions. Among them, Shauna Sylvester, running as an Independent, wants to bring back co-op housing with a bang. Mr. Bremner, who is leading a new party, Yes Vancouver, is in favour of spreading density throughout the city. He’s less a fan of any type of public housing. The purported front-runner, former NDP MP Kennedy Stewart, feels just the opposite. He would like to see more non-market housing.
In other words, there is little consensus about the right approach to solving Vancouver’s housing predicament. What is clear, however, is that the city is desperate for a political leader who is unafraid to make unpopular decisions at the beginning of his or her time in office, not at the end.