If there’s one thing the next mayor of Vancouver will know immediately after being elected this weekend, it’s what the paramount issue is on the minds of citizens: housing.
There hasn’t been an issue as contentious in the last 50 years.
Fair or not, the housing crisis effectively ended Gregor Robertson’s career as mayor. There isn’t a chance in the world he would have been re-elected. And the person who succeeds him is likely to be judged just as harshly if the city remains deeply inhospitable to average-income folks looking to put a roof over their head, any roof, no matter the size.
But this will remain an extremely difficult job, as Mr. Robertson discovered.
You may recall that the departing mayor was pushing his Vision Vancouver party’s affordable housing agenda pretty hard five or six years ago. This upset neighbourhoods that didn’t like the aggressive tack city hall was taking, didn’t like that Mr. Robertson and his colleagues weren’t listening to their concerns.
When it was time to go to the polls four years ago, the Vancouver mayor knew he was in trouble and, on the eve of the vote, made the unprecedented decision to apologize to those he upset in trying to build more affordable housing, quickly. He promised to adopt a more cautious, consensus-seeking style. Many believe the mea culpa helped save the election for him.
Of course, within a couple of years, the housing crisis really hit the city and the mayor was being blamed for not providing enough housing for those who weren’t filthy rich or had the good fortune to have bought a home before prices were sent into the stratosphere.
This is all to say that housing is the ultimate no-win file.
The only way to begin getting out of the muddle is by cramming more people into a finite amount of space. And that means building more housing designed for renters and those on average incomes. Among other things, that will entail putting up four- and five-storey apartment-style buildings in neighbourhoods that have been heretofore almost exclusively single detached. Going into Dunbar, and Kerrisdale and other neighbourhoods on the city’s west side and changing them will be essential.
That is the thing everyone needs to remind themselves about the current situation: the people who are most upset are the people who can’t afford to buy a condo, let alone a traditional family home. The people who own a home are just fine, thank you very much. Of course, they will say that the housing crisis is horrible and all that, but not a lot of them want to see their neighbourhoods disrupted or changed in any dramatic way to help alleviate the problem.
You hear voters say they want a mayor and council that listens. That is code for doing what they want, rather than what the politicians want. Which sounds good in theory, but politicians are also paid to address problems quickly. Sometimes doing that means the feelings and wishes of fair-minded people are going to get trampled on.
That’s what happens when you’re dealing with emergencies. And make no mistake, that is what Vancouver is dealing with.
All of the major contenders for mayor job have their own visions for fixing the mess. Some are more reasonable than others. But none of the plans carries the power to address this matter in a hurry. Or, as importantly, the power to change the essential economics that underlie the housing predicament.
Land values in the city are what they are: astronomical. The prices developers are paying for land can only be made up one way: through the prices they charge for the condos they are building. And when you fuse those two essential facts together there is nothing it produces that looks like housing that is affordable for the average income family.
More and more people are going to have to accept that if they want to live in Vancouver they will be renting. That isn’t a terrible option, more a realistic one. In five or 10 years, the city will be divided like never before, between wealthy property owners and everyone else.
And as the city builds more and more rental, the everyone-else will carry a very powerful voice.