Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

The downtown Vancouver skyline is seen at sunset, as houses line a hillside in Burnaby, B.C., on April 17, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

It looked as though Vancouver was about to see a surge of lower-cost housing that would make a dent in its shortage a few years ago. Thousands of units were announced by either the city or various non-profit groups in a new burst of activity starting in 2016.

In the four years from 2016 to 2019, the city approved rezonings or development permits for 4,976 social or supported-housing units. That is all projects that have either a mix of subsidized and non-subsidized units, typical of contemporary social housing, or units that are dedicated exclusively to low-income residents and that come with staffing to provide mental-health, daily-living, disability, addiction-management or other needed assistance.

Almost 1,100 more homes in nine projects were also waiting for approval at that time, some of them after two or three years of effort.

But an examination by The Globe and Mail of all the known project proposals, approvals and completions from 2017 on shows that about 4,000 of the approved and in-pipeline apartments – enough to house several hundred of Vancouver’s homeless along with many others in low-wage jobs struggling to find affordable places to live – have not materialized yet.

According to the latest Vancouver housing report issued earlier this month, 1,932 of the approved units have been built in the past three years. But 660 of those were the temporary modular housing apartments constructed in a big push in 2017 and 2018. That means only about 300 regular, permanent housing units have been built on average a year.

This slow grind has taken place in years where Vancouver politicians and senior bureaucrats have publicly proclaimed that creating lower-cost housing is a priority.

Even after the city created an agency specifically intended to speed up projects, the slow progress at city hall in getting a social-housing project through the rezoning and permitting processes has left non-profit developers frustrated and housing promises unfulfilled.

The data also represent a red flag for the city going forward: The province has poured money into programs to finance or fund lower-cost housing, but with the promise, in the most recent budget, that the housing would arrive “within three to five years.”

City housing reports routinely cite the numbers of project approvals as a sign of progress.

The 2019 report noted that in 2018, “the City of Vancouver approved an annual total of 1,938 social and supportive homes. Since 2009, this was the single highest year of non-market housing approvals on record.” It added: “These approvals have contributed to 30 per cent of the City’s 10-year social and supportive housing target and surpassed the annualized target by 62 per cent.”

This month, the city issued its latest housing report, trumpeting the fact that it had approved the highest number of homes ever, at 7,899 units, with 1,326 social and supportive-housing apartments among that.

The problem is that the approvals don’t necessarily translate into buildings, as the record of the city-created Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency demonstrates.

Out of all of the delayed housing, the most notable missing chunk is among the 2,500 units that were supposed to be built and occupied by this year through VAHA. That agency, operating inside city hall, was established specifically to drive an aggressive and streamlined approach to getting lower-cost housing built by steering it rapidly through approvals and permitting.

Of those 2,500 promised apartments from VAHA – a goal that has since increased to almost 3,100 – only 840 have been built. (Those included the 660 temporary modular housing units.) The rest of VAHA’s commitments have either yet to get their permits or haven’t received the appropriate rezoning. Only 630 are under construction.

Luke Harrison, the former head of the Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency, now the CEO of one of the province’s two non-profit development companies, said the social-housing pipeline at city hall – especially the VAHA part – doesn’t appear to be working the way councillors and planners originally envisioned it.

“When we set 2021 as a target date [for VAHA units], that was said because it was a very realistic goal. But I do gather that it’s taking years and years to get anything approved.”

Under Mr. Harrison’s watch, VAHA got the hundreds of temporary modular housing apartments built in less than two years at the beginning of the agency’s life. He said in an interview that quick production happened in those years because there was a crystal-clear focus on the end goal: getting the housing built as quickly as possible – an approach that any city has to have to ensure things don’t get bogged down.

There needs to be an attitude, Mr. Harrison said, that the city is serving a customer who should be guaranteed service by a fixed date.

“The goal should be on how you improve throughput,” he said.

Among the 2,500-home target set by VAHA early on, one set of projects stands out: the 1,000 units on seven sites announced in May, 2018. The homes – the first effort by VAHA to quickly bring on some permanent apartments, not just temporary ones – were to be built by 2021 by the Community Land Trust, a non-profit.

Of those seven sites, only one had a building completed by this spring, when The Globe requested data. One is still in the “pre-development phase,” two are in the “pre-rezoning application” phase, one has had its rezoning application submitted, and two are awaiting permitting, according to the city.

Two key projects – one on West Pender and one on Seymour – are now due to be ready for occupancy only by 2023 or 2024, respectively.

That same pattern is echoed in non-profit proposals that are not part of the city housing agency’s initiative.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart expressed concern earlier this year about how many private development projects that include rental housing have become mired in the city’s planning department after hearing from many for-profit developers. But the problem with non-profit housing projects wasn’t highlighted.

Thom Armstrong, CEO of the Community Land Trust, is generally positive about the city’s efforts, but said he’s glad Mr. Stewart has been shining a light on the slowdown. Things have “ground to a halt” in some areas, he said. But he also noted “development is a very dynamic process” and that his team is “very optimistic.”

Like Mr. Armstrong, others who work in the non-profit housing sector are reluctant to be openly critical about Vancouver’s efforts. Some say the core Vancouver city team working on social housing is doing its best. In spite of the many barriers, Vancouver still ends up seeing more subsidized housing and market-rental housing built than any other city in the region.

But many non-profit housing groups, architects, consultants and advocates are at maximum frustration about what feels like a system where concerns about shadows, trees, and design details or rigid adherence to zoning rules have outweighed the need to get lower-cost housing built as quickly as possible. Even after projects have council approval, there can still be a year before permits are issued. And even when all that is settled, sometimes housing projects get held up or miss deadlines with other agencies because of delays with final legal agreements.

All of that is having a direct impact on homelessness and housing shortages in the city.

“[The city says] they have a housing crisis. [These units] should have been built by now,” said Janice Abbott, the CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society, which is involved in three projects under development.

The city’s official response, relayed by e-mail through the communications department, is that delays have been unavoidable.

“The combination of rapid construction-cost escalation and disproportionally lower increases in Vancouver incomes in recent years has made it challenging to deliver the right supply of social housing that is affordable to residents in Vancouver,” it said.

“For some projects, this has required more creative design and programming changes as well as more engagement with senior government funding partners to get out of the ground.”

That means the kind of definitive dates Mr. Harrison said needed to be a fixed goal are still far away for many of the 3,000-plus still-unbuilt units in Vancouver.

A few will never get there.

Some groups proposing them gave up because the financials were unworkable with particular city-zoning rules or the lack of interest by BC Housing in funding smaller projects.

Some proposals stalled after despairing architects, consultants or non-profit staff have said they’ve gotten tangled in negotiations with city planners who don’t like the balcony rails or the size of the rooms or how recreation space in the building is allocated.

Some projects won’t arrive for up to a decade, because they’re part of private developments that will take that long or more to build out or because the high-end condo projects to pay for them have been put on pause.

In that category, five projects that combined high-end condos with a total of almost 200 social-housing apartments – four in the West End and one in Kerrisdale – are on indefinite hold because of the softening luxury market.

More than 2,000 others are part of long-term mega-projects – Oakridge Centre, the Pearson-Dogwood lands being developed by Onni, the Plaza of Nations – that won’t be fully built out for years. There are a few apartments in that category moving ahead – 187 at Oakridge Centre, another 58 at the much-delayed Little Mountain/Holborn Group development.

Echoing what private developers have been saying in the past couple of years, those involved in social housing say it’s particularly hard having a system where more than a dozen departments all get to weigh in on their individual priorities, with no one city leader able to get things moving.

A look at some housing projects planned for Vancouver that never materialized

Here are some of the housing projects planned for the City of Vancouver that have never materialized.

1210 Seymour

The corner lot at Seymour and Davie, across from Emery Barnes Park, was one of the seven pieces of city land whose development was awarded to Community Land Trust as part of the package deal aimed at producing 1,000 units by 2021.

In its bid, the trust proposed putting 146 apartments on the site – and that was the number announced in 2018. That number was important because the Community Land Trust operates on a cross-subsidization model. Some renters pay higher rents so that others with lower incomes can pay less. A building in a prime downtown residential location would be key to generating enough revenue to subsidize other projects in the total portfolio, including one at 177 West Pender.

But the proposal went back and forth with staff and senior bureaucrats for months, including city manager Sadhu Johnston, head planner Gil Kelley and park-board general manager Malcolm Bromley, because the building at that density and height would throw a small shadow on part of the park.

That Seymour building, which is still in the pre-application stage, is now being proposed at only 119 units – 27 homes that won’t be built. The move-in date is now set for 2024. The West Pender site has been approved, but is still awaiting permitting.

450 Alexander

This project being proposed by Atira Housing would provide 181 apartments plus a 37-space daycare in a mixed-use model: some subsidized, some market rental.

Atira CEO Janice Abbott, an experienced hand at developing housing in Vancouver, said it took her 20 months to get the project accepted for the “short track” social-housing approvals process. Part of the wrangling involved a seven-month standoff as Ms. Abbott tried to get city planners to agree to a change in the building’s design from what was designated in the official community plan.

She wanted to have a taller tower on the corner of the lot to make the rest of the building lower, which would provide more sun and a friendlier façade for the heritage Japanese language school across the street. The planner dealing with the project said it violated the rules in that area.

Finally, planning director Gil Kelley, recently departed from the city, ruled the Atira design was acceptable. Atira just began holding open houses for the community about the project this January and figures, even though it’s now in the short-track pipeline, it will be another two years before it opens.

Ms. Abbott said the hardest part is hearing such conflicting messages from different parts of the city when it comes to getting much-needed housing moving quickly: “They’re so excited when you come in with a project, but then you’re in the same process as before.”

The one plus is that it all took less time than the project she has been working on at 420 Hawks, which was delayed for so many years that Ms. Abbott said she had to hold off on construction when she finally had the permits because she needed to raise additional money for the increased building costs caused by the wait.

436 East Hastings

This is one of two sites in the Downtown Eastside where owners or non-profits proposed new “skinny” buildings in a zone where the city has special restrictions on height, density and, in some cases, condos that would be sold rather than rented. The proposal was for 22 units, similar to another site nearby at 545 Cordova. But Lookout Housing & Health Society, which worked with the city and owners on both sites, had to give up on them because BC Housing did not want to provide money for sites with so few units. The 436 Hastings site is for sale for close to $2-million. The Cordova site is sitting empty.

138 Main Street

Anhart Community Housing Society (formerly Community Builders) bought the site in early 2018 and started working on the pre-application process with the city to build 69 micro-homes – something that already fit the social-housing housing requirement of that area and did not require a rezoning. The project did not get accepted for the short-track approval process. It finally got an approval from the development-permit board, after much back and forth about the design, in February, 2020. It received its Phase 1 building permit in March but is awaiting the Phase 2 permit. Site preparation has started.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe