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Affordable-housing task force proposes 'quick start' solutions

A Vancouver task force recommends experimenting with a piece of city property to create affordable housing.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

How does one of the world's most expensive cities create the affordable housing that everyone from anti-poverty advocates to business groups say is desperately needed?

It could offer up a piece of city property to developers and see what they pitch as solutions for the much-needed housing.

It could figure out what's clogging rapid re-development along the Canada Line and fix it, to unlock the potential of thousands of new units along Cambie in what is a street of single-family houses.

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And it could push the province to allow the kind of row-housing ownership – not the communal-type stratas B.C. requires – that exists in Toronto and Montreal.

Those are some of the "quick-start" recommendations that Vancouver's affordable-housing task force is announcing Monday in an effort to create lower-cost options in a city where average housing prices have soared to more than 10 times median income.

"We want some stuff that is doable fairly quickly," said task force co-chair Olga Ilich, a former provincial cabinet minister and developer who was appointed by Mayor Gregor Robertson to help find solutions. "And these are just a few ideas that are focusing on people in the low-to-moderate income range because the real affordability gap is for working people."

The group is also recommending an inter-disciplinary committee inside city hall to work on streamlining what many have called a Byzantine process for development applications and building permits.

City Councillor Raymond Louie, who sits on the committee, said discussions have made it clear that the city is going to have to offer up something tangible from its resources to get results.

"We were told very clearly by [Toronto social-housing developer Mark Guslits]that we would have to put money in if we wanted to see anything happen," Mr. Louis said.

Monday's recommendations are not a final or comprehensive package. That will come later, when the 24-member task force has had a chance to meet for longer than the five weeks it has been in existence so far.

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As well, any of its recommendations have to be approved by council.

But the group is looking to tackle some of the more obvious problems and solutions quickly, before dealing with much bigger and broader policy changes and experiments.

Ms. Ilich acknowledged that the group is wary of making big moves too quickly or similar to others that have generated criticism in the past.

At top of mind is the 1989 decision by then-mayor Gordon Campbell to provide discounted city land to the Vancouver Land Corporation or VLC Properties – a company created by his developer friend Jack Poole and backed by union pension funds – to develop low-cost rental housing in the city in response to the affordable-housing crisis of that era.

That privately arranged deal generated criticism for years afterward, with some feeling that VLC – now called Concert Properties and one of the city's most successful development companies – didn't build as much rental housing as originally promised.

"I've asked and am trying to get answers to, 'What was wrong with that proposal?' " said Ms. Ilich, who said that the concept of building rental apartments on city-owned land, with a steady stream of revenue coming to the city from them, seems on the surface like an attractive idea.

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But, in the meantime, the quick-start recommendation is to experiment with only one small piece of city property to see what developers propose.

She said the task force has also been working to get information on older co-ops and social housing in the city that could be renovated and expanded.

The task force is aiming to find ways of developing suitable housing for households with incomes between $21,500 and $86,500.

She acknowledged that some people on the task force don't think that households in the $80,000 range need any help with housing and that the city should focus on those just at the bottom end.

"But we've said that there are programs in place to try to provide housing for those people at the lower end," said Ms. Ilich.

The province has sunk tens of millions of dollars in the past five years into buying up residential hotels and building social housing in Vancouver for people who are mentally ill or struggling with problems associated with drug addiction or both.

The task force will continue to meet until June 30, when it will present a final report.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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