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The Globe and Mail

Anti-density protests in Vancouver rooted in hypocrisy

Developers in Metro Vancouver are bracing for a tough couple of years. Not because the demand for housing is lessening, but rather because the protests greeting new proposals have become louder and more virulent.

With municipal elections just a year away, governments are becoming unnerved. A few have backed down from some of the more controversial plans because of opposition that could ultimately hurt them at the polls.

Nowhere has the backlash been angrier than in the City of Vancouver, where people whine about affordability on the one hand and then rally against new housing initiatives that would help ease those cost pressures.

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Recently, city hall postponed three separate developments because of the hostility they generated in the neighbourhoods where they would have been located. It's a story being played out across the country, as citizen groups become more empowered and better organized than ever.

"The one per cent used to rule the world," says Bob Rennie, the most influential real estate marketer in B.C. "But now the 99 per cent all have an iPhone and Facebook. Information travels so much quicker, which makes organizing opposition to development so much easier. This is happening in Vancouver but it's also happening in other cities in Canada. "

Of course, NIMBYism is nothing new. But its latest iteration has become a major challenge for governments at all levels, especially municipally. Often the opposition is being mounted by retired boomers with time on their hands and a professional background.

Protests are all fine and good, except when they're rooted in hypocrisy. In Vancouver, residents have for years now complained that housing is too expensive. But supply determines affordability. Restrict it and prices go up. Increase it and they go down, or at least don't go up at the same onerous rate.

For the past 20 years, most of the new housing supply has been built downtown, alongside office towers. But now all the available industrial land in the city is gone, forcing developers to look for opportunities in long-settled neighbourhoods. This has prompted the counterattack .

The protesters want it both ways: They agree the city needs to become more affordable, so their kids have an opportunity to live in it. Many would also like to "age in place," downsizing in the area in which they live.

At the same time, they don't want any high-density development in their neighbourhoods, especially if it's going to have a social-housing component. Residents are worried about the impact these buildings might have on the value of their single-family dwellings, which in many cases are worth millions.

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Of course, this particular worry is seldom verbalized at the neighbourhood meetings. Most often the stated reason for opposing multi-family housing is that it doesn't mesh with the character of the neighbourhood. Yes, a six-storey condominium building will stand out in a neighbourhood of split-levels and bungalows. So what is the answer? Reserve whole neighbourhoods just for single-family homes? "In Vancouver there will never be another single-family lot created in my lifetime," Mr. Rennie says.

Municipal governments across Greater Vancouver need to begin a new conversation with residents. If they don't want development where they live, where do they suggest their civic leaders accommodate the nearly 40,000 people pouring into the region each year? Where do they propose their children live? And where do they imagine living themselves when they get older?

"That's the elephant in the room," says Mr. Rennie. "Everyone wants a silver bullet and a 10-minute answer. They don't exist. We need to have a new conversation, one that isn't mad and angry."

One that isn't hypocritical either.

Follow me on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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