Dean Fortin, former mayor of Victoria, is standing outside a modern four-storey building just behind the legislature buildings, looking up. Missing from the skyline is what he describes as his greatest regret from his years at city council.
He was on council when this building, a mix of commercial and residential units, was proposed. The public consultation spilled into a two-day hearing where hundreds of citizens showed up to object to the plan for a five-storey building that would have included affordable housing units for seniors.
Faced with a clear statement of opposition from the community because the building was deemed too tall, the council opted for a smaller building with less density – and lost the opportunity for subsidized housing.
"There would be 20 seniors living here today," Mr. Fortin said. "And when I look at this now, you know, another storey wouldn't have made a damned difference."
Residents in Metro Vancouver, Victoria and other communities are talking about the shortage of affordable housing. The federal, provincial and local governments are all taking a hit: The B.C. government is demanding that municipalities turn over data on development application delays; The city of Burnaby insists that higher levels of government have failed to invest in affordable housing; Vancouver's city council says the province is balking at tools that would discourage empty homes. The finger-pointing goes in all directions.
But Mr. Fortin's example highlights another part of this equation: Communities.
With a finite supply of land and an influx of residents, municipal governments are under pressure to increase density. As Mr. Fortin well knows, it is easy to mobilize opposition to such changes. The "no tower" debate in Vancouver's Commercial Drive community over a proposed 12-storey block that would include social housing is one more iteration of the same problem he faced while on council.
While some residents say a tower would ruin their neighbourhood's vibe, Vancouver's homeless count recently tallied the highest numbers in a decade.
In a CBC radio interview on May 6, Liberal MLA Sam Sullivan recalled how he pushed for increased density during his term as mayor of Vancouver and lost – and the price is now being paid as the city struggles with a superheated housing market that is making the city unaffordable.
Mr. Sullivan concluded that the system at City Hall has made it far too easy to veto development.
"It has been a wonderful strategy for those who were able to get in early and stop change and we now have this incredible transfer of wealth to people who did nothing but buy in the right place at the right time and just sit on their property and oppose everything around them," he said. "It's been a brilliant financial strategy for them. But it hasn't been a good thing for the city as a whole."
Mr. Fortin now heads up a non-profit society, Pacifica Housing, that fights this battle as it seeks to build affordable housing on Vancouver Island. It puts him in the business of trying to convince councils – and residents – that density is a good thing.
"When you are on council, you want to be responsive to the community. It's hard to balance with the need for densification," he said. "Council's job is not to worry if a developer makes money, but it is important that there is an understanding of how things work."
Adding one more floor to a four-storey building doesn't change the construction cost much. But it does mean more profit – and with that comes the ability to negotiate more social housing. Even if he can convince a local government of the economics, he still needs to get through the community consultation process.
"There needs to be a better way of introducing change. Neighbourhoods want to preserve what makes them unique. But change is coming, they need to help shape it, to see how new families can help make their neighbourhoods more vibrant."
If the proposed seniors' housing units had been viewed by the residents who turned out at the public hearing as a valuable addition to the James Bay community, perhaps the conversation would not have centred on the height of the building.
It's easy to say that affordable housing is a good thing, and that all three levels of government need to work together to increase the stock. But residents need to accept that it can't always be in someone else's back yard.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Dean Fortin was mayor at the time the building just behind the legislature buildings was proposed. In fact, he was on council at the time.