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Vancouver housing crisis prompts dramatic rethink

A real estate for sale sign is pictured in front of a home in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, September 22, 2016.


When Vancouver planners developed a 10-year strategy to improve housing options in the city back in 2012, the situation was already dire.

So, in the strategy councillors approved, they set ambitious targets for creating different forms of low-cost housing, including a target of 5,000 subsidized rental units and another 11,000 market-rental units within 10 years. They promised there would be more kinds of housing in all neighbourhoods and that the city would aim to ensure that there was at least a shelter space for every homeless person.

Then everything got much, much worse. House prices skyrocketed to unheard-of levels. Tenants started to see rents go up by huge leaps, at the same time that the number of stories about evictions through various loopholes increased. Homelessness crept up as the lowest-cost housing in the city was steadily eroded.

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Now the city's housing planners say it's time for a dramatic rethink.

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"It's a mood change," says Kathleen Llewellyn-Thomas, the city's general manager of community services, whose department is leading the plan to redo Vancouver's housing strategy. "Our public is talking about this all the time. We owe it to them to have a conversation."

This time, she said, they'll be open to almost any idea that anyone wants to propose.

In Toronto's upscale Rosedale area, for example, the city allowed owners to convert larger homes into apartments. Vancouver could look at that.

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In Seattle, the city gives developers of rental projects property-tax breaks in exchange for guaranteeing that rents will be affordable to people making less than the median income for the city. That's something Vancouver planners rejected in the last housing strategy, but could be reconsidered, said Ms. Llewellyn-Thomas.

Another thought is to create a kind of Nexus fast-track lane for any project that has a component geared to lower-income buyers or renters.

The planners are looking at any suggestions for how to help non-profit groups build more in the city and new strategies for protecting renters.

They're even prepared to listen to ideas about making more incursions into areas zoned for single-family houses, although cautiously.

"We wouldn't do anything that takes decisions away from the community to consider something that would mean you raze a community to put something else in its place," said Ms. Llewellyn-Thomas.

There will likely be no shortage of people weighing in on the process. Renter advocates, community groups, real-estate developers, non-profit housing organizations and many others have been debating solutions for years and will be offering them again.

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Two new groups that have emerged in Vancouver in response to the housing crisis will be adding their new perspectives.

The group Housing Action for Local Taxpayers, while mostly pressing for provincial and federal action such as limits to investor-immigrant programs and crackdowns on money laundering through real estate, also wants to see more "family-friendly useful housing."

Spokesman Justin Fung said that doesn't mean they want the city to encourage the kind of redevelopment that would mean losing the older affordable housing the city has now.

"There has to be some thoughtfulness about how you create that supply," he said.

His group also wants the city to keep pressing the province to implement a new kind of tax, originally proposed by a group of local university professors, to connect housing prices to local incomes. That proposal suggested charging a property surtax to owners who can't provide proof that they have local incomes.

Another recently formed group, Abundant Housing Vancouver, has been pushing in recent months to see more areas of the city opened up for medium-density projects, especially affordable-rental buildings.

"There is a lot of benefit to be gained by opening up more low-density areas, in more affluent areas, to take the pressure off sensitive zones," said spokesman Brendan Dawe.

Planners won't be hearing just from locals.

The city is organizing a week-long conference with speakers from around the world Oct. 24-29, including experts from Europe, Australia and the United States.

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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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