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The majority of Vancouver’s households are renters. The shift has taken place in recent years amid skyrocketing housing prices; three-quarters of new households rent rather than own.

It’s hardly a surprise in a city where a typical detached home on the west side goes for $3.4-million. On the east side it’s $1.7-million. The cheapest option is an east side condo at $640,000.

As home ownership spiralled out of reach for many, more and more people stayed in the rental market – the vacancy rate was stuck below 1 per cent. The reason? A lack of supply. Vancouver built more rental housing in the 1970s than in the three decades from 1980 to 2010. In 2017, the city introduced its “Housing Vancouver” strategy. Part of the plan was to build 2,000 new rentals each year for a decade. The city so far has hit that annual target only once.

Despite high rents and an obvious rental housing shortage, Vancouver’s city council has tackled the issue with what can be best described as a radical lack of urgency. When this council was elected in late 2018, it launched a ponderous citywide plan, an almost four-year process, that is supposed to be finished in mid-2022. (Just in time for the next election.)

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In the interim, council in 2019 did at least back proposals for new rental housing. They included allowing up to six-storey rental buildings on busy arterial streets – and, more importantly, four-storey buildings on some side streets, within a block of an arterial, where only detached homes have long been allowed. Approval was, however, preliminary. Council delayed its implementation, and the plan was watered down. Many areas were removed from where four-storey buildings on side streets would have been allowed.

Last Tuesday, more than two years after Vancouver council first backed the idea, it finally passed the new rental policy. It’s been politics in slow motion.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart called it a “watershed moment” and said it “will make a huge difference for renters.” Unfortunately, that is likely an exaggeration. City staff estimate that the policy changes could lead to 5,000 new rental units over a decade – or just 500 a year. In a city with 71,000 purpose-built rental units, it’s hardly a revolution. And getting approval for a four-storey building on a side street, even in places where the policy is open to it, won’t be automatic. Council will consider applications on a case-by-case basis.

For all that, this is a welcome shift in direction. It’s too slow and too little, but it’s movement nonetheless. Vancouver, like all Canadian cities, shunts new housing density onto busy arterial streets while reserving most other quieter streets for increasingly expensive detached houses. That means density is squeezed into small pockets in the City of Vancouver: 65 per cent of households live on 19 per cent of the residential land.

That’s why Vancouver’s rental plan, despite its limitations, could be a demarcation in the philosophy of density. At least some four-storey buildings and detached homes are going to live together.

The direction is now set – more density in low-density areas, which is most of the city. How much will happen, and how quickly, remains to be seen.

Up next: pending approvals of the Broadway plan – where a subway is under construction – and next year’s Vancouver plan, whose broad strokes, released in October, propose greater density across the whole city.

There are similar pushes, also in slow motion, in other cities. Toronto City Council next year will vote on a plan to add density where only detached homes are currently permitted. The focus is on multiplexes of up to four units but four-storey apartment buildings are also under consideration.

All of this matters because housing policy is economic policy. The Toronto Region Board of Trade last week called on the provincial government to reform zoning provincewide: “Our competitiveness in attracting talent [and] driving innovation … depends on solving the housing shortfall.” A city’s economy doesn’t work if its workers can’t afford to live there.

Which is why it is disheartening that change in Vancouver, ground zero for overpriced housing, is happening at a snail’s pace. Housing was the No. 1 issue in the 2018 municipal election, yet three years later, city council’s response has been rather less than more.

Things are moving slowly. But at least they’re moving in the right direction.

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