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In Vancouver, like other Canadian cities, low-density zoning for single-family houses means a lot of land is seriously underutilized. More than 50 per cent of Vancouver’s land is devoted to just 15 per cent of the city’s housing.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Housing was the central issue of the 2018 civic election in Vancouver. Home prices had surged almost 60 per cent in the four years since the last vote and there were many pledges to get more housing built.

The first big move of the newly elected city council, however, was a long punt: Instead of an urgent push for change, council voted to embark on creating a new city-wide plan, a ponderous process that has ended up taking almost its entire term in office.

Three years later, the broad outlines of that plan are finally coming into focus. The framework was released this week. It covers climate issues and the local economy, but it’s centred on the need for more housing through more density, especially in the many neighbourhoods zoned for single-family homes.

It remains a work in progress – consultations are continuing and a final council vote isn’t slated until mid-2022, a few months before the next election – but the good news is the plan looks promising. It’s filled with the urban buzzwords of the moment – “15-minute city,” “missing middle housing” – and that’s not a criticism. While there is considerable hype around these ideas in many other cities, there’s been a lot more talk than actual action. The Vancouver plan, at least as it stands today, aims to change that.

In Vancouver, like other Canadian cities, low-density zoning for single-family houses means a lot of land is seriously underutilized. More than 50 per cent of Vancouver’s land is devoted to just 15 per cent of the city’s housing. The draft plan has ideas to increase development near rapid transit and shopping areas, but it is the proposal to allow more types of housing in neighbourhoods of detached single-family homes that likely will make the biggest difference in the decades ahead.

The plan does not currently include a specific proposal to overhaul zoning restrictions, but it makes clear that’s the goal: to permit a variety of housing – a.k.a. the missing middle – in all neighbourhoods, including townhomes, fourplexes and small apartment buildings of up to six storeys. There would also be a focus on rental housing and homes affordable to households whose income is less than $80,000. A further push includes opening up options to dot residential-only neighbourhoods with commercial spaces.

The city of Vancouver is home to a quarter of Metro Vancouver’s population and a third of the jobs. The suburbs have for years grown faster than Vancouver, and that’s predicted to continue, as a result of exclusionary zoning in the core of the region. Increasingly expensive housing is pushing people further away from where the jobs are – a potential constraint on economic growth.

Vancouver’s plan could become a demarcation line in how Canadian cities evolve. Toronto is also looking at similar ideas in an initiative it has dubbed “expanding housing options in neighbourhoods,” but, like Vancouver, its process has been long and slow. It’s been on the table for several years.

In Vancouver, the biggest challenges lie ahead. The city-wide plan is supposed to be the overarching vision, but it is unfolding amid a crowded agenda that includes another layer of evolving plans for various areas of the city, including Broadway and South False Creek. The mayor has also proposed his own ideas for more housing density.

How this will all come together – and whether it will – is still unclear.

Right now, the “ifs” abound. In its current form, Vancouver’s plan looks like a good one – if it’s approved by council next year. It’s a good plan if its ideas are actually implemented and the rules around what can be built where are actually changed.

The pressure to stick with the status quo will be considerable. The proposed density may not be welcomed by many existing homeowners.

The current city council doesn’t have a strong track record on housing, starting with its decision to undertake a long planning process rather than embracing immediate action. This sort of dithering is costly. Already expensive housing keeps getting more expensive: Prices have doubled in Vancouver in the past decade.

It’s been clear all along what’s necessary. It’s taken a long time to get here, but Vancouver’s proposed plan shows what’s possible. The next step is the most important. City council has to turn the ideas into reality.

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