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Affordability is top of mind right now – enough so that an affordable housing rally is being held May 24 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. There’s also an online “Restrict Foreign Investment in Greater Vancouver’s Residential Real Estate Market” petition that has more than 22,000 signatures, and counting. Eveline Xia’s #DontHave1Million hashtag campaign made headlines. And there’s a new lobby group representing cash-strapped under-40-year-old Canadians, called Generation Squeeze.

People are increasingly looking to government to intervene to cool off a property market that’s impossibly hot for the average income, or to step up and provide affordable housing options. Or both – but they want government to do something. As the tension reaches a boiling point, the publicly owned Jericho Lands in Point Grey is set to become an example of what government could do to enrich a city that’s growing more divided. It is the ultimate litmus test as to whether government will do anything meaningful on behalf of those who are getting squeezed out.

A woman rides a bicycle past an entrance to the Jericho Lands in Vancouver, B.C. All photos by Darryl Dyck for The Globe and Mail

The Jericho Lands could either become a legacy project, similar to the hugely successful False Creek South around Granville Island, or it could simply be sold off to the highest bidder, business as usual. And that would do absolutely nothing but stoke the fires of unaffordability, says NDP MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey, David Eby.

“The hands-off approach by provincial or federal governments – by selling to whoever will pay the most money for land – completely ignores the strategic value of this property to ensure some level of access to the city for the people who work here,” says Mr. Eby, a lawyer who lives in a 536-sq.-ft. condo with his wife and child. “We don’t need more luxury housing in Vancouver. We have lots of it.”

We’re so caught up in the frenzy of property values, he says, that it’s almost an alien concept to preserve government-owned land for the good of community.

“I say to people, ‘We could do affordable housing on Jericho.’ And they say, ‘How can you do that? You mean no granite countertops?’ People can’t even conceive of a world in which the government, through active policy, encourages the construction of rental housing or builds leasehold housing. Or government that encourages private industry to build rental housing through incentives. That acknowledgment that government can do these things is disappearing.

“It’s really important that we restart that conversation, especially around an incredibly important parcel of land in the middle of one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in Canada. In one of the most expensive cities in the world.”

There was a time when the government mandate was less about protecting the public’s property values and more about creating livable communities. In the 1970s, False Creek South was created out of a desire to provide a mix of multifamily housing on prime waterfront property. It includes non-market housing, co-op housing and city-owned leasehold land. Today, the neighbourhood is hailed as a huge success story, with seniors and young families and everybody in between enjoying one of the most walkable areas of the city. Architect Richard Vallee, active in the False Creek South Neighbourhood Association, raised his family in a co-op built there in 1976.

“It was a social experiment at the time, and I think it worked,” says Mr. Vallee. “But there were a lot of helping hands that made our community happen, which may not happen at Jericho.”

University of British Columbia geography professor David Ley calls False Creek South “an internationally recognized” success story.

“[Jericho Lands] would be an opportunity to do something similar,” he says. “It ought to be right up the alley of Vision Vancouver. It will reflect local sentiment.

“They could increase the proportion of market units over what it was in South False Creek, but I think it is a wonderful prototype to build upon.”

Part of the challenge is that provincial and federal governments are looking at cost recovery, he says. In the 70s, when False Creek South was planned, there was a small deficit.

“There was a lot of money in the coffers which made an experiment like that possible. But it’s not to say that something a bit more cost recovery-oriented couldn’t be done, and that’s certainly something that could be pressed for.”

Former city planner Nathan Edelson is working on a plan for the future of South False Creek. He also sees the Jericho Lands as a great opportunity to address housing and keep people close to their jobs.

“It would be wonderful for a diversity of people to live [in the Jericho Lands], with lots of moderate-income and low-income people living in the city.

“It seems so unfortunate that large numbers of people have to commute, spending an hour or two hours a day or more commuting, when we have the land and the development capacity so they could have housing near work.”

The province owns about 40 acres of the Jericho Lands, including property occupied by West Point Grey Academy. The province is in talks with Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations about what to do with it. A consortium that includes Canada Lands Co. and those same First Nations purchased the 52-acre Jericho Garrison Lands from the federal government last year. It was a deal 20 years in the making. Mr. Eby proposes that the province go through public consultation before selling its parcel of land to developers.

“There are all sorts of interventions they could do,” he says. “I’m asking for the minimum: Don’t sell the land without regard for the impact on affordability.”

The job of providing some level of affordability will undoubtedly fall to the city – a position the city’s manager of planning and development calls “challenging.”

“It’s challenging because it’s all down to the city to negotiate with Canada Lands or whoever they sell the lands to, to ensure the city’s policies are addressed,” says Brian Jackson.

Federally funded co-op housing died off a couple of decades ago. Government-owned leasehold land isn’t as lucrative. But there are options.

“The governments want the money. It’s a case of, ‘Show me the money,’” says Mr. Jackson. “They get higher value from selling the land than leasehold. They used to think of leasehold as, ‘Hey, we’ve got an income stream.’ Now it’s about maximizing the current asset to sell it.”

There are questions we could be asking of the other levels of government, he says.

“Should they try and not only meet our definition of social housing, but [also] improve upon that by having additional housing? By reintroducing programs for making sure more of the housing is affordable to a deeper level of subsidy, so that other people can live there? Or how about rent subsidies for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to dream of living on the west side of the city?” he asks.

Robert Howald, executive vice-president, real estate, for Canada Lands, says as a non-agent crown corporation, their mandate is to develop surplus federal land for a return. But they are keenly aware of community needs and will accommodate any municipal plans for affordable housing.

“We get the optimal value [for the land],” he says. “It’s not a profit maximization, necessarily, but we need to get a return from it. We are balancing between financial return and community benefits.”

Typically, Canada Lands puts in roads, public infrastructure, park space and services, and then sells off the land to the private sector as entire blocks or lots, either for residential or commercial use. But they could also sell to a provider of affordable housing.

“We’re sensitive to our own reputation and working through the city and with citizens and the other stakeholder groups,” he says, which includes the three First Nations partners, who are 50/50 partners.

Mr. Jackson is hopeful that Canada Lands is open to options.

“To Canada Lands’ credit, they’ve indicated they are looking at a variety of different models.”

It remains to be seen what those models might look like. Public consultation has only begun. Mr. Jackson can only theorize about what might take shape.

“Is my vision a sea of high-rises? Absolutely not,” he says. “I think there will be a truly mixed community with stacked townhouses, row houses, single family, potentially, in some areas, especially as they meet the adjacent neighbours.”

Mr. Eby wonders whether the economics could work out so the city could rezone the whole thing for rental. That could keep land costs down. In the meantime, the city could play a role in pushing for more intervention, which would match the general mood of the public.

“I hope the city involves itself in advocacy,” he says. “I think there’s an opportunity for them to do that right now.”

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