One issue will decide Vancouver’s election for mayor: the housing crisis, and how the candidates propose to fix it.
Eighty-two per cent of Vancouverites believe housing is worse in their city than elsewhere in the region and 57 per cent feel the same way about developer influence, a July Research Co. poll says. Another hot topic is city hall’s ambitious proposal to blanket rezone all single-family and duplex zones for more density, such as fourplexes. And so, we asked those gunning for the mayor’s seat their views on housing, what caused the crisis and where we should go.
Independent candidate Shauna Sylvester says the crisis is the result of government backing away from housing programs in the past 25 years, speculative buying and an opaque permitting process. She’d like to see the city partner with non-profit groups that already know how to build affordable housing.
Ms. Sylvester works at Simon Fraser University’s Public Square initiative and she is a former facilitator of Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Task Force on Affordable Housing. She blames city hall’s “addiction” to community amenity contributions (fees charged to developers for a rezoning) for poor planning choices.
“It was far easier to stick a tower up, maybe get a few dollars for social housing along the way, and deal with dissent in one go, rather than the thousand cuts of having to put small density across the West Side.”
Ms. Sylvester says she would rezone single-family housing zones before embarking on a citywide plan, because of the urgency for housing. She says the city’s plan for blanket rezoning “only got it half right” because it doesn’t include “an affordability mechanism,” such as incentives for homeowners to use those extra units as affordable purpose-built rental housing. Otherwise, if rented at market rate, landowners would incur community amenity contributions. She also thinks the proposal needs “way more consultation.”
She’s pushing for renewal of existing co-op leases and developing more co-op housing, as well as rental housing, housing authorities (such as the Whistler work-force model), co-housing and land trusts.
Although she wants to curtail rampant speculation, foreign buying can also be a good thing, she says. She cites the supportive comments she received at a recent candidate panel discussion held by Sauder School of Business.
“I had the head of [the] real estate board saying, ‘You are making a lot of sense. You understand our world.’ Because I do.”
ProVancouver’s David Chen, a financial planner who lives in Strathcona, is against the proposal to blanket rezone.
“It will be like an atomic bomb going off and will burn the fields,” he said. He criticizes the city for not doing a proper consultation with citizens and says many people don’t even realize it’s a proposal.
Mr. Chen suspects the rush to rezone is designed to help the development community.
“If I am a developer, I want high density, so I need multiple properties. I won’t [buy them] without a guarantee; otherwise, I need to get those properties supercheap. If you’ve rezoned the area for higher density, that risk is gone. You can pay more for the property because the risk is removed. Then the housing price will be higher. What it does, is it allows the developer to take that risk. I bet you the minute that city hall passes this, the applications to city hall will hit. And even if the next council tried to reverse that, that would result in a loss to developers, which they could sue the city over.”
Mr. Chen supports a citywide plan. He’s also for government-funded public housing, which is popular in places such as Vienna and Singapore.
“Pretty much every country has a model that says if you supply a significant portion of social housing that is basic, stable and everything is affordable, what happens is the majority of the population calms down. They’ve got a home. And for the market side of the equation, they have to compete against the government. … So government housing with rental controls puts a natural downward pressure on pricing.”
He’s interested in demand-side measures, such as the taxes the provincial NDP introduced, although he believes they also had the consequence of unfairly capturing retirees.
“I’m not interested in the snowbird that takes off for more than six months of the year. They’ve earned their right. My concern is the land banker, those people who’ve come in the last five to 10 years, who’ve bought places with cash and done absolutely [nothing] with it, in the midst of a housing crisis. And I think that number is a lot larger than people are recognizing.”
Yes Vancouver’s Hector Bremner, who sits on city council, worked previously with the BC Liberals. He’s vice-president of public affairs for communications firm Pace Group, which has developer clients and ties to the BC Liberals. Mr. Bremner says he represents a group “inspired by” the YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) movement that started stateside. In the United States, that movement argues for more density as a way to offer more housing choices to the middle class. The movement’s interests often align with those of the development community.
“They want more housing built, modern types of housing, middle-class housing, and they don’t want any more chattering or arguing about every building that gets built,” Mr. Bremner said of the movement that backs him.
Mr. Bremner prefers supply- over demand-side measures that we’ve seen introduced by the NDP. He is against what he calls “banning people” from buying properties. He wants to introduce measures that would fight tax evasion and fraud. And he is in favour of spreading density: “We need to move away from the 1927 model where all density has to go into 24 per cent of the city.
“The real demand solution is adding the product at the volume and the speed that the market is looking for.”
He isn’t keen on government subsidized housing, such as co-op housing or a return to public housing for low- and mid-income families. The problem, as he sees it, is that too many homeowners are sitting on billions of dollars worth of equity. Once they unload their homes, that will open up the market to more housing choices. He’d like to see a citywide plan so that developers understand what they’re getting when they purchase land and the community knows what is happening upfront. Spot rezoning creates tension, he says.
“It’s going to be market-side building – again, not all luxury – but you have to build in order to pay for those things [such as social housing]. One comes with the other.
“The reality is, most people don’t need public housing. They just need a fair shot to be in market housing. The notion that we all need subsidies is not there. People in Vancouver, particularly generations and families that have home ownership, they are set up pretty well. They need to downsize, they need to unlock some of that equity. They need to make sure that their wealth transfers to their children, effectively, and we are able to create opportunities for them. And for those that, like myself, that started from scratch you need to make sure that there’s a healthy vibrant competitive economy in a competitive market. That’s all I need.
“Most of us are working, most are making pretty decent money. But we just need a fair shot.”
Following two days of public hearings this week, city council approved new rezoning to allow duplexing of the city’s detached housing. Mr. Bremner voted in favour. Next year, council will look at a proposal to allow low-rise apartments, townhouses and row houses in the neighbourhoods.
Independent Kennedy Stewart has a doctorate from the London School of Economics and has worked as an SFU professor. He was an NDP member of Parliament for Burnaby South. Mr. Stewart says his housing plan is mostly about non-market and market supply since the NDP tax measures have already addressed demand.
“Ninety-two per cent of [Vancouver] is market housing. Most cities have a significantly higher proportion of non-market housing that is usually controlled by a non-profit association. That’s what we have to move to. That is the core of my plan. And this non-profit stock makes revenue once you get it going.”
He proposes 85,000 new units total in a decade, with 25,000 of them non-profit rentals, 25,000 market rentals and 35,000 units of market housing. He wants more details on the blanket rezoning before it gets pushed through.
“We really have to dive into affordable non-market rental. That’s going to be built in a variety of ways, just like they do in other cities. For me, it’s 30 per cent of what we build over the next 10 years.”
He cites gaps in legislation that allowed the speculation frenzy, which is why he wants policies to address those gaps. Reliance on the market to provide housing has resulted in too much above-median-income supply, and offshore condo purchasing. That’s why he’d triple the empty-homes tax.
“We built a lot of product that was easy to purchase and to market offshore and people bought it. And that’s really all we were building. That’s why we have to change the emphasis to housing for local people. You can’t pretend people will be able to buy a place on the West Side, but to be able to rent a nice place at an affordable price, I think lots of people will be okay with that.
“The Sauder School of Business is going to boo me, but this is about market failure, really.”
Business entrepreneur and Non-Partisan Association candidate Ken Sim is against the blanket rezoning. Instead, he wants rezoning of detached houses to allow for two secondary suites.
“That would have an immediate impact in reducing the price of housing, because you provide affordable rentals across the city and you don’t have to wait two to seven years to have something built.
“The current government is trying to push a bunch of things through right now and it’s happened with very little notice and no real consultation. I’m not saying it’s the wrong answer – but as a resident, how am I supposed to understand what they are trying to put through?”
Mr. Sim would address hefty tax increases on small-business operators that are resulting in empty storefronts on some high streets. Taxes are based on “highest and best use,” so if zoned for more density, the little building gets taxed accordingly. He wants to change that.
“When you look at best possible use, I think it’s a one-storey restaurant, because it gives our city its soul.”
He’d lease out city-owned land long term for purpose-built rentals. He’s adopting a wait-and-see approach to the province’s new tax measures.
“I’m not into policies that depress house prices – rather, I’m into policies that increase supply, both market and non-market.”
When it comes to displacement of low-income residents due to redevelopment, he says he’d work with the development community.
“I want to work with the developers to say, 'Okay, we will give you a little more density to make the economics work, but in a very respectful way, you need to relocate the people that live there, in the area, wherever possible.’”
He says he’s less concerned about foreign ownership than if a housing unit is sitting empty.
“What’s the definition of a foreign buyer? We have people in Ontario buying places in Vancouver. Are they foreign? To point to one group or one thing I don't think is fair.”
Former Conservative MP for Vancouver South, Wai Young, says she would stop the Georgia Viaduct from being torn down and would try to reverse the blanket rezoning, if it passes.
“I think the people that are supporting this are selling out to developer backroom boys yet again. This is what we’ve been seeing in the last five to 10 years, instead of working with communities to plan our communities,” the Coalition Vancouver mayoral candidate said.
She says the city is to blame for the crisis, partly for charging unreasonable fees for rezoning of projects that include affordable housing and for not properly defining an affordable rent. She’s pushing for an audit to look at inefficiencies within the process, as well as purpose-built rental zones around transit. She’d never sell off “an inch” of city-owned land and she’d embark on community consultation before any blanket rezoning.
“High-rising of the city of Vancouver is not the solution,” she said. “This isn’t a housing crisis, it’s an affordability crisis, and increasing the supply willy-nilly will not answer the crisis at all – I want to be clear about that.
“We are overbuilding,” she said of market housing.
“The supply myth has been driven by these people … who want more luxury condos for foreign investors or whoever. Our party has no developer ties.”
Ms. Young does not credit the foreign-buyers tax for bringing prices down. She says that people are already taxed enough.