Housing Reset Needs Real Public Consultation

Screen_Shot_2014-04-16_at_1.26.03_PM.pngThis week Vancouver city staff presented to Council a grand re-think
of the city’s Housing and Homelessness strategy. It’s obvious they needed to do this. Our housing strategy has failed.  We’re more unaffordable than ever.  The vacancy rate is near zero. There are more
empty homes, many owned by non-residents, than ever. Employers can’t retain talent. People, especially young families, are leaving. 

Ever since I was elected, I’ve been pushing at the Council table to link our housing strategies to the true measure of affordability: that a household should spend no more than 30% of household income on rent. That’s finally what staff have recommended. And that’s exactly where any successful housing strategy has to start.

The Housing and Homelessness Strategy Reset is refreshing in its candid acknowledgement that Vancouver’s housing affordability crisis is getting worse; that increasing supply isn’t the answer (unlike what is often said by developers or senior governments); that the real solution is in the right supply – i.e., housing that is truly affordable to people who live here.

Building more supply hasn’t created more affordability. The market rate rental units we’ve enticed builders to build by waiving millions of dollars in development levies and Community Amenity Contributions is unaffordable for the majority of renters. It’s frightening to realize that 46,000 renter households in Van spend more than 30% of their incomes on rent. And that most have no long term leases or security of tenure.

The report is grounded in all the right principles. But it did raise some major concerns. Staff consulted with senior governments and convened many expert advisory committees, but they did not meet with Vancouver’s existing resident associations.  They suggested a complete “rethinking” of the city’s RS (single family) zones, but didn’t allow the time that would obviously needed to consult on that kind of major change.

I feel strongly that this is the right time to change how the City of Vancouver “consults”. What we need is a truly robust engagement process that generates ideas and builds consensus, maybe even a detailed household survey that gets neighbours discussing their answers over coffee or tea as happened during the CityPlan process of the 1990s, not “Talk Vancouver” on-line input and story-board open houses.

That’s what led me to move several amendments.

Instead of approving in principle the report’s emerging directions I made the approval in principle “subject to further investigation, public consultation and analysis”. Instead of staff coming back to Council in July with a “final strategy and associated implementation strategy” I changed it to staff reporting back in July with “quick starts”, on the understanding that the public consultation would continue.

I had contemplated another amendment to ensure that the city doesn’t lose track of the current Character Home Zoning Review or let it get subsumed in the much more complicated Housing Reset.  I asked staff whether they plan to continue with the independent character home review. They said yes and will report back in May. But I still fear that there will be a new focus on rezoning the city’s character home areas for increased density and new housing forms while the tool used so successfully in Kitsilano of downzoning density to prevent “monster home” new builds and to make retaining character home retention more desirable will be left out of the picture. Not a lot of people know that it was a Vision-dominated Council in 2009 that created the ugly monster home problem by dropping design guidelines and changing RS zoning to allow much larger “new build” single family homes.

Another amendment I made was to follow up on a motion I put forward this month to make it easier to legalize secondary suites in RT and RM zones. My amendment directed staff to report back on specific measures to make this happen.  

I was pretty happy that the Mayor who moved the report’s recommendations accepted all my amendments as “friendly.”

The real challenge is going to be right supply, i.e., how do we get builders to provide truly affordable based on the incomes of Vancouver residents. To date, our housing policies have focused on market supply, which has generated extraordinary profits for developers, created condos for offshore investors and generated extraordinary profits for developers.

I like Vancouver Sun Matt Robinson’s call for boldness. Maybe it’s time to be rethinking our whole reliance on density bonusing and community amenity contributions, which hasn’t produced affordable housing, and instead just ask every developer to give to the city, at zero cost, 20% of all the units they build in multi-residential buildings.

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