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Urban Planning + Architecture

Help Me, Gregor!

What can the city do to boost affordable housing in Vancouver? The mayor weighs in.

Luke Brocki 21 Mar

Luke Brocki is a Vancouver-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @lukebrocki.

[Editor's note: In this instalment of the ongoing Tyee series Priced Out, reporter Luke Brocki interviews Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson to find out how the city can help in his quest to find a Vancouver home within his price range -- and how city systems can be improved to enhance overall affordability. Find an introduction to the series, a partnership with the CBC, here.]

I'm early for my meeting with the mayor, so I loiter on the north lawn of city hall for a bit, enjoy the cherry blossoms, wonder what exactly the George Vancouver statue was meant to be pointing at, and then scour the parking lot for fancy cars (nothing juicy to report: mainly boring domestic sedans).

Down at the city hall community garden, I note signs of meticulous care in the neat rows of raised planter beds adorned with art and helpful signs. I catch myself wonder if this little garden has hired help from city hall, since the ones in my neighbourhood always seem to suffer from the kind of neglect reserved for human settlements in post-apocalyptic films. Haunches raised and bullshit detector turned up to 11, I enter Gregor Robertson's office for an interview on this whole affordability mess.

We settle into two soft chairs that face each other in a spacious room filled with more chairs, tables, and flags, and start into our half-hour conversation. We discuss some of the questions my search for a home dug up: changing demographics, campaign financing, the role of developers and whether the Rize Alliance mess in Mount Pleasant could have been avoided.

We also discuss the Mayor's Task Force on Housing Affordability, currently at work trying to drum up affordable rental housing and ownership options for Vancouverites. Its final report, due at the end of June, is expected to shake up the city's building code requirements and bring a deeper understanding of the barriers to affordable housing in the city.

Looking back, I found the mayor surprisingly candid on NIMBYism and critical of the city's development approval process. Now settle into a soft chair of your own and enjoy the highlights.

Mayor, if this task force can help bring prices down so that I can afford to buy here, great. Of course, if I end up buying now, I'm going to want this task force disassembled. First off, do you even care about people like me, too rich for social housing, but too poor for desirable market solutions?

"The task force is looking at low to middle incomes for affordability concerns. There's an increasing sense that there's a huge pinch on people in lower to middle incomes to find housing in Vancouver, particularly equity models.

"The low to middle income housing spectrum is super challenging in Vancouver. The task force is looking at what tools the city can deploy to address supply and adopt best practices from other cities that have been in this predicament. Part of the work is investigating this sort of third stream. It's not straight up market housing which is too expensive for the average earner in Vancouver and it's not low-income subsidized (housing), but what's possible in the low to middle income that possibly preserves equity. And that's a whole piece of work to explore."

How does affordability impact social or economic growth?

"Affordability is a huge challenge for Vancouver now and for the younger generation wondering if they'll be able to stay in the city. That's what we're focused on addressing. There's an increasing sense that people have to leave because of the housing market and that's a problem for the city, you know. It fundamentally changes the fabric of the city if young people are having to leave because of affordability. If the workforce is having to live far away from the city core, that puts pressure on the transportation system, families get split up, more pollution. It's not a desirable situation, but many cities are facing this problem."

Why name Olga Illich as co-chair of the affordability task force? A multimillionaire developer looking to bring affordability to the city? On the one hand I understand developers are the only ones building anything. But on the other hand, housing advocates feel she might not have their best interests in mind.

"My sense is that Olga has a very legitimate interest in affordable housing. She has a record of being involved and engaged in it for many years. She has expertise as a developer and the important thing with the task force is having a range of expertise: housing advocates, developers, people who understand the financing tools. We have to have all that in the mix to basically get the best possible recommendations on what we can deliver on the ground. There's a wide array of experience on this task force and we've got round tables from the academic community looking much more broadly at successful models for affordable housing and also a group of architects -- Micheal Geller is convening a round table -- looking at form."

I often hear this city is in bed with developers and has been for a very long time, regardless of political stripe. If you look at campaign spending in 2008, developers made up a very healthy chunk of that. I'd be surprised if it was any different in 2011. Does that money pay for anything beyond the campaign?

"No. Everyone in the business, whether they're in the city hall side or in the development industry, understands how pro formas work, how the numbers play out, what the land value is. There's an expectation that the developers will make a profit, that's usually plugged in around 15 per cent. People can argue if it's too high or too low, but beyond that, the city is basically calling for any other lift that occurs with rezonings to be reinvested in the community. I think there's a healthy process that goes on there, and certainly one that should always be checked and balanced to make sure we're delivering."

Are we building enough supply in this city right now?

"I don't think so. Given the immigration and the growth of the city I think we've struggled to keep up in recent years. Certainly social housing didn't keep up in the last decade and that triggered a homeless epidemic. We're finally starting to turn that tide with several years of significant investment with the province and social housing. But there has to be constant supply being created and, given how desirable Vancouver is right now, it's tough to fit all of this desired development into a city that's already pretty dense in certain neighbourhoods. We're looking at other neighbourhoods and arterials and working with communities to make sure it's reasonable to add this to their neighbourhoods."

Vancouver's development approval process is often seen as lengthy and complicated. Is there anything that could be done to smooth that out?

"We're looking at the flow of approvals and how to speed that up so that it doesn't add cost. Because there's all the holding costs with the land and the construction, if the city slows it down it just costs more money to build stuff."

And it creates artificial scarcity and drives up prices?

"Exactly. So we want to be able to process this stuff and obviously ensure that communities have a strong voice and they're involved in that process and there's good lead time. But when the city is going through those approvals, we don't want to bog it down and end up adding a bunch of costs to the housing that's created."

Is the wording in community plans and community plan maps explicit enough?

"Well, it's a good question. With the Rize Alliance rezoning, you know there's all this debate now whether it fits closely enough with the community plan that was just approved prior to the rezoning coming in. Everyone interprets those differently. If they're too specific, I think it can preclude council from approving other projects that may have merit or may have more affordable housing, so I think the city's historical practice is to leave some room where there's more benefits on the table to add that to neighbourhoods."

But it also creates this difficulty where very little is set in stone and then people argue forever.

"A big contrast would be the West Point Grey Community Plan that came in and basically said we don't want any density, even on the arterials, we don't want any height, any density, and every neighbourhood out there in the city is growing and faced with growth pressures, so it's difficult to deal with neighbourhoods that say we don't take any development.

"Even though they're in that corridor out to UBC and UBC is growing rapidly, you know it's a difficult one, cause we have to look at city-wide responsibilities that every neighbourhood needs to carry."

Back to the idea of form and function, what about the thought that Vancouver simply doesn't have adequate zoning to allow for some of the more creative housing options, such as stacked townhouses and fourplexes?

"There are certainly some more creative forms of development that we should be considering and we can't due to provincial law or in some cases antiquated city zoning regulations, so we're looking. We've made some changes on industrial land to increase job density, we've added flexibility in False Creek Flats so that tech companies can create more jobs there.

"We need more housing and jobs created, so we want to be sure we have the space to do those and there are definitely problems to do that in parts of the city, so we are looking at that. That's another piece of the task force work that's looking at where we can accelerate that change and make sure there's more opportunity."

What about the concept of a Vancouver Housing Authority, is that on the table?

"Whistler has done some really creative work to create affordable housing and to govern it in a way that makes sense, so the task force is looking at models like Whistler, looking at opportunities to have new models of home ownership.

"I'm intrigued with those more innovative models of affordable home ownership. Getting a supply of homes that can remain below market, people can park their investment there. They don't expect a big upsurge in value as the market rises, but it protects a supply of housing below market in perpetuity and enables people to preserve their equity."

Why isn't laneway housing available for sale?

"The rationale was that this is a way to create some affordable rental supply and provide families with more options to maintain single family homes and stay together on them versus creating a new supply of housing that's stratified and potentially is less affordable in the end."

Was it easier to sell to the neighbours that way?

"Well yeah, if you were able to sell off laneway housing, a lot of people could just go out right away and develop. There might be 10,000 laneway homes developed and put on the market and that would dramatically change neighbourhoods, dramatically change the housing market, not necessarily for the better. It's hard to know what the impact of that would be. I think the first step was enabling it for families and creating some more rental housing in neighbourhoods and see how the uptake goes and judge it from there."

One of the things I've discovered on this journey is my own sense of entitlement, stemming from the realization that I don't want to give up the lifestyle I currently enjoy in my big rental house in East Van. Do we have to reduce expectations? That idea of a front door and a backyard, is that something that's in the cards in Vancouver of the future?

"I think Vancouver has already made a fundamental shift in terms of significant density in the downtown and families now moving into downtown and staying there, raising families where there is no front yard. And we're seeing real uptake with laneway housing and secondary suites as a normal way to improve family cohesiveness and affordable housing in our single family home neighbourhoods. So I think we're seeing acceptance that people are keen to live in a lot of different circumstances and types of housing. We just gotta make sure we keep pushing that frontier and look at what's working in other cities, cause I don't think we've done enough of bringing in great innovations from elsewhere."

Ethically, I'm in a tough spot. I want to join this updraft of housing prices, but on the other hand I feel like an asshole about that desire potentially tearing apart the social fabric of our city. What's the right thing to do?

"It's a hot topic. It probably always has been in Vancouver, but it's particularly charged right now. No one could imagine how much this market has gone crazy in the last decade. It's just unbelievable. Those of us that got in before this current boom were lucky."

Yeah, but now you're the status quo that doesn't want things to change.

"Well I think there is a lot of concern around the city regardless of whether you own or rent, what your situation is, affordable housing comes out as a top concern for years and years now because people like the city the way it is, the people who are here and understand the challenges that are brewing.

"So I'm hopeful we're actually going to move the needle on this one. We're going to have to figure out more creative ways to do it."

Thank you, Gregor.

"Thanks, Luke. Good luck landing on whatever you land on."

The Mayor's Task Force on Housing Affordability is set to release its final report at the end of June.

Tomorrow: The conclusion of the Priced Out series, starring a bullish Condo King, a skeptical girlfriend and a mortgage manager trying to talk me out of starting a commune.

[Tags: Urban Planning + Architecture, Housing, Politics.]  [Tyee]

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