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Vancouver’s Housing Plan Lifted from Tyee Headlines

The best aspects of the Housing Vancouver Strategy reflect a decade of Tyee reporting on housing solutions.

By Katie Hyslop 20 Dec 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Find her previous stories here. She was also part of the team working on the Tyee Solutions/Housing Fix reporting team. In 2016-17, the project was supported by Vancity Credit Union, Catherine Donnelly Foundation and the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., in collaboration with Columbia Institute.

There’s something really familiar about the City of Vancouver’s recently released Housing Vancouver Strategy: many of its key actions are directly lifted from The Tyee’s housing solutions reporting over the last decade.

The 10-year plan, released the day after the federal government’s long-awaited National Housing Strategy was released last month, has earned more praise — and slightly less criticism — than the federal strategy for its comprehensive response to our ongoing housing crisis.

The city plan for 72,000 new homes is supposed to meet the needs of everyone from the lowest-income earners to the median-income households for whom single-family-home ownership is out of reach. It includes plans to meet the needs of most vulnerable residents, like youth aging out of foster care, the LGBTQ2S+ community, urban Indigenous people, seniors and single-parent-led families.

The plan also addresses the challenges of maintaining existing purpose built rental and non-profit housing stock, while pledging to increase rental subsidies to make market-rate units available for low-income renters.

There are plenty of valid questions about whether the plan goes far enough and whether the city can secure the funding partnerships required to make all these dreams come true.

But it’s clear the city has been reading our work. Here are just some of the solutions we’ve examined that the city is pledging to implement:

Density dreams

Want to cause panic amongst Vancouverites living outside the downtown core? Promise to bring “density” to their neighbourhoods.

But whether you like it or not, increased density in Vancouver’s single-family home neighbourhoods is key if we’re going to house everyone within their budgets. Fortunately for tower haters, our reporting has shown that density can be much gentler than those green glass behemoths.

The city, which already allows up to four units of housing on a single-family home lot in some neighbourhoods, is pushing for a diverse range of majority rental infill housing like laneway homes, townhomes, duplexes, row houses and other forms of housing that squeeze in more people without sacrificing the look and feel of a low-rise neighbourhood.

The approach also adds a diversity of income levels to otherwise wealthy neighbourhoods. Studies have shown that if that’s done well — including amenities that lower-income people require like affordable groceries and good transit and social mixing among income groups in walkable neighbourhoods — the changes have little impact on wealthy people and positive impact on low-income people, particularly their children.

And what about housing families and low-income workers in the already dense condo-tower neighbourhoods? The city points to lock-off suites, essentially secondary suites in apartments that the city highlights specifically in its plan — a solution The Tyee explored in 2009.

Tinkering around transit hubs

Denser neighbourhoods are generally more walkable, which is helpful in neighbourhoods with limited parking. Fewer cars mean less carbon, but also better access to public transit.

Which brings us to another city housing pledge: building more housing near and on top of transit hubs. Think Metrotown, but without the demolition of those affordable three-storey walk-up apartments to make way for condos.

The Housing Vancouver Strategy isn’t specific about how the city will prioritize social and affordable housing — which it defines as costing no more than 30 per cent of household pre-tax income — around transit hubs.

However, it does refer to inclusionary zoning practices later in the plan. They could be used around new transit stations to require developers to build the cost of providing a certain percentage of affordable housing units into their initial development bids.

Another option we’ve highlighted is extra fees for developments near transit, which can be funnelled back into subsidizing rents or building affordable housing projects.

Indigenizing the housing supply

The majority of Indigenous people in the province live in urban areas, including Vancouver. But while Indigenous people account for an exceptionally large percentage of people experiencing homelessness in the city, the concept of Indigenous homelessness is complicated thanks to ongoing colonial practices that rob people of their culture, language and lands.

There’s only so much a city can do to mitigate colonialism on its own, and there are large roles for the provincial and federal governments to play in meeting Indigenous housing needs.

But the City of Vancouver’s plan commits it to ensuring housing meets not only the shelter needs, but also the cultural needs of Indigenous people. The approaches will include housing project designs developed using an Indigenous lens, ensuring an adequate supply of family housing and partnering with urban Indigenous organizations to create more social housing options.

Protecting the vulnerable

The city’s strategy also touches on the unique housing needs of seniors, people with disabilities, youth from foster care and LGBTQ2S+ youth — who experience higher rates of homelessness than their peers — and the city’s growing population of homeless adults and families.

Much of the heavy lifting on this front must happen in collaboration with the province, which has already pledged to construct 2,000 modular housing units in B.C., and the federal government, whose National Housing Strategy aims for a 50 per cent reduction in homelessness over 10 years.

For its part, the city pledges continued support of its Rent Bank, as well as advocating at the provincial level for higher subsidy rates in the Shelter Aid For Elderly Renters program for seniors and higher income assistance and disability rates to ensure the lowest income households can afford to live in Vancouver.

The Housing Vancouver Strategy works upstream, too, by addressing how people become vulnerable in the first place, including working with the province and federal government to prevent homelessness through more supportive housing and addressing the patchy mental health and addictions systems that can lead people to a life on the streets.

Maintaining what we have

Single-Room Occupancy hotels are the boogeymen of low-income housing supply in Vancouver, with notorious slumlords forcing their residents to pay a high price to live in squalor. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

While the Vancouver plan calls for tougher penalties for landlords who refuse to maintain their buildings to safety standards, the city also wants an SRO revitalization fund comprised of federal, provincial and municipal investments to help purchase and upgrade existing SROs, which provide cheap independent living.

Revitalizing existing private rental stock often results in rent increases that push renters out of their homes and reduce the number of affordable units. But not renovating means renters’ energy bills go up and quality of life goes down as their homes deteriorate.

The Housing Vancouver Strategy calls for policy changes to protect renters from renovictions. It also calls for further study into the impact of revitalization on purpose-built rental tenants, and investments from the federal government to help pay for upgrades without rent increases — before it’s too late to save buildings.

While the city hasn’t offered specific proposals yet, The Tyee already has at least one suggestion: let existing tenants have right of first refusal at their old rental rate.

While building for ethical growth

With the decline in community participation in churches and social clubs, organizations dedicated to helping the vulnerable are finding that their greatest asset in the fight for affordable housing is their own land.

The Housing Vancouver Strategy recognizes this through its pledge to incentivize social purpose real estate, like the partnerships we’ve covered between social purpose real estate developers, churches and fraternal organizations like the freemasons and legions. These partnerships allow the organizations to use their most valuable assets — land — to build market rate and subsidized rental housing in Vancouver and across Canada.

Where once co-ops and non-profit housing were the singular domain of federal and provincial governments, it’s partnerships between the provinces, cities, federal government and credit unions that are building new non-profits and co-op housing units today.

The Housing Vancouver Strategy calls on the city to continue its support of these developments. The strategy isn’t specific on how it will achieve this, but in the past it has leased valuable city land to be controlled collectively under community land trusts.

(If the city would like further tips on revitalizing co-op housing, former Tyee reporter Monte Paulsen wrote a four-part series on the topic back in 2010.)

Without federal and provincial funds, the Housing Vancouver Strategy is more of a vision than a concrete plan. Just 72,000 homes won’t cover the anticipated housing needs in the community. Only 11,000 rental and 16,000 ownership units are planned for families with children, and just 12,000 units of non-profit, social and co-operative housing are proposed for the lowest-income earners.

And there is the broader question of soaring housing prices. The Tyee has debunked the idea that taxes on empty homes or foreign ownership will stop domestic investors from gobbling up our new, still unaffordable housing units. Yet the Housing Vancouver Strategy mentions both as tools for slowing the astronomic rise in housing costs.

Asking a city to stop global capital and the commodification of shelter on its own is too much to ask. But paying attention to best housing practices in the municipal toolbox is not, and it’s encouraging to see the Housing Vancouver Strategy is a result of the city doing its homework.  [Tyee]

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