When Vancouver voters last went to the polls, the most pressing issue for two out of three was the housing crisis. Tight rentals and skyrocketing home prices were shutting out younger and lower-income residents, and the Vision Vancouver government was due for a shellacking given that 85 per cent of those surveyed said the job it had done was either “bad” or “very bad.”
If ever there was a mandate for the elected to take bold action, this was it. But when Kennedy Stewart celebrated his victory as mayor on Oct. 20, 2018, the former New Democrat member of Parliament from Burnaby faced some sobering realities. He’d eked out his win by under two per cent over business-aligned NPA opponent Ken Sim. Now Stewart, who’d run as an independent, would preside over a council whose 10 members belonged to four parties. The largest voting bloc was the five-member NPA caucus.
What consensus might emerge from this political crazy quilt? How would Vancouver reverse its seemingly relentless march to being a preserve of the wealthiest?
Two years on, anyone who has watched for an answer can be forgiven for being utterly confused. Not only is council today composed of four different parties and one independent member, but councillors in the same parties have voted against each other on various housing matters.
And while it can seem simple to just split the housing landscape into those for density and those against — a war of YIMBYs versus NIMBYs — overlaying questions can muddy that line. Such as:
How much change should happen without a completed city-wide plan already being drawn up?
When does zoning for density become self-defeating by driving up land prices as fast as it adds units?
What newly introduced building types enhance, or ruin, neighbourhood fabrics?
How much government financial incentive to developers to build new housing is too much?
Spare a bit of sympathy, then, for Vancouver’s mayor, whose political future rests on wrangling all these disparate forces. When Stewart gazes upon Vancouver’s council, he sees a body about as easy to tame, he told The Tyee, as the government of Italy.
Undaunted, we tried to make sense of it all by speaking with the mayor and every councillor except Colleen Hardwick, who did not respond to several requests for comment. We also unpacked some key votes that appeared particularly mysterious.
THE MAYOR AND COUNCIL
Mayor Kennedy Stewart, Independent
Stewart came into office determined not be seen as another centre-left enviro mayor whose answer to unaffordability was more towers of luxury condos. It was this negative public image — deserved or not — that forced former Vision Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson to seek another line of work.
So over the past two years, Stewart has sought to create more market and non-market apartment rentals — and to bring multiple-unit housing to Vancouver’s vast preserve of multi-million-dollar single-detached family homes.
Stewart, who ran on a platform of more rental construction, told council during one density vote: “I was elected because the status quo wasn’t working.”
Stewart believes most of Vancouver’s low-density neighbourhoods should be opened up to not just basement suites and laneway houses — the extra zoning that’s allowed now — but to a variety of denser multi-family building forms, including apartments.
The mayor argues that 60 per cent of the city’s land base is reserved for forms of low-density housing that only 2.5 per cent of the population can afford. Townhouses and apartments are illegal in most of Vancouver.
The mayor’s messaging — and expect to hear it in the next election campaign — is that Vancouver has enough high-end condos but not enough new units for the younger working middle-class, what’s become known as the “missing middle” housing demographic.
“Increasingly, it’s who is able to provide a vision for this city that isn’t Monaco,” said Stewart, “where you have the Lamborghinis and the super-high property prices and all the workers come in on the buses.”
Stewart’s views might seem hardly controversial, given voter sentiment in the last election. But he’s run into trouble with potential councillor allies on a couple of points. Some, as we shall see, worry his approach gives away too much to developers while giving short shrift to the poorest in the city, and would fuel gentrification or ruin the character of neighbourhoods.
There’s also the matter of Stewart’s political gamesmanship, which has rankled some members of council enough to withhold votes. More on that later, too.
Coun. Christine Boyle, OneCity
Stewart’s closest council ally on the housing front is first-term councillor Christine Boyle, whose leftish millennial-driven party, OneCity, has the anti-NIMBY slogan: “Every Neighbourhood for Everyone.”
Several political observers have suggested that Vancouver’s housing politics can be best understood by placing the councillors on a pro-density urbanist versus preservationist grid. On the density side, Stewart and Boyle are the most urbanist, strong supporters of bringing change to single-family neighbourhoods.
Coun. Lisa Dominato, Melissa De Genova and Sarah Kirby-Young, NPA
One might expect self-styled progressives Stewart and Boyle to find natural allies among Greens and the most left-wing councillor of the bunch, Jean Swanson of COPE. Actually, when it comes to housing density votes, it’s Dominato, De Genova and Kirby-Young, three members of the traditionally pro-business, pro-developer NPA who frequently join the mayor and Boyle.
Observers note that such a coalition fires on all cylinders when new zoning and tax incentives allow developers to profit while increasing market and non-market housing supply.
Coun. Colleen Hardwick, NPA
Hardwick often comes across as the outlier in the current four-member NPA caucus, although her hyper-local approach to planning probably appeals to many in the party’s more conservative homeowner base.
Depending on your perspective, Hardwick is either a fierce defender of neighbourhoods threatened by developer overreach, or she is the city’s NIMBY queen, a protector of the homeowner class that wants to keep renters out of the single-family neighbourhoods.
On election night, Hardwick told The Tyee her focus would be “the missing middle” — encouraging the building of low-rise multi-family forms of housing in single-family neighbourhoods. She would also work to make permit processes for renovations more streamlined.
Instead, since then, she’s made it clear she believes that Mayor Stewart, much of the council and the city’s planning staff are continuing on with the pro-density approach of Vision Vancouver, a party she loathed.
Hardwick regularly upbraids staff in council chambers with an almost Margaret Thatcher scorn. And she questions whether there is, in fact, a housing crisis for adults under 40, prompting Boyle to say: “I guess she hasn’t looked for a new place to live for a while.”
Hardwick is also the most fiscally conservative councillor, routinely questioning whether policies such as climate action or Indigenous reconciliation programs are a good way to spend tax money. Still, Hardwick filed for the most expenses of any councillor for this year — $19,036, about $7,000 more than any of her counterparts.
Hardwick, who is expected to run for mayor in 2022, seems to long for the pre-Expo Vancouver of her youth, when her geography professor father, Walter Hardwick, was the intellectual guru of TEAM, the reformist party which took over city hall and largely protected the single-family neighbourhoods from high-rises.
In a tweet from council last year, Hardwick lamented, “Sitting in council this morning I feel like I have been living in a different Vancouver for my 60 years. History has been rewritten in the last 10 years and institutional memories lost replaced by a new narrative. It is like a bizarro world. Voters voted Vision out and expected change. It is more of the same. Depressed.”
A supporter asked on Twitter whether Hardwick could turn to other council members for help. She tweeted back: “Most are younger, did not grow up here and lack historical perspective let alone relevant academic or professional domain expertise. They buy into staff’s narrative which has largely been driven by the Americanization of city hall.”
Hardwick views the last election as a proper rejection of Vision Vancouver’s attempt to bolster affordability through more housing supply. And she has stated that she represents her constituents, not would-be residents.
Coun. Adriane Carr, Green
Coun. Carr, who often votes with Hardwick on housing issues, is mostly concerned with preserving neighbourhood “character,” and her alliance with preservationist resident groups helped her top the polls in the last election.
Mark Marissen, veteran federal Liberal operative and former chair of the market-driven, pro-density party Yes Vancouver, said Carr appeals to an older demographic “that thinks having a big backyard and a nice garden is green. But if you have a big backyard and nice garden five minutes from downtown, you are taking up space that could house people who really need housing.”
Carr told The Tyee that she is supportive of increasing density in single-family neighbourhoods “but you need to do it in a way that is sensitive to the character of neighbourhoods.” She also laments that not enough is being done to protect the retention of character homes. Her pro-density critics argue that clinging to low-density, single-family home “character” has contributed to the lack of vibrancy of the streets and stores on the West Side and elsewhere.
Coun. Pete Fry and Michael Wiebe, Green
Green councillors Pete Fry and Michael Wiebe are mostly swing voters, at times parting with Carr depending on the specifics of the project being considered.
Coun. Rebecca Bligh, Independent
Bligh is the other common swing voter. Elected as a member of the NPA slate, she resigned from the party last year when its board of directors signalled a sharp shift to the socially conservative right.
Early in her term, Bligh stuck a flag in the ground, declaring, “we cannot move forward without a citywide plan. Meaning we must project 15 to 20 years into the future and ask ourselves, ‘What will Vancouver require in terms of liveability?’ Then and only then, can we get to work, with confidence, in building a city where people can thrive.”
Coun. Jean Swanson, COPE
If the NPA’s Colleen Hardwick and the Green’s Adriane Carr are seen to be the most preservationist, then anti-developer Swanson, the most left-wing vote on council, is their strange political bedfellow. Not really a preservationist, she’s glad to see more social housing built pretty much wherever. But because of her fears of gentrification, she regularly votes against density unless there is enough below-market housing for the low-income demographic she long served as an activist on the Downtown Eastside.
Asked about the counter-intuitive fact that her votes on rental housing often match Hardwick’s, Swanson said with some laughter that her NPA colleague “doesn’t like developers that much. That’s what it comes down to.” Swanson said that many critics of new rental buildings pushed by Stewart attack the projects for the building’s height, “but for me it’s who gets to use the building. So often it boils down to us voting the same, though for different reasons.”
Given the competing constituencies and beliefs diagrammed above, it’s no wonder that quagmire is a word used often in social media to describe council’s approach on the housing file.
In retrospect, what seemed a simple Fix Housing! mandate in 2018 was interpreted very differently by the politicians who received it. To some NPA and Green councillors, the vote endorsed denser housing options: rowhouses, townhouses and apartments. To other councillors, the election result was a call for less gentrification and an end to the pro-supply approach of previous councils dominated by the centre-left Vision Vancouver.
“When you think about it in parliamentary terms, it’s a minority government where every party has a chance to form a coalition on every vote,” Stewart told The Tyee. “It’s almost like an Italian parliament where you have a hundred parties and 35 governments fall in a row. You are literally surviving vote-to-vote.”
OneCity’s Boyle similarly said that the council’s divisions within divisions are impeding progress on affordability.
“There are a couple of ways this council splits, though in truth there are votes every meeting that feel like a new division and a number of votes that seem unpredictable,” said Boyle. “The pro-housing and the don’t-change-anything split is one of the more common ones.”
It wasn’t always like this (see sidebar for recent historical context). But when it comes to housing these days, all bets are off with divisions transcending partisanship on the right and left.
“It’s hard for the building community to anticipate what the council is going to do,” said Stewart. “I hear that all the time. It’s often a white-knuckle ride through the rezoning process.”
Fry rejects the notion that council is gridlocked. “Things get done; they just take a long time to get done.” He faulted some councillors for “disproportionately eating up a lot of time.” He said the NPA councillors “are all over the map on this stuff and a lot of bickering and infighting happens between them.”
Okay, then. Let’s take a look at how voting has gone on three efforts likely key to Mayor Stewart’s political fortunes.
Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program
Despite the vote splits, said NPA councillor Dominato, “there is an alignment among many councillors on the need for gentle density across the city. There is more consensus than gridlock.”
Dominato’s point is perhaps proved by the council’s approval of rezoning for 11 of the 20 proposed pilot projects under the city’s new Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program, which is aimed at creating rental for the “missing middle” demographic priced out of the market.
The MIRHPP sites are 100 per cent secured rental with a minimum of 20 per cent permanently secured for moderate income households earning between $30,000 and $80,000. To sweeten the pot, developers are given a bunch of added density, and waived a tax and parking stall requirements and provided cheap credit. The program was approved by the previous Vision council, but the individual projects were voted on by the current councillors and Stewart has led the charge on all of them.
Several of the projects, especially three on the West Side, generated considerable pushback from local residents. Stuart Smith, of the pro-density lobby Abundant Housing Vancouver, said the MIRHPP process revealed the reluctance of many homeowners to have new neighbours.
“These buildings are going to be full of people very excited to have a new home in the city. And I would love to have these people hear some of the things said about them during the hearings — and ask them, ‘How does that make them feel about their new neighbours?’”
Stewart, Boyle, Dominato, De Genova, Kirby-Young, and Wiebe voted for every project. Fry and Bligh only opposed one MIRHPP project. Less enthused about the secured rental projects were Swanson who voted against seven of the rental projects, Hardwick who voted against six and Carr who opposed four.
Bligh’s single negative vote was against the most controversial MIRHPP project, a 28-storey storey tower at Broadway and Birch. She feared that the tower could spark a rise in rents in nearby apartment units. But project proponents argued that new supply would give more renters more alternatives than just competing for existing units. Jill Atkey, executive director of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, backed the project, saying it provided affordability without displacing renters.
Council recently voted 8-3 for the latest MIRHPP project — a 14-storey-tower at Broadway and Alma where four storeys was the norm.
Hardwick, Carr and Swanson were opposed. As usual, they came to their vote with different reasoning. Swanson believed the developer was going to make too much money. Hardwick simply didn’t believe that the amount of density that Vancouver planners say is needed is a reality.
Carr agreed with local resident groups, as she often does, that it wasn’t a “good fit.” And she felt the city gave away too much money by waiving development cost levies and Community Amenity Contributions worth millions of dollars. The Green councillor believes that the city could take that money and build more affordable units elsewhere, perhaps on city-owned land.
NPA councillor Kirby-Young argued against Carr’s idea, saying the “economics don’t work.” She said the city would be hard-pressed to cover the astronomic costs of construction, the financing and the never-ending operating costs. Under the MIRHPP program, developers assume all financial and operating risks for the life of these rental projects.
Kirby-Young added that housing run by non-profits on city-owned land is still typically dependent on funding from the provincial government to maintain affordability levels.
In the pages of The Tyee, a lively debate unfolded between UBC urban planning professor Patrick Condon, who was COPE’s mayoral candidate before pulling out due to health reasons, and Michael Mortensen, a developer and affordable housing consultant. Condon argued the cash breaks given to developers could be used differently to get more truly sub-market housing. Mortensen argued in response that MIRHPP was the best way to get more affordable rentals. He stuck to his guns even after it was shown he was working off some wrong numbers in a city staff report.
Some MIRHPP opponents say it’s time to stop up-zoning parcels on a case-by-case basis. Better to wait and complete a city-wide plan due next year, which proponents say will dampen land speculation and provide developers the certainty they say they need while safeguarding key characteristics of neighbourhoods.
In that camp is Larry Benge. MIRHPP is a betrayal of promises made in the election, accuses Benge, co-chair of the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods, one of city’s main preservationist lobby groups. “There have been a lot of broad brushstrokes when it comes to zoning in the housing area and very little neighbourhood-based planning. It’s more of a continuation of the Vision Vancouver policies and not the change that people were voting for.”
Benge believes neighbourhoods should have more say on where and when new density is added.
Abundant Housing, an activist group of mostly millennial professionals angry that their generation has been all but shut out of the city’s housing market, takes the opposite view.
Abundant Housing’s Smith said that neighbourhood groups dominated by homeowners too often ensure that nothing gets built. “They’ve taken the idea of community planning — which arose because of justifiable concerns in the ‘60s and ‘70s over freeways demolishing neighbourhoods — and used that approach to oppose even very organic evolution of neighbourhoods, like adding laneways, a suite, a duplex.”
Allowing taller rental buildings on commercial streets
The fault lines at city hall surfaced in August when council narrowly voted to defer a motion which would have allowed six-storey mixed-use developments on commercial streets without the need for a rezoning hearing if the residential portion of the buildings is rental instead of condos. Developers currently can build up to four storeys of condos without rezoning.
Stewart, Boyle and NPA councillors De Genova, Dominato and Kirby-Young opposed the deferral, pressing for more density if it delivered rentals.
Among those successfully deferring the effort were Hardwick, Carr and Swanson. That trio also happen to be council’s only baby boomers.
“The age split on a number of our housing votes is intriguing to me,” said OneCity’s Boyle, a millennial. “Most younger Vancouverites haven’t had an expectation of owning a detached family home nor is that their dream.
“But they want secure housing, even if it doesn’t have a yard and a picket fence. So there is a generational shift in what people expect in housing and that impacts the type of housing that gets supported on council.”
Mayor Stewart spent his first two years in office downplaying partisanship and largely focused on lobbying senior levels of government for funding — something he can do without council’s approval.
But heading into the last half of his term, Stewart is seeking to highlight differences between himself and the NPA, especially on housing.
This became apparent in September when the mayor unveiled his Making HOME, or Home Options for Middle-income Earners pilot project, a proposal that would allow up to six housing units on 100 lots zoned for single-family housing, provided that two of the homes are below-market units aimed at middle-class earners.
Stewart’s Making HOME plan generated media coverage and came with a spiffy website that had the feel of an election campaign plank. Stewart’s proposal came to council in the form of an amendment to a motion by NPA councillor Dominato asking staff to explore how to bring multi-unit housing forms like townhouses and rowhouses to the city’s less dense neighbourhoods.
In The Tyee, Patrick Condon suggested a “tweak” to the proposal by requiring a larger percentage of below-market units be included in each development, citing such an approach in Portland, Ore. as proof developers would still build and profit.
The Tyee also published an extensive analysis by a Seattle sustainability think tank that saw promise in the Making HOME proposal as well as a potential boon to Stewart’s re-election chances. Sightline Institute’s Dan Bertolet called Making HOME “a next step in Vancouver’s unending public conversation about how to find space for its next generation of much-needed homes. If Stewart can make six homes per lot a winning issue in the 2022 election, finding the votes might not remain hard.”
Council ended up rejecting Stewart’s proposal by referring Dominato’s original motion to staff with a report expected in the spring of 2021. Voting for the referral were three NPA councillors and all Greens as well as independent Bligh. Abstaining: The NPA’s De Genova and COPE’s Swanson. Only Stewart and OneCity’s Boyle voted to greenlight Making HOME.
Immediately after the council meeting, an email was released by “Team Kennedy Stewart 2022,” charging that the NPA voted to “crush the dreams of hard-working families desperate to get into the housing market.”
The media release was denounced by some councillors as inaccurate partisan spin. Some NPA and Green councillors told The Tyee that they voted to defer the motion because Stewart was using Making HOME for his re-election bid — and they rejected his accusation that they don’t support density.
“I’m generally quite supportive of the mayor,” said Green councillor Fry. “I think he’s done a pretty good job. But I think the way he built a significant campaign around an amendment to someone else’s motion was an insult to the process. It was a big deciding factor for everybody.”
Fry said the Making HOME proposal was a good idea that needs further development by staff. “This isn’t a great postponement or a killing. It was a referral back to staff.”
The NPA’s Kirby-Young said she opposed the way Stewart rolled out his Making HOME but not the idea behind it. “I think that is the way we need to go in this city. Whether you call it increased density or gentle density. Whether you call it townhouses, rowhouses, or other tenure types.
“I absolutely believe that with our finite land base and the affordability challenges we have, moving forward with smart density in a number of neighbourhoods is smart.”
OneCity councillor Boyle was dismayed by the vote to send the proposal back to staff for further review.
“This council is earning a reputation for spending a lot of time getting very little done,” Boyle said during debate. “And I’m finding it increasingly frustrating, particularly because we know that more than 800 detached homes per year are being torn down and replaced with newer, luxury detached homes.”
Boyle said that Stewart’s Making HOME proposal failed because of opposition from neighbourhood groups — and also because of partisan politics. “We hear from a number of groups who are theoretically supportive of density. But it’s hard to pinpoint what kind of density they would actually back. I thought this four to six-plex proposal might be one that they would support.”
JOCKEYING FOR 2022
In the aftermath of the Making HOME deferral, Stewart spared the Greens any criticism; perhaps because he needs Green voters to win re-election and Green councillors to maintain his fragile majority on council.
What’s clear is that the mayor wants to run against the NPA — not the Greens — and, in particular, against Hardwick. There is reason to believe he will. Hardwick launched a 50-neighbourhood, year-long personal tour, consulting with resident groups about where they think density should be located. Her project coincides with the Vancouver Plan, the current city-wide planning process. Many observers believe Hardwick’s tour is partly strategy to build a database of potential supporters for a mayoralty run.
Stewart would relish a battle against Hardwick and already has his attack lines ready. “If you look at her voting record, it’s all about protecting entrenched neighbourhoods. You only have to sit in on one council meeting and you hear it: that the census data is wrong, that population growth is collapsing because of COVID,” said Stewart.
“But if you want to preserve Kits Point and Point Grey and Shaughnessy as they were decades ago, then you will find the arguments you need. Meanwhile, no workers can live in this city.”
Stewart describes Hardwick — who did win the most NPA votes — as her party’s “leader.” But that’s a dubious tag given how the NPA bloc splits on housing. “We were elected under the NPA banner, but we have different perspectives on housing,” said Dominato. “I don’t think there is a specific leader.”
Dominato rejected Hardwick’s example by supporting the apartment tower project at Broadway-Alma, telling council: “I’m trying to consider the housing needs not only of the residents today, but also the residents of the future, and our young people.”
Her NPA colleague De Genova similarly told The Tyee: “We can’t lose the plot here. If the cost of living in Vancouver becomes out of reach, then we leave people behind. We need to not only consider millennials now but generations that come after.”
By contrast, during the vote on the Broadway-Alma rental housing project Hardwick questioned whether the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t undermined the city’s growth population projections.
Hardwick told council that she has no confidence in the city’s 10-year Housing Vancouver strategy targets and the city’s MIRHPP program due to “lack of evidence and false assumptions.” Earlier this year, council approved a Hardwick motion directing staff to provide data for a recalibration of its housing targets.
She wants the city to cut its original 10-year target of 72,000 new homes by 60 per cent.
Hardwick’s political calculus assumes enough Vancouverites believe that more supply isn’t required. Or even that new construction simply exacerbates unaffordability.
“That’s probably one of the most ridiculous arguments I’ve ever heard,” said Stewart. “There hasn’t been a lot of building in Shaughnessy and prices there have gone through the roof.”
The mayor argued that demand is driving up prices. “People don’t want to hear that. They want to say it’s money laundering or foreign money. But it’s just that a lot of people want to live in this city and there isn’t enough housing for them.”
THE PROGRESSIVE DIVIDE
OneCity councillor Boyle, true to form, echoes Mayor Stewart, by saying it’s the lack of enough housing that is driving up prices. “I hear from councillor Hardwick and others the idea that Vancouver is full — and I disagree with that. And I think it’s a deeply unjust approach to housing policy.
“If you are here already — great. And if you aren’t — tough luck for you, we don’t want any more people. But, of course, that’s not how it works. It means that there is a bidding war for housing and because of its scarcity, it becomes more expensive.
“It’s at best problematic and at worst a bit racist.”
But the Green Party’s Fry epitomizes the ambivalence many progressives have about density and the best ways to achieve it. He is open to new housing initiatives but wants council to have a steady hand on the throttle of new development. “I am not in the Hardwick camp, questioning the nature of growth in the city. But I believe we need to build intelligently.”
Fry said that new housing needs to be linked to local incomes. He also fears that density can lead to gentrification, raising nearby rents or wiping out the Mom-and-Pop stores, replacing them with chain outlets.
Yet he’s no ally of Hardwick, whose view is that neighbourhoods — not the city at large or planning staff — should have more control over their future, even if it means keeping newcomers out.
“Hardwick is definitely a renegade,” said Fry. “I don’t think she aligns with anyone on council in a 100-per-cent way. She has a perspective that is rooted in favour of the ‘60s and ‘70s — and that doesn’t resonate with a lot of us today.”
Fry rebuked Hardwick for routinely questioning the capabilities of the city’s senior staff and for arguing that population growth trends will suddenly reverse because of COVID-19. “With climate change we know that more people will come to the cities, and we do a disservice to our job to pretend we can just pull up the drawbridge.”
The divisions among councillors who consider themselves progressives reflect splits within Vancouver’s left-leaning, if loose-knit, community.
On one side are those who believe that younger generations will only get a chance to live in Vancouver if councillors stop deferring to resident groups who resist every attempt to allow different forms of housing other than the detached house.
And not just on the fringes of the residential areas, but right inside the normally sacrosanct quadrants of detached homes. In the absence of significant investment by senior levels of government into middle-class housing, they are willing to use market-driven incentivized mechanisms to move toward greater affordability.
These density advocates, who largely consider themselves part of the city’s progressive majority, are viewed by others on the left as neo-liberal dupes of the development industry.
Some affordability advocates who are nevertheless critics of the market-driven supply-side argument note that in Vancouver, thousands of condos have been added over the years, but their prices keep spiralling out of reach. They lay the blame on mismanaged up-zoning. Done wrong, the cost of land rises as new zoning allows more density to be built upon it. That drives up unit prices and the cost of land nearby.
But such developments can find buyers among the global elite. So adding supply in this way, rather than lowering costs, just locks in the trend towards Vancouver as reserved for the wealthy. Better to suppress land values and speculation with land taxes and a city-wide plan that does away with spot-zoning.
Some also urge that the best way to sidestep Vancouver’s high land costs is to commandeer public land for cheaper housing, including perhaps even city-owned golf courses. And some point to models like Vienna and Singapore where direct public investment has provided affordable housing for much of their populations.
But these approaches would require coordination and spending by government — at more than one level — that few politicians with power appear willing to try.
Still, that’s how affordability advocates who consider themselves quite progressive can find themselves opposing market-driven solutions that offer a lot of carrots to developers. And doing so in a seemingly strange alliance with preservationists.
BEYOND THE QUAGMIRE
The morass of Vancouver city hall’s housing politics now mapped as best we can, what has it managed to produce halfway to the next election?
A few days before Christmas, Mayor Stewart issued a press release boasting “2020 has been a great year for housing in our city” based on the numbers through September. He sang from the supply-side hymnbook by highlighting the fact that nearly 5,000 homes, their prices unnamed, had been approved. He noted the city was “on track to exceed 2020 rental and social housing targets.” And the MIRHPP program was “responsible for 70 per cent of new purpose-built rentals approved in 2020, on track to deliver 885 homes.”
Still, how many of those units will be affordable for renters with household incomes of $80,000 or less? Just 178.
So how has Stewart and his Italian parliament of a council really done, given their mandate to make housing in Vancouver more affordable?
“That depends on who you are,” says Andy Yan, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University. Even the affordability of those 178 special, sub-market rental units fostered by the mayor’s ballyhooed MIRHPP program can be questioned, given they are pegged at households topping out at $80,000. That is because in Vancouver, nearly two out of three of renting households earn just $50,000 or less, notes Yan, drawing on figures supplied to him by the city.
How many of Vancouver’s renting households make at least $80,000? Just 13 per cent.
Yan looks at the trends and concludes much bolder steps are needed at city hall to align Vancouver housing with the realities faced by most renters and aspiring owners.
In a city where more people rent than own, he calls for a registry identifying all rental units, purpose-built or not. He says council should do more to protect renter rights and vacancy control, and preserve supply by stricter regulation of professionalized temporary rentals by companies like Airbnb. He notes that in many high-rental neighbourhoods, the household income level is far lower than the city average. Tie true rent affordability and security of tenure, therefore, not to city-wide income averages, as Kennedy does, but to the specific statistics of each neighbourhood, as is done in U.S. cities, Yan suggests.
At the poverty end of the spectrum, Yan worries the city has “overreached” by unilaterally entering the realm of non-market and supportive housing, given the costs of developing and maintaining them as well as providing proper supports for their residents. He says, “The city certainly has a role, but, by itself, the city’s abilities and capacities are limited in scale and its reach exceeds its grasp.” When it comes to housing the most vulnerable, he notes, the province has a much larger role to play — raising welfare rates and housing allowances mixed in with inclusive community economic development, mental health services, and drug reform are key. Without such measures, Vancouverites are left to wonder how effective Stewart is at pressing other levels of government to deal with the roots of the problem.
Yan gets it that Stewart faces a fragmented council and aloof senior governments. But finding alliances has always been the job of Vancouver mayor, given the governance structure at city hall. Stewart — and council — need to demonstrate not only better diplomacy with Victoria and Ottawa but work behind the scenes to heal misunderstandings and bring opposing sides together. “If Lincoln can do it, Kennedy can,” Yan says with smile.
In the meantime, Yan observes, the level of income polarization in Vancouver is higher than at any time since the 1930s. The politically low-friction days of filling brown fields with new developments are over. And nowadays, almost all densification in established neighbourhoods happens on the east side of town, while on the wealthier west side, says Yan, “The homes have become larger and emptier. It’s getting less dense.”
Something’s got to give. Stewart has no doubt people will continue wanting to live in Vancouver. Civic politicians therefore can’t indulge in a nostalgia for the way things used to be. “Vancouver can’t return to being a suburb like it was decades and decades ago.”
“It’s a thriving global city,” he says. “That’s what the population decided they wanted here and that’s what’s happening. And that’s why I was elected. We have no control over population growth. There is no Fortress Vancouver.”
That may be true. But policies and market forces build walls that protect some while others are pushed out. Stewart and his councillors have yet to forge an agenda that reflects the mood of crisis that delivered them to their posts in the first place. They have until the fall of 2022 to demonstrate otherwise.
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