Three of the 10 parties vying to win seats in Vancouver’s civic election are promising to densify single-family neighbourhoods, a political stance that would have been unheard of a few years ago.
OneCity, the party of current councillors Christine Boyle and Jennifer Reddy, has borrowed the urbanist slogan “four floors and a corner store” to capture its vision for greater density in single-family neighbourhoods.
Incumbent Mayor Kennedy Stewart, running under the Forward Together banner, has promised 220,000 new homes in the next 10 years and said some of that housing will be built as the result of new development in single-family home neighbourhoods.
Progress Vancouver, with Mark Marissen as its mayoral candidate, is also pushing for multi-family housing to be allowed throughout the city, with priority given to areas around schools, playgrounds and transit.
“To me it indicates how far the housing debate has moved, even since the last municipal election,” said Thom Armstrong, the executive director of the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC.
“Who’d have thought you’d see more than one party advocate for six-storey developments throughout the city.”
Housing advocates have been pushing for a long time to change zoning rules that have reserved large parts of North American cities for single-family homes. In Vancouver, single-family home lots have been gradually densified, with the city eventually allowing homeowners to add a laneway house and a basement suite to their properties.
But allowing apartment buildings to be built in single-family neighbourhoods has seemed almost impossible: existing homeowners often protested denser development, and city councils listened.
What’s changed? Vancouver’s already pricey housing has continued to become more expensive, for both homeowners and renters. Several single-family home neighbourhoods have actually lost population over the years, including young families. These parties are arguing that something needs to change.
Here’s how the housing platforms for OneCity, Forward Together and Progress Vancouver stack up. These three centre-left parties are just a few of the options for voters this time around, and we haven’t yet seen housing platforms from the other seven parties that are vying for votes.
OneCity and Progress Vancouver are both proposing to allow four-storey condos and six-storey apartment buildings throughout the city.
Jill Atkey, the executive director of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, said it’s important to not just name a target number for housing units, but to specify where that new housing is going to be built.
“OneCity and Progress are really the only parties talking about land use and zoning, and that’s so inextricably tied to housing development and achieving targets,” Atkey said.
All three parties are taking aim at Vancouver’s cumbersome public hearing process that has meant that it takes weeks of council meetings for some housing decisions to get to a vote.
Forward Together, Stewart’s party, is promising to modernize the public hearing process, although provincial legislation needs to be passed for that to happen.
OneCity and Progress Vancouver say zoning single-family neighbourhoods for four- to six-storey buildings means those projects could proceed without public hearings, and OneCity has proposed that social housing projects also be mostly exempt from public hearings.
Bryn Davidson, a laneway homebuilder in Vancouver, said he uses “the mansion test” to question whether a project should go through the public hearing process.
“Is it as easy to approve the housing that we actually need as it is to approve a mansion?” asked Davidson, who is a member of OneCity but has not endorsed any of the platforms.
“If there’s a 12-unit co-housing project proposed, and if it’s not the same process as a mansion, then what are we doing?”
Davidson said it’s hard to determine whether Stewart’s promise of 220,000 new units over 10 years is realistic.
“It’s a big number — I have no way of judging whether that’s even doable,” he said. “I think the OneCity approach of saying we’re going to bring plexes and rental into every neighbourhood is clearer.”
The three parties are also all pushing for stronger protections for renters. Forward Together is promising that renters displaced by development will have the right to return to a unit in the new building and pay 20 per cent below market rent or their previous rent, whichever is lower.
Stewart is also promising to add permanent vacancy control — meaning rent increases are capped when a tenant moves out and a new renter moves in — to more new rental units.
OneCity says they will create a tenancy advocacy office and prioritize development applications that do not displace renters. Vaguer promises like ending incentives to displace renters and a rent top-up are also part of the platform.
Similar to Forward Together, Progress Vancouver is promising that displaced tenants get first right to return when buildings are renovated, at 20-per-cent below market rent or the same rent they were paying before.
The three parties are also proposing measures to tackle real estate speculation. Forward Together is pledging to keep the Empty Homes Tax at five per cent, while OneCity is proposing a land value tax and Progress Vancouver is suggesting a new “luxury homes” surtax on the top one per cent of properties.