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Vancouver mayor emphasizes new approach to create affordable housing
Frances Bula
March 1, 2017

The mayor of this wildly expensive city says he is setting his team on a path to create affordable housing by going into single-family neighbourhoods, developing city land and maximizing every site available around transit and arterial roads.

Mayor Gregor Robertson, in an unusually activist speech Wednesday to a group of planners, architects and developers, said the city’s high-end, empty neighbourhoods are a sign of a “failing city.”
“The warning bells are ringing about the emptying out of our single-family neighbourhoods,” he said.

He emphasized Vancouver is going to take a new approach with a revamped housing plan this year, in part because he has been hearing from so many young people demanding that city council find a way for them to continue living in the city.

The message from those young, frustrated Vancouverites has started to change the tone of the usual argument in the city about development, which has been marked for decades by virulent resident opposition and NIMBYs, said the mayor.

“There are people that don’t want to see change. Historically, the NIMBY voice is loud … and then everyone else is quiet,” said Mr. Robertson, stressing he wants to preserve the essence of those old neighbourhoods.

But, he said, he’s less worried now about backlash from that group than about backlash from young people demanding that he find them room in the city.

Mr. Robertson, who has four children, said he has two living outside the city now and isn’t sure they will be able to move back when they want to.

He acknowledged that people are “feeling betrayed and let down by every level of government, including ours.”

The city’s new approach will mean planners will have to look at ways to create new housing everywhere, including the single-family neighbourhoods where a lot of effort has been focused recently on how to preserve the older houses that are being torn down and redeveloped into new mansions.

“A neighbourhood that’s made up of perfect, character $5-million homes is not healthy if there’s no kids there,” Mr. Robertson said at a keynote address to the Urban Land Institute. To make his case, he cited statistics from the recent census indicating that the population of Kerrisdale dropped by 800 people between 2011 and 2016, of Arbutus Ridge by 700 and of Dunbar by 300.

Besides looking at ways to introduce new, less expensive housing into those pricey west-side neighbourhoods and others, he also said the city would maximize the considerable amount of land it owns to create affordable housing.

Mr. Robertson said 3,000 homes could be created on just six important city sites. And he said planners will look at how to maximize housing around transit stations, along arterials, and in the city’s apartment zones, which have been frozen almost unchanged for more than a decade after council put in a moratorium on demolition and redevelopment.

Vancouver has undergone a phenomenal building boom since the early 1990s, with the downtown population more than doubling in size to 110,000 by last year.

But many people have worried that far too much of what’s being built is either luxury condos – the Westbank Vancouver House next to the Granville Bridge being just the latest example – or tiny studios and one-bedrooms that investors buy to rent out. And people have particularly worried that investors from mainland China, who are flooding the world with real estate purchases, are a big part of what’s driving real estate development.

That, in turn, has led to many criticisms that the Vision council let itself be too guided by developers, its major contributors, who built what was the easiest and most profitable to sell.

Mr. Robertson emphasized that planners will focus on getting the private market to build the kind of housing that people living in the city actually need.

“We don’t want more supply that’s just going to sit empty. In past years, the market was more focused on commodification than accommodation.”

In recent years, Mr. Robertson’s Vision council has moved to try to shape supply more by encouraging rental or, just last year, by insisting that developers had to build a certain number of two- and three-bedroom units in projects. However, the city has struggled to make those affordable even though developers are getting significant incentives to build them.

Mr. Robertson’s speech largely focused on housing for middle-income earners, though he did say that it’s possible that non-profit groups can create some deeply subsidized apartments if the city helps with free land. And he reiterated a frequent message that the city can only provide really low-cost housing with the help of the federal and provincial governments.

As is his custom, he shied away from blaming foreign investors for Vancouver’s huge housing-cost increases the past five years.

Instead, he said Vancouver, like other attractive global cities, is seeing the effects of “the biggest migration in the world” of people into urban areas.