Housing solutions

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      City officials say they’re addressing the affordability crisis, but the mayor’s critics claim that much more could be done.

      On a rainy day in mid-July, the politicians far outnumbered the tenants or the media for a walk around Vancouver's largest social-housing project.

      Tour leader Ingrid Steenhuisen, a resident of the 224-unit Little Mountain Housing complex, started off by explaining the consequences of the provincial government's decision to sell the sprawling six-hectare site near the corner of Main Street and 33rd Avenue.

      Steenhuisen was followed by nine elected politicians and candidates as she proceeded to a small townhouse occupied by Zora Sana, a mother of four and a refugee from Afghanistan. Standing in the front yard, Steenhuisen said that Sana had recently obtained Canadian citizenship. But Sana's family and many others would have to move out of the social-housing complex if BC Housing relocated tenants during the process of selling, rezoning, and redeveloping the land.

      "What we've been asking the city and BC Housing for is to bring in phased construction so that people can relocate on the site," Steenhuisen said.

      Another resident, Alana Zubot, insisted that she's not opposed to densification, which could result in an almost tenfold increase in the number of homes on the site. She said, however, that tenants didn't want to be moved off the site during the redevelopment. That's because this would force parents to find new schools for their kids and would require seniors to travel much greater distances for medical care.

      "It's about preserving all of our community that we've worked very hard to build and maintain throughout so many years," Zubot, a mother of four, said. "I think it's important to make that clear. It's not about the redevelopment."

      Dozens of tenants have already moved. BC Housing spokesperson Sam Rainboth told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview that 65 units are vacant, and occupants of 31 other units have made "commitments" to move by the end of August.

      A politician on the tour, Vancouver-Kensington NDP MLA David Chudnovsky, told the Straight that it doesn't make sense to push tenants out when there are thousands of homeless people across B.C. "It's very, very important that the relocations stop, and that that be made clear," Chudnovsky said. "This is very, very inefficient."

      The Little Mountain Housing complex is just one of several sites facing redevelopment in Vancouver. On the city's West Side, there's the looming densification of the Arbutus Village Mall. And in southeast Vancouver, the city is rezoning East Fraserlands to accommodate approximately 13,000 new residents. Then there is the continuing controversy over the NPA council's decision to allow 80 percent market housing at Southeast False Creek rather than the previous COPE council's preference for one-third social housing and another one-third of housing units for middle-income residents.

      These major real-estate developments are coming forward at a time when Vancouver has the highest housing prices in Canada. A February 2006 Greater Vancouver Regional District report stated that home ownership is "not affordable to working people required by the region to sustain a robust economy". From May 2006 to May 2007, the average residential sale on the multiple-listing service increased 13 percent in Greater Vancouver to $559,977, according to the British Columbia Real Estate Association.

      NPA councillor Peter Ladner told the Straight that municipal politicians can have an impact on the housing crisis in two ways. "The most important thing we can do is to increase supply in a variety of options," he said while on the Little Mountain walking tour. "The other thing we have to do is advocate with senior levels of government. And, in particular, the most urgent need I see is for the federal government to change the tax laws to enable private developers to build apartment buildings for rent only and still make some money on them."

      Ladner also said that the federal government should eliminate capital-gains taxes on the sale of apartment buildings if this money is reinvested in more rental housing. This view was later echoed by Riadh Muslih, a real-estate agent with Park Georgia Realty. They both suggested to the Straight that if this isn't done, the city will be in trouble over the longer term because housing will be unaffordable for large segments of the workforce.

      "Private money can be mobilized to provide apartments the way it has historically throughout the history of this country," Ladner said.

      NDP MP Libby Davies, who was also on the tour, scoffed at Ladner's suggestions. Davies claimed that right-wing governments only want to sell land for public housing to make a quick buck. She claimed that tax changes to help developers will result in the elimination of more affordable housing as the rental stock is upgraded. "It's not about a lack of money that governments have, either provincial or federal," Davies told the Straight. "It's about what the political priorities are, and whether or not they see social housing as a good investment."

      Another politician on the tour, Vision Vancouver councillor Raymond Louie, described the NPA's housing record as "dismal", suggesting there has been "very little action on the mayor's part" in terms of securing and investing in social housing. Louie said that if his party controlled council, Southeast False Creek would include more middle-income people. He suggested this model would also be appropriate for the Little Mountain site.

      "If I had my druthers, we would have a mixed community here," Louie said. He added that if there are 2,000 housing units built on the site, then more than 400 should be set aside for low-income tenants.

      Mayor Sam Sullivan and Brent Toderian, the city's director of planning, have both cited the so-called EcoDensity program as one way to address affordability. The city's Web site (www.vancouver.ca/) describes EcoDensity as giving "priority to creating sustainable development, which reduces Vancouver's ecological footprint through high quality density accompanied by services and amenities".

      Toderian said in a phone interview with the Straight that the city won't tell developers how much to charge for housing. But he added that the city can regulate the variety of housing types, ensuring there is a diversity of choices. "An example of that is our policy on major projects to require at least 25 percent of units to be family-friendly, two or more bedrooms, et cetera," he said.

      Toderian said that EcoDensity will be rolled out in stages over many years, starting with a council-approved charter this fall. In the early stages, the city has resisted setting targets for population growth. "It should be more about meeting the ecological performance than it should be about meeting an arbitrary target," he said. "Ultimately, though, we're going to have to think about what the numbers are going to be, because we're going to have to plan the infrastructure accordingly."

      He also pointed out that one of the goals of EcoDensity is to enhance affordability. But Toderian emphasized the importance of managing expectations. "I've said that no one should expect prices to go down or even stabilize the day after council approves the EcoDensity charter, for example. What we're really trying to do is position the city well for long-term affordability through an increase in the supply over time, through more affordable relationships and patterns."

      There's already a developing backlash. Residents of the Norquay area on the city's East Side are distributing a leaflet claiming that the city plans to rezone 19 neighbourhoods with no plans to add green areas, services, or public transit. The notice suggests that tax increases following rezoning will drive residents out of their homes, and it calls upon citizens to hold a rally in front of City Hall on September 18. "The City's 'Eco-Density' is not about ecology," the leaflet claims. "Neither is it about buying land for green liveable public or cooperative housing."

      Toderian, on the other hand, claimed that EcoDensity can enhance affordability by making it possible to reduce residents' reliance on private automobiles, as well as their vulnerability to rising energy costs. "So Arbutus Mall, for example, in the pre–EcoDensity era would have probably seen densification anyway," he said. "In the post–EcoDensity era, it will probably see more densification. And you'll see that densification leverage a much more significant achievement of ecological performance through green technologies."

      Patrick Condon, a UBC professor of landscape architecture, has gone so far as to suggest that the city's housing crisis could be partially addressed by allowing four-storey mixed-use residential-commercial buildings on every arterial road in the region. When asked to define an arterial road, he responded, "Any street that has a bus on it now."

      In Vancouver alone, he said, this could create room for an additional 700,000 residents, all living close to transit. He noted that four-storey mixed-use projects are often cheaper than high-rises because all that's necessary is adding floors onto an existing commercial building. "If the market could produce that sort of unit in a large volume and break the supply constraints we find ourselves in now, that would mitigate what I feel comfortable calling a crisis in affordability," Condon said.

      Only 11 percent of Vancouver's land base, excluding roads, is zoned for multiple-unit residences, whereas 45 percent of the land, excluding roads, is zoned for single-family dwellings, according to the city. In the past, residents in those single-family areas have sometimes vigorously resisted upzoning. Condon, however, said he thinks it's possible if the city and developers work with neighbourhoods. He cited his Kitsilano neighbourhood as a prime example.

      "The developers get to create three dwelling units out of one as long as they're willing to retain the original bungalow shell," Condon said. "They're also allowed to at least double the amount of interior square feet.”¦For me, the lesson I took away is it's not about density, it's about design."

      The provincial housing-policy branch published a guide listing 10 different ways in which municipal governments had used zoning to increase the affordability of market housing. Two examples were from Burnaby. There, neighbourhoods can initiate a zoning change to increase density. Developers can also qualify for additional density, known as a "community benefit bonus", in four town-centre areas in exchange for building affordable housing or providing other community benefits. In Port Coquitlam, the official community plan was amended to allow for freehold row housing. Surrey's East Clayton Neighbourhood Concept Plan permits different densities, allowing both secondary suites and coach houses. The City of North Vancouver recently created a working group also to examine the possibility of allowing coach houses in single-family zones.

      Tsur Somerville, an associate professor with the UBC Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate, told the Straight that Vancouver's EcoDensity program has the potential to increase the amount of land available for housing. But he said, generally speaking, that housing markets are more constrained rather than less constrained by government regulation. He claimed that the "easiest way to lower land prices in the Lower Mainland" would be to eliminate the Agricultural Land Reserve.

      Somerville also stated that it's "inefficient" to build social-housing units on more expensive land, such as Coal Harbour. "It's always better to take the land, sell it to its highest value, and then go buy something somewhere else," he said, noting that land along Fraser Street is less expensive than land along Main Street.

      The Straight asked Little Mountain resident Steenhuisen how she would feel if the government could create more social-housing units by selling off the site for market housing and building more subsidized units on cheaper land. "I'm really torn, because I think that's a really tough question," she responded during the tour of the site.

      James Green, a volunteer with a group called Community Advocates for Little Mountain, then interjected to note that the B.C. Liberal government had a $4.1 billion surplus last year. Green, who came third in the 2005 Vancouver mayoral election, also said the B.C. government shouldn't be selling property if it is going to be "ruining lives" and disrupting families and their kids' school years.

      Condon, Louie, and Coun. George Chow all told the Straight that they support creating broader income mixes across the city. But in the absence of a broad range of housing choices, this could remain an elusive goal. Condon said that he works with people in their 20s and 30s who have been hit particularly hard by the rising cost of housing. "It was unaffordable before, and now it's ridiculous," Condon said. "They want to live in Vancouver but say they can't. There is no place they can buy into."