How Vancouver can deliver on affordable housing: Howard Rotberg

Like it's their mantra, many civic politicians, especially in Vancouver, intone that their main priorities in this fall election are homelessness and affordable housing.

However, and quite predictably, they also say that solutions to these concerns really depend on funding from the federal and provincial governments. This raises one key question. Can municipalities actually do anything that will make a difference?

Retired real-estate lawyer Howard Rotberg believes so. In a new book due out on November 5, the president of the Rotberg Development Group outlines measures that municipalities like Vancouver can undertake to stimulate the creation of affordable rental and owned housing even in the absence of federal and provincial programs.

The book's title, Exploring Vancouverism: The Political Culture of Canada's Lotus Land (Mantua Books) gives a hint of how Rotberg accounts for his claim that Vancouver lags behind other jurisdictions on the affordable-housing front.

“We're so inward-looking here, and we're so narcissistic about how wonderful we are—the best place on Earth—that we're reluctant to look into Ontario, or anywhere east of the Rockies or anywhere south of the border, where they have dozens of affordable-housing inducement programs that are working wonderfully,” Rotberg told the Georgia Straight by phone.

Rotberg, whose firm develops rental buildings for low- and moderate-income people in Ontario, identifies in excerpts from the book 11 steps for how the city can deliver on housing.

Number one on his list is for the city to require developers to pay as a condition for the approval of large projects a sum into either a community-housing trust or an affordable-housing fund. The idea behind these models, which city leaders can choose from, is quite simple: titles to housing units built will have “restrictive covenants” with respect to either the selling prices or rents, thus “preserving future affordability”.

Rotberg's second recommendation is to levy a business property tax on housing units, particularly condos, that aren't being rented out and are maintained as “speculative investment vehicles for nonresidents”.

Vision Vancouver mayoral candidate Gregor Robertson floated this idea during his party's nomination contest. Vision is expected to release its platform in the last week of this month.

Rotberg is also proposing the creation of dedicated funding sources for either the community-housing trust or the affordable-housing fund. One source he identifies is a demolition tax of $20,000 for every unit to be torn down and replaced by more expensive housing. The current demolition fee is $1,000 a unit.

Rotberg's fourth recommendation is the provision of grants “equal to development-cost charges and building-permit fees for affordable-housing projects”.

Another proposal, which Rotberg notes is being done in Florida, is “expedited processing” to allow affordable-housing projects to move ahead of the permit-approval line.

With the authorization of the province, the city can also offset against property taxes for new development the costs of environmental remediation in “brownfield” sites—land previously used for industrial or commercial purposes—where affordable units will be built.

The city can likewise grant density bonuses “for a specified number of affordably priced units, preferably to be conveyed to the Community Housing Trust, to keep them affordable forever”.

Number eight on Rotberg's list is to encourage the school board to convey to the community-housing trust land in areas where there are declining enrollments as well as surplus school land. He also suggests that some park lands may be conveyed to the housing trust.

Rotberg likewise proposes the expropriation of properties around new rapid-transit stations for use as locations for affordable housing. “This would be preferable to simply enriching the adjoining landowners who will sell out anyway to developers of higher priced housing,” he writes in the book.

Lastly, Rotberg recommends that all municipally owned land surplus be conveyed to the community-housing trust. If these aren't suitable for housing, he suggests that these properties be sold and proceeds deposited with either the trust or the affordable-housing fund.