Lessons on housing affordability for Vancouver from San Francisco

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      A San Francisco housing activist, Calvin Welch, questions the prevailing view that simply building more market housing will lead to lower prices and less homelessness.

      In a video posted on YouTube, Welch makes the case that there is no genuine free market in housing with so little available land in his city and so few sellers relative to the number of potential buyers.

      Sound familiar?

      "In San Francisco, less than 13 square miles of our 66 square miles are zoned for housing," Welch says in the video. "Most of it is developed. The availability of new land for development is extremely small and held by a relatively small number of people."

      He points out that it's impossible to produce more land. "Indeed, sea-level rise is actually reducing the amount of land we have in San Francisco for residential development."

      Welch also argues that higher densities actually lead to higher housing prices because there is no true free market in his city.

      "In short, the most effective affordable-housing program in San Francisco is not hoping for the market to trickle affordability down, but to engage actively in attempts to acquire and take off the private housing market as many housing units as we can," he insists.

      Welch points out that new construction represents a small portion of the number of units on the market in any given year.

      "That is to say between 2000 and 2012, new construction represented about 18 percent of the yearly for-sale units in San Francisco," he says.

      In light of this, he maintains that it's "easy to understand why you can't drive price with only 20 percent of the product".

      The video is posted on a website called 48hills, which is a progressive online San Francisco newspaper.

      "If you want an idea of what happens to a city that is enamored of building highrise housing without much limit, check out Vancouver," the website states. "Once a jewel of the West Coast, it now looks like … Hong Kong.  Or Miami Beach on steroids. And housing prices are still out of reach for many."


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      Jul 16, 2014 at 10:25am

      Ding ding ding. Somebody gets it. It isn't a free market, it isn't even about housing for people to live in, so adding supply will not help, no matter who builds it.


      Jul 16, 2014 at 11:29am

      Yes to rent control or variations thereof.


      Jul 16, 2014 at 2:26pm

      What about taxing vacant land and vacant units at a higher rate than land and housing with residents that contribute to the vitality of the city?

      If you had to pick one extreme or the other, a city is worth nothing without life so it only makes sense to lean in that direction.

      To that end, how many empty units and empty lots is the city of Vancouver sitting on?


      Jul 17, 2014 at 8:30am

      A visit to San Francisco is a visit to a beautiful, cultural city full of charming architecture and character. Returning to Vancouver feels like returning to a big sterile shopping mall. The reality of excessive (and excessively dense) development in Vancouver is a function of Vancouver's popularity with overseas investments and the success of the development industry in installing parties (Vision in the NPA) focused on developer profits, not citizens. We can help preserve what is left of our city's heritage and character by removing these two parties next November.