How come a Reddit user is doing a better job of housing communications than the City of Vancouver?

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      On a sunny afternoon earlier this summer, when I could have been doing any number of pleasant activities—lying on the beach, relaxing on a patio, eating an ice cream—I was instead pacing around my kitchen, phone pressed to my ear, waiting to speak at a Vancouver city council public hearing.

      Public hearings are when the mayor and council meet to discuss proposed rezoning applications—which frequently means deciding whether to add density and much-needed housing units to the city. You’re probably familiar with rezoning applications, or at least the big blue billboards that accompany them. They happen all the time, and any Vancouverite can weigh in on them by submitting comments about a proposal online, by phone, or in person. It’s not exactly thrilling stuff.

      But for the first time, I was eager to spend my perfect summer day speaking in support of one such proposal: a five-storey rental building on West 49th Avenue, just a few blocks from my home in Kerrisdale. And it was all because of a Reddit post.

      It seems like every week, another friend announces that they’ve finally been squeezed out of our overheated, overpriced housing market. I want to see more housing all across the city, especially in low-density areas like mine, and a new rental building seemed like an easy win. However, some of my neighbours disagreed, and they’d written in to tell the city that this building would be “an eyesore” and “an unimaginable visual anomaly,” complaining about increased traffic, competition for street parking, decreased property values, and vague threats to “neighbourhood character.”

      The thing is: I didn’t learn about any of this from the City of Vancouver, even though it’s responsible for seeking public input on every rezoning application. Rather, I found out when a local housing advocate named Russil Wvong posted about it on a Vancouver subreddit, highlighting the objections to the project and sharing clear instructions for how to submit comments in time for the next day’s hearing. His post struck a nerve, and not just with me. Less than 24 hours later, the proposal had gone from just six comments in support to 245, vastly outnumbering the small but vocal opposition.

      Wvong is a software developer who lives in Riley Park. He’s active in politics—he ran for city council with Kennedy Stewart’s party in 2022, and he’s the riding association chair for the Federal Liberal Association in Vancouver Kingsway. But his interest in housing is personal.

      “I find the overall situation really maddening,” he tells me by email. “The system seems to be based on the assumption that nothing should be built if the neighbours don’t approve.”

      Everyone suffers when housing is too scarce and expensive; even secure homeowners are negatively impacted when teachers, doctors, and all the other people who make up a functioning society can’t afford to live here. But the people who suffer most are those who are most vulnerable to rising prices.

      “When people move here to take a high-paying job and they can’t find newer housing, they don’t just disappear,” Wvong points out. “They move down the ladder and compete with other people for existing housing.”

      Lately, Wvong has been tapping into the Vancouver Reddit community to get more residents—not just a handful of cranky neighbours—involved in the city’s decisions on housing. In addition to putting up a billboard, the city distributes informational postcards within a two-block radius of a proposed rezoning to gather feedback, which it considers while deciding whether to approve a project. But there’s a flaw in this process, which is that the people who receive those postcards already live in the neighbourhood. They don’t stand to benefit from new developments, and many of them care more about their favourite parking spot than the housing crisis (at least, that’s what their comments indicate). But through Reddit, Wvong can reach a lot more people—people who need or want more places to live in Vancouver. In July, he posted about a proposal for a lower-income rental building in False Creek North, prompting more than 800 comments in support.

      Of course, the other flaw in the current process is that treating each rezoning application individually takes a lot of time and staff effort. We are in the midst of a serious housing shortage, and dithering over every new apartment building is like trying to put out a forest fire with a squirt gun. Those are our tax dollars at work, paying for our public servants to listen to a litany of petty grievances rather than making efficient, informed decisions based on what they already know is best for Vancouver. Besides, if public consultation is really so important to the city, one might ask why it does such a poor job of it compared to a single Reddit user.

      As social media gets worse and worse by the day (look no further than Twitter or X or whatever) it’s heartening to see that people like Wvong can still leverage online connections for real-world positive impacts. In this case, that’s reminding the city that a hell of a lot of people really want places to live. Both the False Creek North and the West 49th proposals passed unanimously: two small victories in the long fight for adequate housing. But even more radically, they served as reminders that everyone’s voices should count.

      Michelle Cyca is a Vancouver writer and editor.