Jennifer Bradshaw: Beyond the duplex—the citywide plan test

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      By Jennifer Bradshaw

      Coun. Colleen Hardwick’s motion to ban duplexes without consultation has been delayed by all of her colleagues, who have voted to request a staff report on costs. Whichever way the duplex debate goes, however, the true test of this council’s courage will be how it shapes the citywide plan. The right framing and execution is key to help those most affected by housing unaffordability in the city.

      As I have argued previously, city zoning bylaws that ban multifamily homes in most of the city are unconscionable. Reserving 75 percent of city land for the most expensive type of housing—single detached houses—is unacceptable in the face of a housing crisis and the harmfully low rental vacancy rate of one percent. This ban effectively rules out those areas for renters, middle- and low-income families, and individuals to live in. This lacks spatial justice.

      Spatial justice is a term made popular by geographer Edward Soja. In a broad sense, he defines it as a focus on the spatial or geographical aspects of (in)justice. In practical terms, this means a fairer and more equitable distribution in space of resources and access to them.

      We see the problem: 75 percent of land is currently reserved for the top five percent of income earners that can afford those single detached house lots. This needs to change.

      Indeed, the need for spatial justice is increasingly becoming recognized in the urban planning profession and with some lawmakers. For example, OneCity councillor Christine Boyle added this amendment to the motion for a citywide plan:

      "Acknowledgement of the Right to Housing, equity, and spatial justice including an outline of how the input of housing-insecure populations will be sought, and how housing for vulnerable populations and persons with disabilities—for example temporary modular housing, supportive housing, social housing, and purpose-built rental—will be prioritized in every neighbourhood during the creation of a city wide plan."

      “I want to make sure that the homes we desperately need—temporary modular homes, social housing, and affordable purpose-built rental in every neighbourhood—aren’t being stalled," explains Boyle. "Vulnerable people in Vancouver require urgent attention. We must move forward on addressing their housing needs, as well as strengthening tenant protections."

      Coun. Jean Swanson and Mayor Kennedy Stewart were also in support of this.

      Derrick O’Keefe of COPE agrees.

      “This motion prioritized homes for the most vulnerable. We’re in a housing emergency, and there’s legitimate concern that those who favour the status quo will try to use any new planning or consultation processes to delay or avoid urgently needed homes," he says. "We’ve seen too many examples of wealthy and exclusive neighbourhoods like Dunbar and Shaughnessy rejecting social housing. We need city council to have the courage to push back and insist that housing is a human right—in every part of the city."

      "We’re also in a public health emergency with the opioid overdose crisis. While every community has been affected, nowhere is the difference more stark than in Vancouver,” adds Ash Amlani of Building Bridges. “In some neighbourhoods, hundreds of people share their home—the street—while in others, many homes share an owner. That’s spatial justice at its worst. Housing is one of the most significant determinants of health, and a key factor in the overdose crisis.”

      In practical terms, spatial justice in this city means we should be rapidly moving to legalize market and nonmarket apartments in all of Vancouver so that folks of any means can live in every neighbourhood. It means temporary modular homes in every neighbourhood. It means permanent social housing in every neighbourhood. It means purpose-built rental apartments in every neighbourhood. It means market strata homes as well, so that the dream and possibility of homeownership is there for those who wish for it.

      We have all the room that we need. We can build in low-population neighbourhoods, instead of already-dense areas like the West End, or else many more people will be displaced.

      This is all within the power of municipal government. More affordable, accessible, human-scaled multi-unit housing in all neighbourhoods should be one of the big goals, if not the top goal, of the citywide plan.

      Some people fear that even if new housing is located where the density of renters is lowest, some tenants will still be displaced. Indeed, tenant protection should be kept strong and strengthened. Though the Residential Tenancy Act is within provincial jurisdiction and not municipal, activists and concerned citizens could contact their local MLA to support strong tenant protections.

      Steps can be taken at the municipal level as well. Green councillor Pete Fry has moved to create a new renter’s office as well, an excellent step in the right direction. Swanson is pushing for a strengthened Tenant Relocation and Protection Policy. These measures can help protect incumbent renters, while we build more new homes for more choice and freedom for current and future renters.

      It would be a courageous, just move for the new council to allow multifamily homes in all neighbourhoods in the citywide plan. We will see if they have what it takes.