By Adrian Crook
I invite you to cast your mind way back, to July 2019, when some leading West Side minds were decrying a proposed 28-floor rental building at West Broadway and Birch Street.
As the well-worn NIMBY refrain goes, they're ok with 28 floors, but "not in this location, not now".
Despite the location being on our region's busiest transit corridor and three blocks from Vancouver General Hospital, Granville Island, and the South Granville retail district, it looked like we were in for another big battle with the "no growth" crowd.
Until this week, when the Squamish Nation announced its plan to build 6,000 units of rental housing in 11 buildings at the foot of the Burrard Bridge in Kitsilano.
The tallest tower among the proposed buildings being 56 floors, and just a five-minute bike ride away from the 28-story building proposed at West Broadway and Birch.
The Sen̓áḵw development would all be completed in just five years, feature parking for 10 percent of the units, and retain 80 percent of the ground area for public access and amenities (ignoring Vancouver's tower/podium design regulations).
All possible because the Squamish Nation, unlike the 28-floor development at Broadway and Birch, is completely unhindered by the City of Vancouver's punishing housing-approval process.
Because the Squamish Nation's land is free of all encumbrances of city hurdles, it can go big. The chief and council are free to do what private developers cannot, due to the burdens of our city's overwrought processes: build to address the scale of our housing crisis.
At a recent event, Andre Pavlov, SFU professor of finance and real estate, mentioned Mayor Kennedy Stewart's excitement to find out "How Seattle built 17,000 rental homes in 2018."
For context, Vancouver built just 1,300 rental units the same year.
Pavlov made the excellent point that we should instead be asking ourselves, "How has Vancouver stopped so many rental homes from being built?"
To that end, the Squamish Nation development provides an excellent case study for what can happen when we get out of the way of rental housing.
So what can we do with privately held land to emulate the success of Squamish Nation?
In a recent B.C. Rental Project video, I proposed a different way of engaging with the development community, by asking "How many units can you build, if we wanted a significant percentage to be truly affordable?"
Rather than capping the heights, then squeezing a tiny number of affordable units out of each development, let's partner with our housing providers and go beyond the incrementalism that pervades our thinking today.
We can also dramatically upzone our City's transit- and job-rich areas exclusively for rental.
By using the province's residential rental tenure zoning (RRTZ), we'd strategically designate huge swaths of Vancouver as prezoned to receive meaningful proposals like what the Squamish tabled this week—without suffering all the slings and arrows of our outrageous processes.
The provincial government could enact mandatory minimum zoning, such as what's already been done in Oregon and proposed in California, to prevent local councils and city staff from being cowed by antigrowth residents.
Our current processes ensure nothing gets approved in less than five years, before construction can even begin. We have a council, staff, and public hearing environment that shaves untold hundreds or even thousands of rental homes off our potential output, every year.
Vancouver will again fail to build enough rental homes this year to match immigration (from elsewhere in Canada and beyond). And from the mayor's own media release this week, Vancouver won't even meet our own annual targets for rental housing construction.
We need a rethink and real leadership on rental housing, to unlock more imagination on the scale the Squamish Nation demonstrated this week.
Whatever we do, Sen̓áḵw is an example, not just of what's possible, but what's required to meet our housing emergency.