Meg Holden, Terry Sidhu, Jacint Simon: Mostly gloom and not enough glimmer in housing report

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      By Meg Holden, Terry Sidhu, Jacint Simon

      Last week, Wendell Cox released this year’s installment of the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, putting the Vancouver region second to the top of his list of unaffordable cities. Once again, we read the same chorus from Cox and his acolytes: want affordable housing? Remove the red tape and let the market work its magic. Land regulation is to blame. Housing policies, while well-intentioned, are pushing up prices. Smart growth is an addiction! High-density zealots are out to reverse centuries of gain in the freedom to have a big house and no immediate neighbours; these meddlesome zealots will “drive us back towards a Dickensian gloom!"

      In December, the Greater Vancouver Home Builders Association released a new study called Getting to Groundbreaking. We at SFU Urban Studies were responsible for the research. We surveyed home builders and municipalities alike on the time and money costs of getting from a residential development idea to a building permit, and the process steps along the way.

      We found a wide range of fees and charges and a big gap in the timing and steps of the process, municipality by municipality, with no clear trend line between fees, timing, and ultimate cost of housing. Then we went and interviewed our survey respondents, and collected a list of best practices that both home builders and municipalities could agree would improve the development-approval process.

      What do our housing industry and municipal partners take from our results? “Fees don’t matter,” concluded a municipal manager.

      A development manager from a home building company said: “We shouldn’t even bother with the municipal rankings. We should just pick up the best practices, get the key people from both sides in the room, and hash it out till we find a better way to work together.”

      In our region, our good-quality-of-life benchmarks include having transit and active transportation as real options to private cars, plentiful green space, and an urban fabric that is the envy of many, and making the ability to live downtown a top priority. The existence of a robust regulatory and planning framework makes these goals achievable.

      Regional planning, official community planning, neighbourhood planning, and long-term policy processes work to meet increasing expectations and provide opportunities for municipalities and residents to engage in big-picture, long-term thinking. The residential-development-approvals process fits within this larger structure to navigate the layers of expectations for an individual development approval process. Investments in civic infrastructure and amenities are also key to channelling growth in particular places and shaping our communities to fit the lifestyles we want.

      Housing affordability is a big, hairy problem in our livble region. But if we blame planning for this problem, we will steer ourselves down a darker dead end, down the road. We won’t call them Dickensian in their gloomy analysis and predictions, but we will remind the Demographia folks of Campbell’s Law, named after notable American social science methodologist Donald T. Campbell: the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor. (The most affordable Canadian city on Demographia’s list is Moncton, New Brunswick.)

      So, we offer to our fellow Vancouverites, as we stretch ourselves thin to make our next rent and mortgage payments, a glimmer of hope in the knowledge that home builders and municipalities in this region are not thinking about stockpiling rankings to use against one another in a battle of PR, or wits, or passive aggression. To other urbanites facing housing affordability crises, we also offer that we see the glimmer of interest, among home builders and municipalities alike, in building bridges between their somewhat different hopes and expectations for what each needs to put into home building and what we get from the housing that comes out at the end.

      Meg Holden is an associate professor of urban studies and geography at Simon Fraser University. Terry Sidhu and Jacint Simon are SFU master of urban studies students.



      Steve y

      Jan 30, 2015 at 6:02pm

      we are doomed with these incompetent fools in charge. Fees don't matter? Really?!?!


      Jan 30, 2015 at 7:34pm

      And who funded this "research"?

      Martin Dunphy

      Jan 30, 2015 at 8:28pm


      Click on the supplied study link above and find out! The funders are detailed in the penultimate paragraph.


      Feb 1, 2015 at 10:28am

      Here's a lovely article that illustrates the pathetic poverty of choice in the housing market in Vancouver for people who are not rich: on one hand we have the whackos who think we should deregulate everything, probably so that the developers can squeeze one last quickbuck out of this bubble before it blows; on the other hand, you have the planning heirarchy, also working closely with developers, reassuring us pathetic mortgage slaves that "smart growth" will, at last, finally, work... some day. Soon!

      What a pack of fucking stupid corporate doublespeak. I was born and raised in Vancouver, and you know what? I don't believe you, you phonies! These planners make their money and have their university positions and consultancies because they shape a "smart" and "green" consensus on development that is used to market this city to the rich in a sophisticated way. It's all about fucking amenities, get it? There is NOTHING in this article that demonstrates a plan for housing affordability!

      What an insult, your "offer" of a "glimmer of hope!" What, you do all this planning and shilling for planning and you can't offer more than a "glimmer of hope" for your "fellow Vancouverites, as we stretch ourselves thin to make our next rent and mortgage payments?" Obviously housing affordability means fuck all to you! I have something to offer to you too, buddy, and it too is a "big, hairy problem": sit on it and rotate!

      This is just one group of developer shills arguing with another group of developer shills over how best to market a "hot region": Walmart style or Macy's. The affordability reference is just an insulting, politically correct, placation. Face it: this city has already been earmarked as a sanctuary for the rich and a real estate casino. The culture has already shifted so far from what it was fifteen years ago that it will forever be different, and will never again have the working or even middle class, left-wing character that it once had, which is what gave the place any shred of personality. All that is left is the commercial impulse that is common to all port cities. Oh, and the nice views. As such, it will be, forever, a place like Monaco or Dubai, a place for the rich to waltz about as they stare vacantly at the world and, of course, a world class shopping destination.


      Feb 2, 2015 at 2:50pm

      Fees don't matter!! Wow, might as well shoot for the moon municipal manager. Taxation policy can have an impact on investment choices. Naive to think it has zero impact.