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.