Around summer last year, Vision Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang was getting scorched by critics.
It was all about the term affordable housing, with Jang defining the words for CKNW radio host Simi Sara as “something that somebody can afford”.
Jang was being interviewed by Sara in connection with opposition by Marpole residents to a draft of a new community plan. City staff were proposing at that time to change the zoning classification of many single-family properties to allow denser developments such as duplexes, townhouses, and apartments in the neighbourhood.
In a subsequent phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Jang brushed off criticisms that he was being disingenuous.
“What’s wrong with that?” he said with a chuckle about his definition, explaining that the city’s housing-and-homelessness strategy identifies a range of housing options, from shelters to rentals and private homes.
A year later, and with a civic election coming on November 15, affordable housing has emerged as a key issue in the campaign.
However, there are some inherent difficulties with some of the discussions around this topic, according to Tsur Somerville, director of the UBC Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate.
“Housing affordability means different things to different people,” Somerville told the Straight in a September 26 phone interview.
“When someone says ‘housing affordability’,” the UBC associate professor continued, “I mean, that’s a different issue for people who are homeless than for low-income renters than for, you know, people of median income who might be able to afford to buy a house outside the city but can’t buy a house inside the city versus people who could buy something inside the city but not in the neighbourhood they want to. So you’ve got sort of four different notions of what the affordability problem is.”
Somerville suggested that if politicians want to have a valuable conversation, they should start talking about what they will do with single-family properties in the city. According to him, continuing to have only one house on a typical lot of 5,000 square feet “in a particularly land-constrained environment is an expensive choice”.
“I think the discussion has to be the extent to which, in my mind, we want to protect single-family neighbourhoods from redevelopment.”
(In 2004, the Coalition of Progressive Electors–controlled council rezoned all single-family-zone areas to allow secondary suites.)
One option is to make it easy for landowners to split their lot and build two houses.
“That’s doubling density without a change in sort of, you know, heights and massing in an area,” Somerville said. “I’m not saying that all areas should have that. I’m just saying that there’s a lot of different ways to get more housing in there without it being 40-storey towers.”
But Somerville also recognizes that altering single-family neighbourhoods is an emotional issue for many. That’s why he cannot really imagine key candidates in the election daring to touch this subject unless they’re intent on losing votes.
“I think it’s like [former prime minister] Kim Campbell’s comment that an election campaign is no place to talk about policy,” he said. “I think, fundamentally, dealing with affordability requires us to change our neighbourhoods or spend a whole bunch of money [on housing subsidies]. Since doing either one of those, proposing either one of those, is somewhat suicidal, I think it’s unlikely to see that discussion in an election campaign.”
What happened with the Marpole community plan, the issue that got Jang ensnared over his definition of housing affordability, is instructive of how altering single-family neighbourhoods can be a controversial measure.
There had been a claim that the city was planning to rezone more than half the single-family properties in Marpole in order to pack in more homes. The plan was revised because of opposition by residents; in the end, when council approved the new version in April 2014, about 85 percent of single-family homes were to be left untouched.
“It’s not surprising that people are resistant to their neighbourhoods changing, because they like the neighbourhoods the way they are,” Somerville said. “And they’re already there, so they’re already affording it.”