Sharon Chisholm has watched Vancouver’s housing crisis unfold from a unique vantage, monitoring developments on the ground while placing them in a global context.
“It’s not unlike what’s happening in London,” the former executive director of the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association told the Straight. “Foreign buyers play a part. But exactly what the connection is and how different fixes will work isn’t clear yet.”
Today Chisholm is director of Shaping Futures, an “international knowledge exchange” project with an eye on policies designed for the cities of tomorrow. She has also advised Norway’s government on rental housing and performed similar work in Nova Scotia.
On Thursday (October 27), she’s speaking at Re:Address, a weeklong conference organized by the City of Vancouver that is designed to help revisit and reset its housing and homelessness strategy. The event will bring together experts, policymakers, and stakeholders from around the world to talk about housing.
Asked about what’s driving a crunch on affordable housing in Vancouver and around the world, Chisholm first mentioned the withdrawal of higher government support. “Housing benefits have disappeared,” she said.
The second thing Chisholm discussed was a commodification of housing that is happening faster now than ever before. She argued that this has often occurred at the expense of affordable rental stock.
“‘Right to buy’ has meant that some of the best social housing has been sold,” she explained. “People have referred to it as a ‘wash out’ of London where the poor can no longer live there.”
Regarding Canada, Chisholm expressed optimism that there’s still time to bring hot markets like those of Vancouver and Toronto back under control. “I think Vancouver is doing some stuff right, believe it or not,” she said.
Chisholm pointed to the extent to which the city has used municipal land not only as a space where housing can be built but also as a bargaining chip that can attract higher levels of government and private partners to contribute to subsidized projects. She also praised city hall for requiring private developers to include social-housing components before development permits are granted.
“They are using their municipal powers quite strongly,” she said.
On what she’d like to see more of, Chisholm suggested ideas that come from out of the box.
One way to find those, she said, is to talk to millennials and understand how their priorities are different from those of older generations.
“Maybe they don’t need parking,” she said. “We need cities to come up with their own strategies.”
In the way of more traditional recommendations, Chisholm said what’s needed is simple long-term planning
“I’m worried that the federal government is committed to doing something, but that what they are talking about, in terms of resources, is very low,” she said. “They have to show that they are going to be in the game for a long time. Not just the next three years.”