A Vancouver councillor has suggested allowing social housing projects across the city without public hearings, drawing both a cheer and jeer.
The motion’s coverage includes single-family residential neighbourhoods, which account for more than half of the municipality’s land.
Depending on who is speaking, Counc. Christine Boyle’s proposal is either an answer to the city’s housing woes or a trigger for more land speculation.
The City of Vancouver defines social housing as entire developments wherein 30 percent of units are dedicated for people who cannot afford market-level rents, while the rest of the 70 percent are rented out at rates for as high as the market can bear.
On May 12, Boyle’s OneCity party issued a media release about the councillor’s motion.
“Single detached homes do not require a public hearing, even when a new detached home is significantly larger and more expensive than the one it is
replacing,” the party declared.
In the same release, Boyle said that council should “reduce barriers for non-profit housing providers, to permit more affordable homes for more people who need them, in more places across the city”.
“It should not be harder to build social housing in Vancouver than it is to build million dollar homes,” Boyle said.
Boyle’s motion has two major components. One seeks to have council direct staff to bring forward recommendations about potential city-initiated zoning changes that would “enable more social housing projects to proceed without a rezoning”.
The second is for city planners to come up with suggestions to allow 12-storey social housing developments in areas designated for apartments, also without public hearing. Council is expected to hear speakers from the public at a committee meeting today (May 19).
The second component builds upon an April 20, 2021 decision by council to shelve rezoning and public hearing requirements for six-storey social housing projects in areas zoned as RM-3A, RM-4, and RM-4N.
If Boyle’s motion is approved, it means that proponents now allowed to build six storeys of social housing without public hearing may be able to double their development to 12 storeys.
Prior to the April 20 council vote, these zoning districts provided for residential developments up to three to four storeys.
The said areas are found in the following neighbourhoods: Fairview, Grandview-Woodland, Hastings-Sunrise, Kensington-Cedar Cottage, Kitsilano, Marpole, and Mount Pleasant.
Atkey says too much land is low-density
“It takes us one step further beyond the motion that was passed in April, which was progress,” Atkey said in a phone interview.
Atkey added that council heard the need to do more in order to support
She noted that most of Vancouver’s land is “reserved strictly for single family or duplex residential housing”.
“That very low-density housing has not allowed us to build...the quantity of housing we need to meet the needs of a growing population,” Atkey said.
The BCNPHA CEO pointed out that this led to a situation where non-profit housing only “exists in very small areas of the city”.
“So it’s part of a larger conversation that’s happening in expensive cities throughout North America about what type of housing, and by extension what type of people, we exclude from living in the city when we reserve so much of our land for one certain housing type,” Atkey said.
Benge warns of a land rush
Benge’s Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods represents residents’ associations.
“This just throws the doors wide open for land speculation,” Benge said in a separate phone interview about Boyle motion.
Benge said that he finds it “unbelievable” and the “height of naiveté” for anyone to think that simply because a development is social housing that it will neither have any ability to set precedent nor will affect land values.
“You got to be kidding,” Benge said.
The Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods posted a statement online on May 16 in opposition to Boyle’s motion.
“This will increase development pressure, increase rental inflation, gentrification, demovictions, and displacements for existing older more affordable rental buildings,” the coalition said.
It noted that existing rents in older buildings “tend to be much lower than new rentals, sometimes even lower than typical subsidized social housing rents, while existing older units are also generally larger”.
The coalition also reiterated its longstanding objection to the city’s definition of social housing that allows 70 percent of the units at market-rate rents, but counts entire projects as 100 percent social housing “when it is mostly market rents”.
The City of Vancouver came up with its 70-30 definition of social housing during the decade-long Vision Vancouver era, which ended in 2018.
“It’s the carrying on of the policies that were established during the Vision administration, and the staff who was in place then is still in place now, and is simply carrying on with these things,” Benge said, “and unfortunately, staff is directing the way that this council is approaching housing policies.”
Going back to Atkey, the BCNPA CEO said that she applauds community advocates “for wanting more affordable housing and a deeper level of affordability” compared to only 30 percent of units below market rates.
“That 30 percent definition is mixed-income housing at its essence,” Atkey said. “The 30 percent is also a minimum.”
Atkey explained that this definition also “allows for flexibility in case government comes in and changes their priorities around affordable housing”.
“We are never able to achieve the level of affordablity we want on day one of the project because housing is so expensive to build, when you factor in land, construction, and material costs, as well as labour costs,” Atkey said. “But every year going forward in that project, the affordability is improved.”
Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods’ Benge needs to be convinced.
“The city tells you…we have just built 100 units of social housing. Okay, does that mean that you’ve actually built 30 units of social housing, but you’re calling it a hundred units because of the 30-70 definition?” Benge said by way of illustration. “It’s ridiculous.”