Jean Swanson: Why I voted to allow nonprofits to build 12-storey buildings

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      I was one of only three Vancouver city council members who voted this week to allow nonprofit groups to build social housing up to 12 storeys in certain, mostly apartment, areas of the city without going through the formal process of a public hearing, and to explore extending that policy across the city.

      Proposed by Coun. Christine Boyle, the motion ignited a firestorm with more than 100 speakers in opposition for a long list of reasons, including a bad definition of social housing, raising property values, and increasing demovictions.

      I wasn’t enthusiastic about some of these aspects myself, such as the city’s definition of social housing that requires only 30 percent of the units be affordable for people earning between$55,000 and $83,000, and the rest can be rented at market rates to help pay for the project.

      While I think building more social housing is really important, I also think it's important that lower-income people can afford that social housing and that lower-income people aren’t evicted to build the social housing unless they get something better in exchange. I also don’t want increased density to inflate property values because high land costs are the main reason housing costs so much in Vancouver.

      So, I made some amendments to the motion. To make sure low-income people could afford the social housing, I asked for “a definition of social housing with a goal of ensuring that a majority of the units would be affordable to households whose income is below the Vancouver median renter income”. That’s about $50,000.

      To make sure that allowing more height in an area didn’t inflate property values, I asked that our staff report back to council on “density and height bonuses necessary to ensure the economic viability of non-market housing without inflating land price either on the subject parcel or nearby”.

      And just to make sure that folks weren’t demovicted into worse housing, I asked that staff report to city council on how to ensure that the city gets a net increase of units that people earning $30,000 to $80,000 or less can afford on each site. The original motion also called for ways to improve the city’s Tenant Protection Plan.

      When my amendment were defeated, it was tough to decide how to vote. I liked the idea of speeding up the development process for nonprofit housing. I also like the idea that nonprofit groups who build housing in order to make it affordable should be the ones who get extra density—not profit-seeking developers.

      Jean Swanson is the only member of council with the Coalition of Progressive Electors.

      The nonprofits told council that avoiding a rezoning process could shave off about half a million dollars per building. That much money would be enough to make the apartments more affordable. Of course, the nonprofits would still be required to go through the more streamlined development permit process where the public can provide input.

      Under the special zoning, nonprofits would be able to take advantage of the current provincial program that funds projects that provide 20 percent of the units for people on social assistance and disability, 50 percent for people with incomes from $55,000 to $83,000, and the rest at market rent, which is much better than what the city definition of social housing requires.

      In the end, wishing we had a COPE majority on council so we could have had a good strong motion to facilitate more social housing that is actually affordable to the people who need it, I decided to vote for Coun. Boyle’ s motion. However, I know it will take a lot more than one motion to solve our housing crisis. Over the last five years, on average, only 411 social housing units open a year—a drop in the bucket when more than 2,000 residents are homeless and thousands are on the B.C. Housing wait list.

      To solve our housing crisis, we need a strong majority willing to fight for more federal and provincial money to build social housing that people with low incomes can afford. If senior governments fail to provide that money, the city needs to lobby to get new taxing powers to levy progressive property taxes so the people who benefit from excessively high land prices help pay for housing for the growing numbers priced out of the market. At the same time, we need a new tenant law to prevent landlords from increasing rents as much as they like whenever a tenant leaves. So, let's KEEP UP the PRESSURE—not just for more housing, but for housing that really is affordable.