From my Business in Vancouver column:

Looks like another politician has fallen into Perception Gap. 

Mayor Robertson seems to have believed that because the need for affordable housing is so great, the people of Vancouver actually wanted something seriously done about it.

Don’t people want more affordable housing?  Well, of course.  And aren’t they prepared to accept some change in their neighbourhoods to get it?  They will say they are.  But between the wish and the reality lies Perception Gap. 

In mid-2008, an Ipsos Reid poll found homelessness and affordable housing ranked as the No. 1 issue.  Vision Vancouver made it No. 1 on their platform – and got elected with a handsome majority.  Then they acted.

Within four months, City Hall staff reported back on ways to immediately increase the rental housing supply. By April, there was STIR – Short-Term Incentives for Rental.  By Christmas, Council voted 6-2 to approve a highrise at 1215 Bidwell – the site of a restaurant named Maxine’s – with  49 market rental units.   The density tripled. 

And boy, were some West Enders pissed.  

Robertson and his colleagues were surprised by the backlash – and couldn’t quite see where it was coming from.  The most incongruent word uttered by the Mayor when he infamously and unwittingly said “f—king NPA hacks” into a still-open microphone was “NPA.”  He couldn’t fathom  that the people protesting, picketing and petitioning were those on his end of the political spectrum.

The problem is, Vancouverites on the whole don`t want the character of their communities to change – at least not in any way that would lessen the values they cherish, whether amenity or property.  And here`s the thing: as change slows, people’s perception of change – and their anxiety about it – grows.  The difference between change that is acceptable compared to change that would actually make a difference is so disparate that the gap in perception becomes very wide indeed.

The West End, for instance, hasn’t changed in any significant way since the late mid-1970s.  On the whole, it’s a pretty good place the way it is; there’s not much to entice a community that’s satisfied with the status quo, particularly if the benefits of change go to those who aren`t actually there yet.  In the case of the STIR program, City Hall wasn`t really offering anything for the existing residents, except to deliver on the promise of affordability.  Indeed, the additional density would come without extra amenities – an erosion of a policy that had been in place since the 1980s.

The West End is not the only place where people are resistent.  In Mount Pleasant, the affordable rental component of an eight-storey tower proposed for Fraser and Broadway may be lost in order to reduce the height to something more acceptable.   On Bowen Island, a spectacular waterfront landscape will be subdivided for large, expensive lots rather than for a more compact and more populated alternative.   Over the water in West Vancouver, some city councillors raised doubts about an experiment in infill that discouraged one of the most promising candidates from proceeding.   In the Downtown East Side, condos affordable to couples making the $8-an-hour minimum wage were opposed by activists in fear of gentrification.  And these are examples taken from just the last few weeks.

Everyone involved will say they are in favour of more affordable housing.  And then argue about why the proposal on the table isn`t the way to go about it.

When change is resisted, politicians turn to process.  So do activists.  Everyone will agree for a while to talk about change, partly in the hope that the pressure will be relieved somewhere else.  Past Vancouver Councils have pragmatically conducted themselves accordingly – concentrating development on brownfield sites (now largely used up), while conducting lengthy  processes in developed neighbourhoods that start with the assumption that the character of the existing community is inviolable.

So, how to bridge Perception Gap.

The City might return to the West End with a commitment to keep the existing design guidelines in place, along with tangible benefits for the current residents.   The community in turn will have to be honest with itself about affordability, and come to an agreement on growth – an actual target – with a realistic way of paying for it.  Everyone has to recognize that change, guaranteed by time, will come in some form. 

Otherwise, those on either side of Perception Gap will just keep swearing at each other.