My Business in Vancouver column:

What will be the toughest issue in the upcoming civic election? The issue that all candidates will pay lip service to, will criticize their opponents for not effectively addressing, but for which they will have little to contribute – save for bromides, vague promises and calls for senior government action?

Housing, of course. Affordable housing in particular.

Within the City of Vancouver’s jurisdiction and boundaries, there’s not much hope for those who are too poor to afford the median prices of market housing but too rich to be eligible for social housing. Yet to seriously add sufficient supply, politicians would have to do the unspeakable, which is to change the character of stable neighbourhoods to effectively lower the value of the existing housing stock.

Here’s the problem. Over the last half century, from Champlain Heights to Coal Harbour, we have built much of our new housing on “empty” land where we didn’t have to impose on existing communities – a minimum of 2,868 units per year, the average number the city has been accommodating for the last 35 years.

Needless to say, they have not been equitably distributed in the 22 neighbourhoods that make up Vancouver. Downtown, not including the West End, has taken the most: 676 units on average, rising to more than 1,300 a year in the last decade. (The lowest: Shaughnessy. Average number per year? Three.)

It was enough to keep the pressure off – and yet still resulted in some of the most expensive housing in Canada. But now we’re holding on to the little industrial land we have left – and the pressure is being felt in both the rising cost of the existing housing stock and the resistance in neighbourhoods to accommodating even the traditional increases.

Take the West End.

Almost every building higher than five storeys was built in just over a decade in the 1960s when the housing stock quintupled. All those highrises with thousands of one-bedroom apartments absorbed a generation of singles in the new service economy of post-war Vancouver. Rents were affordable.

But now, in the “traditional” West End, the number of new units per year has dropped to about 87 – half that if new towers on Burrard are omitted. The old West End has the growth rate of Dunbar – and it’s still considered too much by those opposing new development.

Rates-of-change bylaws have slowed growth to practically zero. Demolition and replacement of old low-rise apartments with higher densities, considered politically suicidal, is effectively discouraged. Both left- and right-wings of council are promising more “community consultation” – which is code for more process and less product. Yet the affordability crunch remains acute in one of the only cities in the western world seemingly immune from the Great Recession.

So what are the likely outcomes?

Densities will go up anywhere they can be squeezed in – along arterial roads like Cambie and Kingsway, in back lanes and in secondary suites. Helpful, but not likely in the numbers sufficient to ease housing costs.

Growth and affordability will go elsewhere – particularly along the transit corridors feeding Vancouver. Fortunately, Burnaby, Surrey and Richmond seem prepared to accommodate growth for Vancouver’s sake.

Finally: in-crowding. More people in the same floor space. That’s what happened in Vancouver from the 1930s to the 1950s, resulting in the decaying housing stock that was cleared out in places like the West End for a new generation of highrises. There are already some early signs of this.

It’s few people’s preferred solution, but it’s likely to happen by default – without any politician having to articulate the unspeakable. •