Like most responsible city planners, I’ve been thinking a lot about housing affordability lately and I wanted to take advantage of my guest editor stint on Price Tags to float a draft essay I’ve been working on with some ideas to address the issue here in Vancouver. Its not polished, but I would love to hear what you think…

There are few, if any, issues that stoke the collective anxiety of Vancouverites as much as the cost of housing. As the saying goes, the rent is too damn high and we can’t make sense of a housing market that appears completely detached from the realities of our local economy. Housing affordability is front page news in this town on a regular basis and any conversation on the state of the city struggles to escape the gravitational pull of housing costs, real estate speculation, and the debates on foreign investment and the local impact of global capital flows.

So what should we do about it? It’s a tough question. Housing markets are complex (especially in an open market like Canada’s) and affordability is a classic example of a ‘wicked’ problem (a problem so complex and with so many interconnected parts that trying to solve it often simply leads to unintended consequences further down the line). That said, we have to act. The high cost of housing is having profoundly disturbing effects on the social cohesion and economic sustainability of our city. I, for one, am tired of hearing stories of bright young people looking to leave Vancouver because the city simply costs too much (not too mention the many talented people who might be a great fit for our city but can’t afford to move here). And an unbalanced housing market skews what might otherwise be rational decisions about major personal investments in irrational directions.

In response, I’ve identified 10 ideas that I believe are essential to a holistic municipal housing affordability strategy. These are 10 ‘big picture’ ideas and one could group many smart ideas into anyone of them. And they are focused on what the City can do. This is very limiting because the simple reality is that the big tools are in the hands of senior government (they have the resources and the authority).

There just isn’t a large solution space at the municipal level. Canadian cities don’t have the necessary flexibility to introduce the kinds of innovative and/or bold taxation or finance regulation interventions that can really move the needle on affordability. And with Vancouver so far out on the edge of the housing cost orbit, it’s difficult to build momentum for provincial and federal leaders to take the challenge seriously beyond some slapdash band-aids designed for optics and not impacts.

Nevertheless, in the absence of meaningful senior government action (or a more collective rational market, without the red hot culture of speculation and anxiety over the need leverage as much as possible to get a foot on that ladder), there is a need and opportunity for Vancouver to lead. And as a city planner myself, it’s the local level solutions that I understand the best. So, in the spirit of problem solving and doing my part to advance the local conversation on housing affordability, I am offering ten ideas that the City can do to help Vancouverites afford a place to live. This post will introduce the first five and tomorrow I’ll follow up with the final five.

  1. Get the facts out. Better data doesn’t make housing more affordable, but it’s critical to helping understand the key drivers and ensuring that a productive public discussion can happen. And while there are key gaps in the available data that can only be filled with senior government involvement, the City does have some pretty good data and one of the smartest research and data teams in local government (as does Metro Vancouver). Vancouver needs to compile what it knows and what it needs to know, and get those facts out in a comprehensive and comprehensible format. When I look at how well the City responded to the Kinder Morgan proposal with smart in-depth research that was well-communicated to the public and officials, I see a template for housing data. Showing our work in a coordinated and intelligent fashion would not only advance the conversation locally and with senior governments but provide coherence to our efforts (much more effective, in my opinion, than seemingly random press releases and letters to the Premier or ad hoc single-issue studies). It would also be a key step towards…­
  2. Build a regional coalition. Housing affordability is not a Vancouver challenge, it’s a Metro Vancouver challenge. While not every city in the region is keen to take the challenge on, many are and are working hard in their own backyard. Presenting a strong regional voice and strategy would greatly increase our chances of success in engaging senior governments. It can also help build a framework for a regional housing agency with real resources (the region, not the city, is the right scale for an affordable housing agency). This can be done under the umbrella of Metro Vancouver but can also be done by mobilizing those cities that are already seriously engaged at solving these challenges.
  3. Unleash VAHA’s entrepreneurial spirit. In recent years, the City has made some impressive moves to address housing affordability including the new and much needed Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency (VAHA). VAHA is well-positioned to add much needed diversity and attainable housing units to the Vancouver market however, to maximize its potential, it needs to function as a publicly-minded developer as much (if not more so) than a risk-adverse bureaucracy. This includes a nimble approach to leverage partnerships with for-profit and not-for profit partnerships (expanding its potential).
  4. Build Partnerships. However the City proceeds it has to continue its good work on building partnerships with not-for-profits and for-profit developers, lenders, and operators. Simply put, the City must focus on what it does best: land assembly (I typically advocate against assembly but sometimes it’s needed), financing, and development approvals. And this needs to happen in as fair and transparent manner as possible.
  5. Allow more opportunities for small-scale infill development. When it comes to housing, more supply doesn’t equal affordability but you can’t get there without it. And one area where there has been a growing disconnect between supply and demand is in small-scale infill. Infill is tough. The traditional political calculation does not favor it. But Vancouver has had success with it (suites, laneway houses, RT zones, etc), the political calculation is changing, and there are so many different models (triplexes, courtyard apartments, low-rise multifamily, narrow lot or rear yard subdivision, and many more) that the right fit can be found for any neighbourhood). There is tremendous demand for housing options with the benefits of fine-grained residential neighborhoods, fits an incremental evolution of neighbourhoods, and leverages the established capital of homeowners. Finally, small-scale options work for a much wider range of developers than large sites do, including those who work without the typical corporate proforma. This is important because we need a diversity of development models as much as we need a diversity of development types.

more to follow…