Earlier I posted the first five of my ten ideas for the City of Vancouver to take a more proactive role on housing affordability. To be clear, the City is doing a lot and has made some impressive and important moves (especially on rental housing – although perhaps more on that later). But when taking on tough and wicked problems, we need an all-in approach with many efforts on many fronts. Here are a few of my ideas of things to include in a comprehensive city effort on housing affordability.
And I encourage you to watch Michael Geller’s upcoming talk with his 12 ideas (we all love lists!) on his 12 new affordable housing ideas. Its ‘sold-out’ (many of you will likely be there) but its also available as a webcast.
The first five ideas are here. I left off on the need for more small-scale infill residential options. The next five are:
- Allow more opportunities for larger-scale development. Yes, we need higher-density development as well. This is an area where Vancouver has been doing well and it’s not time to scale back. Nevertheless, higher-density development does require more advance planning work to ensure it works for the neighbouring community and to keep expectations clear. One area where Vancouver can really raise the bar is in the Major Projects portfolio, especially where the City is a major landowner (such as Southeast False Creek or the Viaducts lands) and can leverage its assets to push the envelope on affordable community design.
- Engage the community in a meaningful dialogue on planning and development. Moving the needle on housing affordability is damn hard, but it becomes much harder in an atmosphere of distrust and disconnection. We need to find ways to have meaningful conversation on how our neighbourhoods are evolving, what are the forces that are driving change, and how can and do we want new development to function. While the City has long been and continues to be very creative in how it consults the public, too often the conversations are too fractured and counter to developing meaningful dialogue among diverse perspectives. This needs to change if we want to build the social capital and creativity necessary to shape planning and development to build a more affordable and equitable city. While I don’t necessarily believe that now is the time for a city-wide plan (more on this later), we are definitely overdue for some honest city-wide conversations of how our city can and needs to grow.
- Make the Creative Easier. One of the most difficult things for a city bureaucracy to do is to make the creative solution the easier one. In a highly regulated market such as housing (there is no such thing as a truly free market in housing anywhere in North America), there is a tremendous incentive to standardize and in a standardized market, the advantage goes to conservative capital (aka ‘big development’). This is especially true in Vancouver where an unbalanced market does not allow for the market to express design preference in a meaningful way. This is a problem when we need diversity of housing options and development models (aka innovation).One easy (and very cheap) way for the City to tilt the balance towards towards creative (and especially non-mainstream development models) is to use its discretionary authority to incentivize creative and affordable solutions and to empower City staff to champion creative solution and to help not-for-profit and non-traditional developers committed to affordability minded solutions navigate the City’s complex development rules and approval process. The City can also lead the way by initiating rezonings as a valuable assist to innovative solutions (which often have to save every possible penny to be viable).
- Rethink the CAC. Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) are a key tool that the City of Vancouver uses both to help offset the costs of growth and to ‘value capture’ some of the private gains from public actions where those action increase the value of land (the ‘land lift’). I am a strong advocate and supporter of Vancouver’s CAC system and the City’s broader financing growth strategy. I remain unconvinced by the poorly supported argument that, in aggregate, CACs add to housing costs. That said, there are cases where CACs can be a barrier to more affordable housing options and that is where the City should consider a focused rethink.We need a CAC calibrated to differentiate between affordability-centric projects and a standard proforma project. This requires protections in place for the City to keep it from being gamed but it is solvable. Second, we need a citywide public discussion on public benefit priorities. Not only is the a key component of meaningful public dialogue on planning and development but as a community we can determine the right trade-offs between housing affordability (such as mandating affordable units or affordable community design). CACs are a key tool to manage land speculation but also shouldn’t be used to incentive public support for increased land values.
- Develop an Affordable Housing Innovation Fund. An inclusionary approach to development regulation and approvals (something like inclusionary zoning) can serve Vancouver well but it shouldn’t necessarily be focused on securing units (social, affordable, or rental). Capturing in-lieu fees or similar contributions that can be used as seed capital for partnerships with not-for-profit developers to build real affordable projects makes tremendous sense. This fund can be used to help support public competitions to make affordable housing happen in partnership with the City. And by providing capital to agencies and affordable housing developers – they can get matching funds and access other resources to get projects built. Again, it is about focusing on what the City can do best and what others can do better.
Those are my 10 ideas and there are certainly many more. Above all, we need to creatively engage this topic (as many have) with some focus on what the City (or any city in the region) can do while we wait for the political winds to shift and for our government in Victoria to get serious on this issue that affects all of BC.