Business & Economy
December 22, 2017

The Daily Durning: What Vancouver Can Teach Seattle about Affordable Housing


It’s always interesting to see ourselves through other people’s perspectives, and this article from Crosscut.com via Tom Durning contextually examines Vancouver from the Seattle perspective. Writer Gregory Scruggs observes that “Seattle area’s increases in home prices led the nation for the 13th straight month in November, the longest-ever such streak for real estate around Puget Sound. That meteoric rise has made it ever harder for the region’s booming population to buy a home. But if we think it’s difficult in Seattle, look 140 miles north to Vancouver, British Columbia, where experts say house prices are like those of San Francisco but incomes resemble those of sleepy Halifax.”
In discussing the speculative nature of the Vancouver housing market, Scruggs notes that Seattle’s new mayor is going forward with spending $100 million dollars for affordable housing, making the Utility Discount Program more accessible to low-income earners, and  setting up a city-wide Rental Housing Assistance Program. Seattle also is afraid of becoming a “hedge city- a place where the global rich park their money in houses and condos that they live in part-time at best but mostly purchase as a safe place to put their assets.”  
With housing being treated as an investment commodity, Scruggs sees Canadian immigration policy as allowing “well-heeled foreigners” to live in Vancouver and buy luxury condos. He points out that a Washington law discourages condo development and apartments are the norm, with locals in the tech industry “making the kind of salaries that can afford now-expensive Craftsmans, though believers in speculative influence suggest that even tech money can’t explain Seattle’s current price boom.”
Scruggs reviews the Canada Mortgage and Housing  (CMHC) research on speculative purchases, the Foreign Buyers Tax and the Empty Homes Tax, and  suggests  that  Seattle housing will not be at the critical affordability level as Vancouver until prices rise another 20 to 30 per cent. Scruggs also spoke with several Vancouver experts including the Duke of Data Simon Fraser University’s Andy Yan who noted that because of power delegated to counties in the United States, “you are able to respond in a much more agile way than metro Vancouver”.  University of British Columbia’s  Business Professor Tom Davidoff notes that Seattle could adapt a Seattle-specific measure  “to set high property taxes that could be rebated for property owners paying income tax at that address, or landlord with long-term tenants”. 
This is being discussed  for Metro Vancouver as part of the  BC Housing Affordability Fund with the current Provincial government. As Tom Davidoff states this fund would flush out who is legitimately in the housing market. “If you’re not paying income tax at that address and you’re not a landlord, then what are you?” Davidoff asks. “You must have brought the money in from elsewhere.”
The full text of the article is available here.

 

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Sandy James Photos
From the Daily Durning comes an interesting article from governing.com  on the importance of sidewalks to the liveliness of cities and places. Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities established the concept that holistic communities are based upon the opportunity to have face to face contacts with neighbours. Jane wrote: “Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”
Sociologist Mark Granovetter  reinforced this view in the 1980’s in an academic review that found the “most successful communities were built on what he called “weak ties,” informal contacts among casual acquaintances who stop on the street to share news, gossip or simple good wishes. A robust array of weak ties gives city dwellers access to jobs, child care and practical advice, and it enhances their overall sense of well-being.”
Of course it makes sense that in order to have contact on the sidewalk you need sidewalks and spaces along sidewalks for people to gather. The City of Vancouver has the blooming boulevards program which allows home owners to garden the city boulevards on either side of  the sidewalk in front of their residence.  Windsor Street in East Vancouver was the demonstration street for blooming boulevards, which created gardened spaces and meeting points for the residents along this street.
Walk Score is now popular in assessing  how walkable a place is and used by people buying in the real estate market. There is a new book out by Philip Langdon titled “Within Walking Distance” examining why some cities seems to do better with walkability than others. Langdon talks about Brattleboro Vermont, a town that is constrained by geography to a small size but has embraced walkability in its downtown which is also bustling with businesses. It’s the town site located between a river and steep hills that has meant the town could not sprawl outward, and meant that 90 per cent of locals live within a two-mile walking distance of downtown. That walkable distance also has meant that townspeople proudly support local businesses on their main street and spurn more suburban shopping centres.
Langdon also examines other American towns and their walkability. He surmises that while history and geography matter for walkable places, neighbourhood character, creativity and “audacity” are important too. Audacity is described as the neighbourhood’s determination in the face of “existing regulation and bureaucratic inertia”.
Walkability, its quality and its acceptance is still something best measured by local residents in the comfort and convenience of accessing schools, shops and services by foot, and still remains an area that requires more study.

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