UBC Economist Tom Davidoff has some thoughts about how to deal with housing unaffordability.  His ideas involve increasing density within the vast swaths of Vancouver land that are now zoned for extremely low density.  Plus complex review of real estate taxation, CAC’s and political responsibility for control of land usage.
His ideas presage a political challenge to shift hearts and minds from the entrenched viewpoint that living in a single family home is the inalienable birthright of every person in Canada. Not to mention the simple resistance to change from the status-quo — those now comfortably housed in Vancouver’s old car suburbs.
To my thinking, it’s a better solution than pushing car suburbs onto the ALR.

Davidoff would like to see the province step in to mandate density targets. He suggested municipalities could then hold auctions in which developers could bid to build to those density targets.
Instead of developers contributing a community amenity contribution, which are set by the city and are different for each project, Davidoff proposed the affected community come up with the amount they expect to be compensated for “the economic loss if you allow townhomes, if you allow condos.”
“If we do contributions for density that way, we extract as much wealth as we can from wealthy homeowners and builders, and we give a lot of benefit to locals so they have a reason to accept density.”
Thanks to Jen St. Denis in Metro

In this 33:48 video Prof. Davidoff discusses his ideas in much more breadth and detail. With PowerPoint slides too!!  At 24:30, things get interesting with recommendations on a market-based approach to densification.


  1. Thank you Ken for one of the best posts yet on the housing issue.
    Davidoff hits the land use supply aspect of affordability bang on, and it’s a great antidote to Elizabeth Murphy’s “enough zoned capacity already” narrative that completely ignores housing type in relation to land consumption, basically calling for a glass dome to descend on RS zones. It is also a significant counterpoint to Kerry Gold’s justification for a quick dismissal of land supply in favour of the smoke, hyperventilation and tabloid headlines surrounding the sexier issue of foreign speculation.
    Some of his recommendations may need more urban design and architectural nuance not available in a Power Point presentation on economic policy. I don’t believe he addressed the negative aspects of the Strata Title Act, something that a hefty number of detached home owners wouldn’t want imposed on their neighbourhood. Escaping strata title would require a provincial response. To achieve freehold ownership in attached single family rowhouses, like those he portrayed as “banned,” one has to look at separating the shared load-bearing walls found in strata townhouses, and paying greater attention to sound attenuation and privacy.
    Lastly, changes to municipal infrastructure needs to accompany his ideas to support a much higher population that would be more evenly spread than the concentrated zones outside of RS zoning we have today. This includes underground services, solid waste recycling and removal, energy, transit, incentives for recycling building materials in place of demolition and so forth.

    1. Interesting! I remember Taras Grescoe’s chapter on Tokyo in ‘Straphangar’, a city with the equivalent population of all of Canada. There arre no suburbs, at least not like the car-dominated sprawl we know here because the city and its satellites were formed by rail, and distinctly human-scaled communities with tight, mixed use zones and streets arose around each station.

  2. Tom D is bang on, indeed. Plus add’l taxes for non-income paying residents (excl. seniors) aka a mimicking of the US model where locals can deduct mortgage interest and property taxes from their taxable incomes thus cutting in half roughly their holding costs. Canada is far too generous and residential real estate is far too cheap to hold here for non-income tax paying “residents” or foreign investors.
    I.e. we need to address both demand AND supply side !

  3. Certainly, mutant laneway houses are not the solution to densification. The good part is that they’re permitted almost everywhere. The bad part is that they’re absurdly expensive runts. When a runt house costs almost as much as full-sized – it’s wrong.
    Freehold, properly constructed row housing, as MB describes, is much more cost-effective and would find many buyers. Placing these townhouses along laneways is logical. Many homeowners would be happy to capture some of their equity by selling off their “back forty”.
    These would work best on north-south lots for maximum sun exposure.
    The abitrary RS zoning is patently unfair and weird. Much as we appreciate our SFD, we are subsidized for this luxury on one hand, and penalized for a lower valuation on the other. Where’s the logic in that?
    Ask the residents of Norquay Village how they feel about when their zoning changed – when their crap houses suddenly became valuable. They cash out; developers make money; new people buy in.
    It’s puzzling why the areas around some Skytrain stations is RS1. This is contrary to the real estate maxim of highest best use.
    The area around every station should be zoned for high density and commercial. Look at what happened at Boundary and Vanness: a handful of houses – some almost new Van Specs – were torn down to make way for thousands of housing units.

    1. So true. People love row houses. Before they came back, the existing row houses that were built in the early part of the 20th century were coveted.
      Now today, with the lack of interest by some of having a yard and improved sound proofing they’re even better.
      Make more!

  4. I wonder if it would work to let the affected community set the contribution by developers. It seems people expect very much from developers, often more than financially feasible. The city would probably have to provide ballpark figures for various amenities and an approximate total or upper limit.

  5. It’s not just the expectation that “living in a single family home is the inalienable birthright of every person in Canada” that skews the equation, it’s the expectation that that single family home will be exactly where you want it to be — i.e., close to town, close to the Canada line, close to the water, whatever. At some point in every discussion about housing affordability someone exclaims “But…I’d have to move to Surrey!”

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