What good questions. Bethany Lindsay of CBC asked it of three of our past planners:

We prepared a precis of their answers, and added our own take.

Ann McAfee:

We were so busy patting ourselves on the back, we probably should have been much more serious about what senior government programs, investor programs meant for the city, she said.

It’s only now we’re talking about speculator taxes and taxes on non-resident ownership. That discussion should have happened in the 1980s, early 90s, when those programs were starting to encourage money to come in, she said.

The city should have also pushed harder against the federal government when it backed away from funding co-op and non-profit housing in the 1980s, and lobbied the provincial government for more help, McAfee said.

 

Larry Beasley:

We had all done the calculations on how much wealth was being created as you allow people to go from industrial development to high density housing…. And we scratched our heads and we said, well, what else is it that the public might need? he said. 

The city settled on requiring contributions toward amenities like libraries and public spaces, as well as sites for low-income housing.

What we should have said in those meetings: Why don’t we try some middle income housing as well as low income housing? Beasley said.

 

Ray Spaxman:

Spaxman said it would have been impossible during his years in city hall to predict where things were heading. The federal government was still in the housing business and foreign money was a relative non-factor.

His real regret is what he sees as a lag in long-term planning for housing needs — and the lack of information provided to the public about the latest research on the housing crunch.

“One of the purposes of the planning department is to look ahead … and report on what appears to be happening,” Spaxman said.

“The planners, they don’t have sole control over what they look at. They make a report to our community leaders, who are the councillors, and our community leaders give them [the planners] the direction as to what they can do, he said.

Full story here; note that article’s comments section has been closed. Yours are welcome here.

Gord Price’s response:

As one of those councillors who was in power during the tenure of these three planners, I regret there’s not much in their recommendations that would have been doable by the City — or made much of a difference.

Speculator taxes, taxes on non-resident ownership, and continuation of senior-government housing programs? Not in our jurisdiction. And as one who attended a meeting in Ottawa to convince the Martin government not to abandon the housing file, we saw that their overriding priority was deficit reduction. The City of Vancouver took every remaining housing dollar we could get from the Province and required land be set aside in the mega-projects for funding in the future (it’s still there), but it wasn’t remotely enough.

CACs for middle-income housing? The pushback would have been extraordinary and seen by most residents as an unnecessary and unfair ‘subsidy,’ especially if it was thought to bump other opportunities for amenities.

The council I was on did intervene when Hong Kong investment was seen to exclude opportunity for Vancouverites to participate. Gordon Campbell, within a day, talked to Victor Li (son of Li Ka-Shing, who had purchased the Expo site) on a condo project that was being developed on the South Shore of False Creek and offered for sale first in Hong Kong. That stopped immediately.  

Nor was there a problem with the Concord Pacific project being bought up predominately by Chinese. Indeed, many of the newcomers preferred single-family housing, there was a drop in condo prices in the 1990s, and the development of seven mega-projects simultaneously (Concord Pacific, International Village, Coal Harbour, Bayshore, Collingwood Village, Fraser Lands and Arbutus Gardens), plus the re-zonings of Downtown South and Triangle West, provided more than sufficient supply to offset expanded demand and took pressure off the rental neighbourhoods like the West End.

I don’t remember anyone predicting the dilemma we face today in a way that would justified the interventions that now seem necessary. Nor would taxation policies have been politically possible without the ‘unexpected consequences’ that inevitably become the focus of criticism — even today.

But Ray Spaxman is right: all levels of government and the political class in general failed to monitor, predict, plan and discuss the problems related to rising housing costs. The fear of xenophobia, contradictory explanations, the need for high-risk interventions and split jurisdictions all combined to create a silence that was filled by anecdote, excuse and ultimately anger.  

And so here we are.