It’s only mid-January, and already we have a nomination for ‘Article of the Year.’

Doug Ward’s long-form analysis in The Tyee of the No. 1 story in this town is a must-read if you want an informed perspective on the particulars of the housing challenges in Vancouver, what actions and proposals have been taken, and where the various factions on council stand.  It’s the best read so far of the political players, their motivations and critiques of each other.  It’s a lot of material to pack into a single story, and this one is as good as we’ve seen so far.

Here’s Doug’s conclusion:

The politically low-friction days of filling brown fields with new developments are over. And nowadays, almost all densification in established neighbourhoods happens on the east side of town, while on the wealthier west side, says (Andy) Yan, “The homes have become larger and emptier. It’s getting less dense.”

Something’s got to give….  (But) Stewart and his councillors have yet to forge an agenda that reflects the mood of crisis that delivered them to their posts in the first place. They have until the fall of 2022 to demonstrate otherwise.  [Tyee]

My thoughts:

The housing challenge cannot be met within the boundaries of Vancouver.  Housing is, at minimum, a regional challenge, involving every level of government.  City of Vancouver politicians should never be so presumptuous as to think they have the levers to solve it between Boundary Road and the UEL.

Also unquestioned (even in Doug’s piece) is the presumption that the City should replace the market as the short-term determinant for housing supply and affordability.   Let’s leave aside the question as to whether that’s possible (it isn’t), the fact is that most citizens, including immigrants, would be distrustful of an ideological solution unless it manifestly benefits them directly.

It could be that city government won’t have to intervene in any major way (rezoning the city from one end to the other or budgeting to build thousands of units) so long as it can affect marginal supply at a time when more global factors align (especially interest rates and health of the economy – which influences immigration rates, domestic and foreign).  By assisting the market to strategically supply an ongoing expectation of new units (which is happening now, especially in the rental stock) in a sufficiently short period of time, the overall market may be moderated in price and scarcity to remove the issue as a political imperative.  The pandemic might do the same, but likely won’t make much of a difference in the medium term.  (It hasn’t so far.)

The hope being placed on the Vancouver Plan was naïve to begin with, and unachievable in the time left in this council’s term, especially given the disruption of the pandemic.  Trying to accommodate a visionary or ideological model of change for every neighbourhood simultaneously, especially when it involves the character or scale of a community, is simply not doable without having to pay too high a political price (assuming there is a disciplined majority willing to take the risk).

Such a city-wide plan cannot on one hand provide an overview of how growth will be accommodated (along with infrastructure and amenities) in a way that is accepted as equitable and, on the other, inform citizens on what can literally be built next door to them (which is the real purpose of zoning: to give assurance, continuity and control over the rate of change).  The Vancouver Plan has no chance of doing that, and so will be compromised into mush or deferred into the future if it isn’t abandoned.

Vancouver will muddle along, spot-rezonings and all, and manage to still end up with a remarkably successful (if expensive) city.



  1. I totally agree with everything Gordon wrote. I especially concur that it is not possible to make all new housing public housing. We need only dig deeper into demographic trends and see the changing dependancy ratio. No government could generate the revenue to support a social program of this magnitude. No, there is no way of unlocking value from private land and transferring it to the public sector, despite all the musings of arm-chair economists and real estate development theorists. However, there might be a chance that the next civic election delivers a strong political coalition with a vision and determined leaders who would quickly implement a city-wide model of change for every neighbourhood to embrace the inescapable realities of continuing population growth, evolving demographics and a finite land supply. On the other hand, perhaps I’m too optimistic.

  2. It’s nice to have everyone on board with a regional housing strategy but Vancouver only controls Vancouver (and then just barely). The City can’t be expected to do nothing just because it alone can not “solve” the problem.

    The real problem is that not enough people recognize there’s a problem. Every city hall in the region demures to its respective “neighbourhood rights” mouthpieces who scream armageddon over 4-storey “towers”. Comforting preservationists is very clearly more important than reducing housing costs.

  3. Hardwick’s strategy, of course, is to ensure that those who would vote against her can’t afford to live here and vote. Brilliant!
    But while Hardwick’s brutality can hardly be called disappointing because we knew what we would get, Carr most surely can be.

    Still, the argument that our single family neighbourhoods can’t change because of entrenched old voters is as flawed as those who claimed we’d never get an expanding network of bike lanes. I believe it was Jane Jacobs who said, “social change comes one funeral at a time. What is astounding is that the dwindling proportion of single family homeowners still holds as much sway as it does. We constantly hear how few SF homes dominate so much land. It isn’t the land that is voting!

    Perhaps elected officials just aren’t being anywhere near bold enough. Maybe they are not inspiring those who would vote for them for fear of that dwindling cohort who might vote against them. There are more renters in Vancouver than homeowners so why aren’t they giving the boot to those who constantly vote against their best interests? It should be a slam dunk. After all, bike lanes are forging ahead even as there are still way more motorists than cyclists.

  4. Interesting to note that Metro Vancouver’s net increase in dwelling units has surpassed the net increase in household formation by an average of 20% over the last two decades, while home prices tripled.

    2001-2016 Net Dwelling Unit Growth: 240k units

    2001-2016 Net Population Growth: 200k households

    There has been no lack of overall supply.

    (Source: GVRD ‘Metro Vancouver Housing Book’, and ‘The Housing Supply Myth’, Dr. John Rose, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Nov. 24, 2017)

    1. Jennifer Keesmat’s take:

      “Canada’s housing market – built on faulty assumptions – is falling down on affordability”,

      “One (myth) is that housing affordability can be addressed by increasing supply alone. Where city planners once used population-growth forecasts to assess the need for new housing supply, assuming that each home would become a place for those people to build a life and contribute to a neighbourhood, new supply is being gobbled up by investors seeking a place to park capital. ”

      (Paywall, but look online for way to get around.)

    2. More from Dr. John Rose;

      “Academic takes on Vancouver’s housing-supply ‘myth’”

      “”There is an intuitive appeal to that argument,” says Dr. John Rose, who spent the last year on education leave, researching the popular belief that Vancouver has a lack of housing supply. “We understand this idea of supply and demand, intuitively, even if you haven’t taken an economics course.” However, he has concluded that Vancouver does not have a shortage of housing units. In fact, we have a surplus. And, as anybody in Metro Vancouver knows, prices have not plummeted as a result. “If we are looking back at the last 15 to 20 years, we have been providing more than enough units of housing – and it’s still unaffordable.”

      (Paywall, but look online for way to get around.)

      1. Jennifer Keesmat’s take:

        “Canada’s housing market – built on faulty assumptions – is falling down on affordability”

        “One (myth) is that housing affordability can be addressed by increasing supply alone. Where city planners once used population-growth forecasts to assess the need for new housing supply, assuming that each home would become a place for those people to build a life and contribute to a neighbourhood, new supply is being gobbled up by investors seeking a place to park capital.”

    3. Dr. Rose’s study was extensively critiqued after it was published. Jens Von Bergman for example looked at the data closely, and identified many ptroblems.

      Here are a few of the things Dr. Rose didn’t take into account. Between 2001 and 2006 Statistics Canada shifted to a primarily mail-in census return, rather than sending enumerators round the region. As a result they identified thousands of additional dwellings – mostly suites – that they hadn’t previously counted. While a few were occupied, most weren’t, so the count of ‘vacant’ dwellings went up, although they had been constructed many years before 2001, and weren’t ‘new’ dwellings. In addition, what were counted as ’empty’ dwellings might not be. Apartments occupied by foreign students or temporary foreign workers, for example, aren’t considered to be occupied for census purposes. We know that the numbers in both those categories increased between 2001 and 2016, as, for example, foreign language schools became a larger part of the the economy.

  5. Just a few small points.

    It does not seem that we know what we are doing when we discuss housing affordability.

    The MIRHPP program (Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program) institutionalizes high rise construction, the most environmentally destructive form of construction compared to wood frame or mass wood construction. The MIRHPP program may be good for a few people but in the long run it is bad for everyone else.

    The owners sitting in houses occupying 62% of the land base are in the most environmentally sustainable position in the city. City policies vis a vie the ‘missing middle’ will only serve to degrade this condition.

    We should better understand the economics around construction. That 62% of the land base that we keep hearing about is served by a small army of independent construction workers and suppliers of new wood frame buildings and renovations there of. These are projects that never exceed five floors and seldom rise above the tree canopy. Alternatively, the high rise zones are the domain of big business and the big carbon emitters.

    It is worth noting that the housing market is spread across the GVRD and beyond. It is an immense collection of buildings of historical dimension that continues to expand horizontally and vertically in various places. Finding a place in this matrix involves balancing revenue and expenses by individuals. Not every place in the matrix is functional for every individual because lifestyles vary considerably.

    1. Single family homes use more materials than multi-family even just in their construction alone. They tend to be larger per occupant and as such are usually also filled with more stuff. They almost always demand car ownership and usually that will be multiple cars. Beyond that they demand more road space and thus more asphalt. They demand more length of water lines sewer lines and electric transmission lines. There are more streets lights per unit. More parking spaces are strewn about to accommodate the excess use of private vehicles They mow down more trees and occupy more land and thus contribute more to habitat loss. They use more energy for heating, cooling and lighting. Garbage and recycling collection and other services are more sprawled. Transit is expensive and difficult to provide. Walking and cycling are less of an option.

      Jolson, you’ve repeated your fake news many times in this blog and it will never become true through more repetition.

      Missing middle reduces all the negatives I noted above. High rises can be and increasingly are being built out of mass timber. New concrete formulations are reducing their carbon footprint and new steel production methods are capable of the same. All forms of housing have their place but pretending that single family, particularly in cities, is the most environmentally friendly is jut plain false.

        1. If you can tell me why correcting your repeated posting of misinformation is irrelevant I will tell you why it is not mean hearted. Trump used the slogan “fake news” to undermine real news that made him look bad. It is only a Trump slogan when used in that way. If it really is fake news it deserves to be called fake news.

          Sad indeed.

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