Housing
August 31, 2007

The Perfect and the Good

A good piece in The Tyee by Cynthia Yoo, reporting from the frontlines of the rental housing crunch.

… my idyllic summer evening turned quickly into a battleground scene. Dozens of flip-flopped, lululemon’ed denizens milled about the front grounds of a building in one of the most prized postal-codes in the city… These lotus-eaters’ fabled Shangri-las are Kitsilano, the West End and Commercial Drive. And to nab those coveted 1 or 2BR suites, Vancouverites often resort to bribery and bidding wars, lies and fists-full of cash.

She picks up on a comparison rarely made:

“The United States, although constantly misconstrued by the left-liberal coffee-house ‘progressives’ in Vancouver as ‘right-wing’ is in fact one of the more progressive places in terms of affordable housing programs,” according to Howard Rotberg who has written extensively about rental housing issues.
The U.S. has everything from transferable affordable housing tax credits issued to affordable housing developers who sell them to provide early stage financing, to dedicated affordable housing mutual funds. He says B.C. (and Vancouver in particular) is in fact one of the least progressive jurisdictions in North America.

And then this:

The solution, then? Ramlo, Gurstein, Durning and Rotberg are all waiting to see what happens with the City’s new EcoDensity Planning Initiative, but aren’t holding their breath. But “the one real value to EcoDensity initiative is the ‘initiative’ part,” says Ramlo. “A conversation is starting as we as a city are realizing we have to densify and work on the problems.”

Oh, but they are holding their breath. As opposition gets organized to EcoDensity – a key plank of which is increased affordability by providing a greater diversity of housing – it counts on a passive response by those who would defend it. And those on the left whose priority is affordability are often reluctant to speak out for several reasons:
(1) They believe in neighbourhood activism. And if neighbourhood activists are fighting EcoDensity, they prefer to remain unaligned.
(2) EcoDensity is a policy developed by Sam Sullivan and the NPA. If it works, the right gets the credit.
(3) EcoDensity is not perfect. It won’t do everything that’s needed, and what it may do won’t happen quickly. Trade-offs will be required. In this case, the Perfect can drive out the Good. The result: neither the Perfect, nor the Good.
Thus the problem worsens, and both the opponents of EcoDensity and the affordable housing advocates can then re-unite: City Hall (specific politicians to be named here) is doing nothing to address this emergency!

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As I learned on Council, when it comes to the issue of housing, especially in the Downtown East Side, advocates are fearful of too much success.  Some fear resources and sympathy might dry up if the problem is addressed.  So the problem is played up and the progress played down.
The danger is that we might miss some pretty amazing progress.
 

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My latest column in Business in Vancouver:

July 10-16, 2007; issue 924
Housing crises can generate solutions
Having been on city council for 15 years, I’ve been through a housing crisis or two. The housing crisis of ’89 – now that was a good one. I still remember fondly the council meeting in which we pushed through about a half-dozen different initiatives in an afternoon.
That’s the upside of a good crisis: you can do things that otherwise get put off for “further study” and more “public process.”
Sometimes there’s a good reason for putting off action: with a little more time, the crisis goes away. When dealing with a phenomenon dependent on external factors like interest rates and incomes, circumstances can quickly change.
And then you find out that the crisis was exaggerated.
But politically, so what? If people believe that no one can afford to buy a house, politicians must respond creatively. And sure enough, some creative ideas are coming forward.

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The New York Times reports on how the commodities boom in Western Australia has affected the price of housing in Perth.

Perth, though about the same population size as Greater Vancouver, sprawls to the north and south, consisting largely of detached, single-family housing.  If Randal O’Toole’s argument was correct (that limiting land supply forces up the cost of housing), Perth should be one of the more affordable places in Australia.   

For more on Perth (and images of its suburbs), go here.

 July 5, 2007

Boom in Commodity Prices Makes Perth Attractive to Many, Unaffordable to Others

PERTH, Australia — The global commodities boom has been very good to the state of Western Australia and its capital, Perth. While the broad Australian economy has had some slow periods and property prices are rebounding, Perth has been humming.
Kris Thomas seems perfectly placed to ride along with the good fortunes of the city. Mr. Thomas, a 25-year-old native of Perth, is a computer programmer for an oil and gas company at a time when the industry cannot find enough skilled people.
But he is packing his bags and moving east to Melbourne, not because he does not have a good job but because he can no longer afford a decent place to live in Perth.
Mr. Thomas, who is single, earns 57,000 Australian dollars, or $49,000 a year. The average wage in Western Australia rose last year to nearly 56,000 dollars, putting it the closest to salaries in the largest Australian state, New South Wales, in 13 years.
“It’s nearly impossible to get something in Perth at the moment,” Mr. Thomas said. “Housing prices in Perth have increased heaps, but salaries haven’t.”

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Last November, I wrote a post (here) on the dilemma of the three-storey walk-up, the plain stucco boxes that proliferated in the apartment districts of Vancouver from 1945-55:

For the last three decades, these buildings have been a reserve of lower-middle-income affordable rental housing….
When the real-estate market was hot in the late 1980s, … low-rise apartments were being replaced by highrise condos with less units. Result: population density reduced, housing affordability lost, views compromised, tenants distressed, neighbours angry, politicians unhappy. Pretty much a lose-lose all the way around.
The Council responded by imposing a rate-of-change condition on vulnerable neighbourhoods like the West End, in addition to a rezoning that took away much of the incentive to redevelop. More positively, developers were redirected …
This combination took the pressure off, rents remained stable, evictions were almost unheard of, and, as they say, the dog didn’t bark…. (But) if there’s any significant loss in the affordability of the three-storey walkup, then, believe me, the pit-bull of politics will be unleashed.

So … who let the dogs out?

As regular PT reader Sungsu noted in a comment, a just-released report from City Hall tallies up some of the recent damage:

In Kerrisdale, an issued development permit allows 41 strata units to replace 67 rental housing units at 5951 Balsam (Bermuda Manor). The sale price for the new units is almost $900 per square foot. A second approved development application at 2260 West 39th allows the replacement of 23 rental housing units by 12 strata units … (The city has already had to issue demolition permits for 260 rental housing units this year alone.)

In the Sun today, Frances Bula sums up the recommendations from staff:

…. any demolition or conversion to strata would have to come to council for approval. While the door is left ajar for developers who come to the city with creative proposals to build replacement housing, it would be shut for anyone who simply wants to tear down old rental apartment buildings to replace them with strata-title condominiums.

Next Tuesday, Council will be asked to approve a recommendation to go to a public hearing – effectively freezing any further development applications.

I don’t think Council has much choice on this. As the report notes, the city no longer has large (or even many small) development sites to take the pressure off the existing rental stock. And another story in the Sun explains why that pressure is so excrutiating:

(Relator Bob) Rennie thinks prices may level off, but doesn’t see any dramatic drop.

It can’t keep going up as fast as it has been,” he says.

But we watch for what levels it off — interest rates, if we’re not working, or there’s an oversupply. You just watch those three things, and none of them seem to be visible on the horizon.”

The other factor, of course, is that a substantial amount of Vancouver real estate sells to people who don’t live here. Some are from Europe and Asia, some from the U.S., some from Alberta. Rennie estimates 15 to 20 percent of downtown condos are sold to non-residents. And he sees the 2010 Olympics as a $5 billion advertising campaign for Vancouver’s high quality of life, which may attract more international attention.

The thing that nobody likes to admit is that Vancouver at a certain level is looked at as a resort city,” says Rennie.
“Nobody likes to talk about it, but we are.”

I hesitate to use the cliche ‘perfect storm,’ but there are a lot of heavy breezes blowing – and any local politician who fails to respond could well be blown away.

The problem, of course, is that stopping change rarely achieves any solution. Some way has to be found for the aging housing stock to be replaced without sacrificing the lower-middle-income renters.

Over 50 per cent of Vancouver households, and over 80 per cent of younger households, are renters. They face a triple whammy: Rapidly rising condominium prices price low-income earners out of home ownership; redevelopment of rental buildings is eroding the housing stock; and income growth is not keeping up with increasing rents.

That’s a lot of voters.

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A Price Tags reader was reading Michael Geller’s blog entry on Australia’s Gold Coast, and one of the things that jumped out at him was this:

There is a 50-per-cent cap on the number of foreigners who can buy into any new multi-family building in Australia.

“Very interesting,” he thought, “particularly given the apparently high rates of foreign/absentee ownership in our downtown core.  …. There are fears that we are becoming a “resort city” of sorts.  Could the City actually legislate a restriction on foreign ownership?  Or tax foreign investors with multiple homes differently…. and perhaps use increased revenue to fund more social housing?”
So how much foreign ownership is there?  He asked a numbers guy who works with census data (and since I haven’t asked whether he’d mind seeing his name in print, we’ll keep calling him Numbers Guy):

For the first time this census includes numbers of permanently occupied and total numbers of dwellings (by block) so it’s possible to see the ‘occupation rate’ of city blocks.  

Among the lowest is Coal Harbour, which you’d expect, and even there 60% of the dwellings are occupied by permanent residents. Concord Pacific runs at between 75% and 90% occupied by permanent residents. Some of the vacant units will of course be just that, those being sold or bought or rented, but empty on Census day. Some of the ‘absentees’ are Albertans, so until we make them leave Canada and join Texas as a confederation, we can’t really penalise them. Of course, they already pay more tax as they’re not able to get the homeowners grant (and they consume very few city services when they’re not around).

That won’t settle the issue, of course.  But it certainly reflects the difference between Canada and Australia on immigration policy (5.85 migrants per thousand population for Canada; 3.85 for Australia) and acceptance rates for asylum seekers  (36 percent for Canada; 20 percent for Australia).

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From the National Post

  Brian Hutchinson National Post

CREDIT: Steve Bosch, CanWest News Service A forest of condominium buildings in Vancouver. “View corridors” between towers are protected, giving most condo dwellers a glimpse of the sea or mountains.

Canadians are living in houses bigger than ever, even though our families are shrinking. In this, the second of a three-part series, the National Post examines the backlash against living large.
– – –
Do not feel bad for Gordon Price. A former Vancouver councillor, he lives in what he calls “the smallest home” he has ever owned. It is in a 1950sera tower that borders Stanley Park, the city’s crown jewel.
The West End apartment he shares with his partner measures approximately 1,100 square feet, which makes it about half the size of the average Canadian home. One small bathroom, no garden, limited storage and parking.
Like many people living in his densely populated neighbourhood, Mr. Price has no children. This helps free up space in his small home.
His apartment is bright and airy, with large windows that overlook the tranquil Lost Lagoon. The simple, open design fools the eye and makes the place seem much larger than it really is.
“It’s not the size that counts,” says Mr. Price with a wink. “It’s what you make of it.”
Vancouverites are used to making do with less. Most have no choice; the city is sandwiched between water and mountains, and real estate here is astronomically priced, the highest in Canada. Traditional single-family homes — even small bungalows — cannot be had for less than $500,000, making them unattainable for even moderately high-income earners.
Figures released last week indicate that detached bungalows in Vancouver sell for an average of $758,000; in Toronto, they sell for an average of $387,744.
Other Canadians may wonder how people in Vancouver could possibly cope inside such small homes; Mr. Price’s apartment is actually a generous size, by West End standards. And his neighbourhood has one of the highest population densities in North America, with about 20,000 people per square kilometre. That is more than four times the density of Montreal, one of Canada’s oldest and most congested cities.

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I must have missed this: the 2006 winners of Best Practices in Affordable Housing, according to CMHC (they do so much more than insure).
You can find the list here.
Local winner:

Mole Hill Housing Project
Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects/S.R. McEwan Architect
Vancouver, British Columbia

This project is a redevelopment and restoration of 27 City of Vancouver-owned houses in the heart of Vancouver’s West End which provides units of non-market housing for low-income singles, families, seniors and long-time residents of the block. The project protected and restored the home’s interior and exterior heritage features and incorporated green building techniques and energy efficient features. In addition, one new building was constructed, three daycares, community gardens and greenways, as well as the Dr. Peter Centre for persons with HIV/AIDS.

Thanks for the link from Mike Drescher, a design student at the San Francisco Institute of Architecture.  He was actually wondering what I thought of this Toronto winner as a possible example of Eco-Density infill:

 

Pre-fabricated Rooftop Addition to 25 Leonard Street
Levitt Goodman Architects Ltd. and St. Clare’s Multifaith Housing
Toronto, Ontario

More on this here.

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Solutions to the housing crunch in Vancouver? Ways to create more affordable housing? For everyone?

Enough with the questions.  Time for answers.  Last October, the Vancouver City Planning Commission, Smart Growth BC and the City Program brought together some of the brightest minds in the city to take that one on. And now you can see the results for yourself here:

This summary of the two-day conference highlights the remarks of public-lecture speaker Karrie Jacobs (The Perfect $100,000 House) with response from Dale McClanaghan and Lance Jakubec; distills the speech of keynote speaker Larry Beasley (New Possibilities; Old Barriers); and sums up the comments of our panel of experts Bill Buholzer, Bruce Haden, Bob Ransford and Jay Wollenberg (Overcoming Barriers to Affordable Housing Strategies).
Most importantly, the report documents (with helpful illustrations) the recommendations of the small-group discussions:

  • Small infill houses on laneways
  • Adaptive re-use and enhanced housing mixes in single-family areas
  • Intensification along major roads, new nodes and transit-oriented development
  • Thinking outside the box

This conference did more than talk about a problem; it supplied some realistic and practical solutions.
Now the challenge: translating it all into action.

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December 19, 2006

Architectural critic Trevor Boddy celebrates the season of good cheer with another dump on the City in this Globe and Mail piece.

This Christmas season thus sees a re-mounting of a pantomime Vancouver has seen many times before: an annual joint production by our political left and political right that repeats the same sad plotline year after year: “Let’s park the poorest in a drugs slum.”
Stage right, the mavens of Point Grey and South Vancouver love it, as they do not have to provide social housing sites along their leafy lanes, even for their own senior citizens. Stage left, supposedly progressive community organizations can consolidate their power and funding streams by concentrating poverty into one area.

He’s right, of course. Vancouver’s Left and Right have been playing that game of mutual advantage with the Downtown East Side for years, and the results have been speaking – yelling, actually – for themselves.
Boddy also suggests that the City be shamed into rolling out 19 identified sites for social and affordable housing. Once again, an illustration of how easier it is to attach blame to City Hall when the responsibility rests elsewhere. The City has been pushing for senior-government funding on some of these sites since the early 1990s, when the Feds abandoned the capital programs needed to get the projects built. But just the other day, the Province announced its support.
Perhaps everyone has run out of excuses.

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