November 18, 2011

Housing and Crowding: A realistic alternative for Vancouver

Vancouver’s civic election should make it clear how difficult the affordable housing issue actually is.

Each party has a platform, but none of them come to grips with the reality of the situation. . NPA is saying ‘let ‘er rip’ – the market can solve the problem (but not all their candidates agree, particularly Bill McCreery). . Vision is saying they’ll ‘press on the accelerator – while controlling the steering wheel’ (but not all their allies agree, like COPE). . Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver is saying they’ll ‘step on the brake’  (but without any real options). . Truth is: the solution is not in their hands.  How money moves is as important as how the city gets zoned.  A change in the income tax act has more effect than a change in the development bylaw.  And City council doesn’t get to change the income tax act. . Realistically, the consequence of local inaction or inability to act will be a more crowded city: more people in the same floor space.  Physics, not policy, will prevail.  (Take a guess at the at the number of foreign students already crowded into one-bedroom apartments in the West End.) . Secondary suites, micro-condos and and laneway houses are other manifestations of the same phenomenon.  They’re as expensive on a per-square-foot basis as larger condos and houses, but cheaper because they’re smaller. . Here’s another option we should be seriously planning for: the boarding house.   They’re what the West End was filled with before the highrise apartment boom in the 1960s (when the population was half what is today, even though there highest building was only eight storeys).  What may have looked to be largely single-family houses had been divided up from attic to basement with separate suites.  There are still a few left: . . Today, we need a contemporary version, since we can presume that our generation’s megahouses will go the same way, and that we might even come up with some purpose-built designs. . In his column, Neal Pierce discusses:
… we do need much smaller, more affordable units than today’s market offers, especially for our millions of “millennials” — twenty-somethings who are now selecting cities to live in. Millennials find themselves stuck with meager pay (median income $31,000) in today’s limping economy. … . Candidate strategies for more compact urban housing units abound. (David Smith of Recap Real Estate Advisors in Boston) suggests, for example, basement or attic flats that use the “excess” space in larger homes in which an aging homeowner wants to remain but has rooms that are idle and chores that need to be done. “A bargain can be struck,” he suggests, with a younger tenant who pays reduced rent in exchange for upkeep and light maintenance. The net result: “to turn an over-housed, under-maintained single-family dwelling into a multi-household home that benefits both parties.”
. Urban designer Mark Hinshaw in Seattle has been exploring this too – and will perhaps provide some useful precedents for Vancouver if we can get over the resistance (and illusions) of the single-family homeowners and legally do with good design what will happen inevitably and illegally (just as with secondary suites – the one-unit, self-contained version of the boarding house). Read more »

They’re related, according to the Intergenerational Foundation:

Social justice, intergenerational transfers, the default age for retirement, these are the sorts of issues the IF wants aired. Today’s report – you can find it here – focuses on the need to persuade older people to downsize homes they no longer need into something smaller.

You’re going to hear a lot more about these themes – I touched on them here – as the youngsters figure out what a raw deal they’re getting from the oldsters.

More here in The Guardian: Housing shortage: are oldsters ‘hoarding’ 25m bedrooms?

Read more »

Back again – with lots to come on Shanghai, including some new Price Tags in the original pdf format.  Meanwhile, here’s my latest Business in Vancouver column:

I’m 62.

My horizons are limited by my mortality.  And as one gets older, I’ve found, you accommodate yourself to that inevitability.  As will, collectively, an entire generation.

So what do the Boomers want for the next few decades they have left?

Good health, for one.  And economic security.  And for this fortunate generation, certainly in Canada, that’s not an unreasonable expectation.

Regardless of what is or will be happening around us, aging Boomers would prefer things to continue pretty much the way they do now.  They’d like to continue using the last, best resources while they’re still cheap – oil, water, land, air – with a sense that there’s no real limit to our consumption save what we can afford.  In the face of limits, we expect that technology – as it has all our lives – will save the day.  Smart people will figure something out.

Because we happened to be born at the right time, in the right place, accumulating wealth has been as easy as breathing.  The great post-war boom has benefitted us more than any other in human history.  Why wouldn’t we want that to continue, until we ship out?

In short, we don’t wish to be inconvenienced in any dramatic way.  And as we get older, we do get crankier in the face of unexpected unpleasantries.

So here’s the cranky version of the generational bargain that underpins the world view of the self-regarding Boomer:

We want to live out the closing years of our lives with as much stability as possible.  Don’t ask us to change our lifestyles before illness and disability do it for us, and certainly don’t ask for more in taxes.

We intend to spend our wealth, to which we feel entitled, largely on ourselves. We don’t know the consequences, yet, of all the carbon we have emitted into the atmosphere but would prefer not to be reminded while we’re travelling.

We will pass along whatever’s left and also the debts –  whether measured in credit or carbon – to whomever has to make the tough decisions.  However, because we  vote in large numbers, we assume we’ll be exempted without being asked to alter our lifestyles for the sake of another generation.

We do expect the young ‘uns to work hard and creatively address the challenges heading their way.  And we expect them to pay taxes sufficient to fund our health care, or accept that less will be spent on things like education.  But we’re hoping they won’t make a big fuss as they realize they’re not going to get the opportunity to acquire what we took for granted.  Because we really don’t want to make room for them if it means changing the character of our community or negatively affecting our property values.  So, please, don’t think about rezoning our neighbourhoods or taking road space for bike routes.

As I say, that’s the cranky view.  But if it was seen to be the mainstream opinion among the aging, I’d say we’re in for a pre-revolutionary period – not necessarily a violent one, but a time when the assumptions of a generation can be suddenly and decisively overturned.  After all, why would those in their twenties put up with financing the Boomers end-life at the cost of their own beginnings?  Why would they remain passive if they felt Boomers were taking them down even as they stood in the way of change.

Put that combination together – inequity in the present, disregard for the future and refusal to change – and you have the conditions that disrupted North American society in the late 60s and North Africa practically yesterday: young people with resentments, not much to lose and a lot of new ways to communicate.

The more hopeful view is that, unlike tribal warfare, generations are resilient because we’re all rooted in families – and society is in the end a big family. Older people do see the need to share, and there is a lot of wealth to be passed on.  Technology and creativity do make a difference.  Smart people can come up with solutions.  Democracies do absorb disruptive change. 

Read more »