Opinion: Smart density needed in Delta to help address regional housing affordability

Dec 5 2019, 7:37 pm

Written by Dylan Kruger, a city councillor with the City of Delta.

On Monday, Delta city council defeated an application for a 35-storey high-rise by a vote of 5-2. I voted in favour, along with Mayor Harvie. The project had 335 units, with 70 units dedicated to the new BC Housing Affordable Home Ownership Program (AHOP). It was located on 75A and Scott Road, the busiest transit corridor South of the Fraser and home to a future RapidBus in 2022.

A consistent theme I heard from dissenting councillors and members of the community was that the project itself was excellent – it was just in the wrong location. The high-rise, if approved, would cause traffic congestion. It did not fit well with the neighbourhood character. It would block views of the north shore mountains. Most importantly, the project was not in the community plan.

These are themes I’ve heard, not just in relation to this project, but with regards to many development projects across Metro Vancouver.

In contrast, I would argue that smart density along transit corridors will reduce traffic and increase neighbourhood livability, while also helping us to adapt our behaviour in response to the changing climate.

We are in the middle of a climate emergency. I was so proud that Delta council voted unanimously to take bold steps to address climate change last month. In many ways, the 20th-century suburban mentality was detrimental to our planet’s health. The old adage was that everybody gets space – a big house with a white picket fence and a big back yard. In order to have space, you need land. So, we started land use planning.

We put all of the residences on one side of town and all of the retail, shops, and services on the other. Whatever you do, whether you need to run to the store, go to the post office, go to the doctor, or go out for dinner, you need to get into your car.

The problem is getting worse, not better. In 1950 there were 100 million motor vehicles on planet earth. Today there are over one billion. There are 1.4 million cars in Metro Vancouver emitting 4.7 million tonnes of greenhouse gases every year, and 70% of personal trips in Metro Vancouver are made by vehicles. In our region, transportation is the single largest source of GHGs – accounting for 45% of total emissions. According to Metro Vancouver Regional District, the most significant contribution we can make to emissions reductions is through land use patterns that support sustainable transportation.

We have built our cities for cars before people. We have built car-focused roads that are treacherous for pedestrians and cyclists. Massive strip mall parking lots have been built over what was once green space, rivers, and lakes. We have literally paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

We need to start putting people first.

To aid in the transition to a green economy, cities need to take the lead when it comes to creating livable, walkable communities. We aren’t going to do this by building more million dollar single detached homes. We need to densify. In Delta, we know that this needs to take place on Scott Road, our busiest transit corridor, in close proximity to shops and services.

It’s not just good for the environment, it’s good for people.

My wife and I live in a 700-sq-ft condo. I also have many friends who live in other high-rise buildings across the region. This amazing thing happens when you put people together. They actually talk to each other.

Instead of retreating into the privacy of a backyard we don’t have, we socialize with our neighbours in our common areas. Instead of taking up space at the public recreation centres, we join community members in our strata gym and fitness space. When we need to go outside, we walk out the door and we are steps away from every possible public amenity, shop or service we could need.

Unfortunately, I still need to use a car to get to work every day because it’s not accessible by bus. I hope that changes one day. But condo living has freed me from the need to get into a car on a Thursday night because I need milk, or on Saturday morning to go to the bank.

The project we voted on Monday night was a five to seven minute walk from Steve Nash Fitness World, London Drugs, White Spot, several banks, Starbucks, the Scottsdale Bus Exchange, and a variety of restaurants. It was a 12 minute walk to Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara. It was an eight minute walk to the local elementary school.

We build smart density not to increase traffic, but to liberate people from their cars. In the long term, cities that cluster high rises along their major shopping and transit corridors will see a reduction in car traffic – that is a fact.

On project location and neighbourhood impact, I have grappled with this because I understand how hard change is. Our neighbourhoods today look nothing like they did 50 years ago. And 50 years from now, they will look nothing like they do today. We are averse to change, and homeowners certainly have a stake in keeping the status quo, because the status quo is what worked for them. But there is a large and growing number of people for which the status quo is not working.

This is a question of equity that councils must consider when making big decisions like this. I have to ask myself, who are we excluding from our existing neighbourhoods? The fact is, only 11% of Delta is zoned for multi-family living. That means only 11% of our city is eligible for a BC Housing project. Only 11% of our city is even hypothetically open to our most vulnerable.

Over 80% of our housing stock is single-detached homes. With regards to rentals in North Delta, there are very few options other than basement suites. There’s nothing wrong with basement suites – I’ve lived in one, my wife rented one for years. They are a good housing option for many people. But if you live in a basement suite in Annieville, you are probably using a car to go just about anywhere. This means those with the least disposable income in our community are forced to either invest in a car, or pack up and leave.

The last purpose-built rental housing in North Delta was built in 1970 – almost 50 years ago. Last month, Goodman came out with a report showing that out of 15 suburban communities in Metro Vancouver, Delta was the only one that didn’t have either a completed rental project or one in the pipeline for 2019.

This project, if it had passed, would have provided homes for many first-time buyers. And yes, there absolutely would have been some investors. That’s not a bad word. That means dozens of these units would have been opened up to the secondary rental market, providing desperately needed rentals on a transit corridor and within walking distance to everything one could need in Delta.

Some speakers at the public hearing mentioned that nobody has the right or privilege to live anywhere. I agree. We all need to work hard, pay our dues, rent, and save our money. I had to do that. For a lot of people this means moving further away from home for a time.

That’s part of life.

But one piece that has been missing in this discussion is the social benefit to a city of having younger people, families, and seniors living together.

The fact is, we need young people in our community because by and large they are the ones who are running businesses and working in our shops and services. What about the need for teachers, nurses, and other young professionals? Teachers can’t afford to live in Vancouver anymore, but Vancouver children still need teachers. We see this in Delta too – young professionals in good middle-class jobs with well-paying starting salaries are struggling to stay here because the salaries are not enough to pay for decent accommodation in Delta anymore.

It is not sustainable in the long run to see a vast exodus of folks in their 20s and 30s. We cannot have an exclusionary community based on income, any more than we can have a community segregated by age. Delta needs to be what it has always been – a place where everyone is welcome, and where there are housing options for you, regardless of what the numbers are on your birth certificate or your income tax return.

You know, the only reason my wife and I are homeowners today is because of the precursor to the BC Housing Affordable Home Ownership Program called the BC Home Partnership. BC Housing helped us with our down payment by providing a second mortgage on our property, interest free. By getting into homeownership we freed up space in the rental pool for another young family.

That’s why I voted to give 70 first-time buyers the opportunity to stay in Delta and put roots in our community – just like we were able to do. I voted to help 335 young professionals, families, and seniors get into safe housing, in a livable, walkable neighbourhood, in a great city.

While I am disappointed in Monday’s decision, I am pleased that many of my council colleagues acknowledged the need to densify on Scott Road in the future. I remain hopeful that we can work together with our local neighbourhoods and the development community to get to yes on some exciting upcoming and desperately needed projects.

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