Opinion: To stop the housing bleed, we must build, build, build

Apr 5 2023, 8:44 pm

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Spencer van Vloten, who is a nationally published writer and community advocate from Vancouver.

Over the last decade, Canada has been losing affordable rental units far faster than new ones are being built.

The rental housing bleed is being felt across the country, but as a recent report highlights, the impact has been especially large here in Vancouver.

The vacancy rate for purpose-built rentals in Metro Vancouver is now less than 1%, below the national average of 1.9% and down from 2.6% in 2020 at the height of the pandemic.

Not only does this give prospective renters fewer places to live, it drives up costs, which are particularly exorbitant for incoming tenants.

Sitting tenants are protected by limitations on rent increases, but without vacancy control landlords can freely increase rent on vacant units, resulting in a difference of almost $1,000 between incoming renters and long-term tenants in comparable units.

With rent now sitting at nearly $3,000 for a two-bedroom Vancouver apartment, and the city’s housing prices jumping nearly double the national average since 2006, what was once considered affordable is increasingly out of reach for the average Vancouverite who works full-time.

The situation has become so dire that only one in 100 units is in the price range of Vancouver’s poorest 20% of residents — just imagine being on provincial disability assistance, with its $375 (soon to be $500) shelter allowance, and trying to find a place in the city.

Good luck with that.

Build more, faster

With so many people caught in the crisis, the government has tried numerous remedies working with the housing already built.

There have been speculation and vacancy taxes, changes to rental restrictions in strata, and one-time tax rebates to name a few of the better-known examples.

There are aspects of these approaches to like, but ultimately their impact is limited. To make the biggest difference, government must refocus and redouble its efforts to address the problem directly: we must build more rental housing.

From the 1960s to 1980s the federal government helped build one-in-five rental homes, but over the last 30 years, they have dramatically cut spending on social, co-op, and non-market housing, leading to decades of undersupply.

While some progress has been made by the provincial government in increasing the supply of rental housing stock — a record 3,805 purpose-built units were built last year — it has failed to keep pace with the need for such housing: 15,000 new units a year are required to satisfy demand in a region where 40% of residents live in rental housing.

The provincial government must not only level up its investment in purpose-built rental housing, with an emphasis on density and a move away from single-family homes to allow for more units, it must lobby the federal government to do the same — with every bit the fervor they had approaching the federal government for healthcare funding.

And to build more, we also have to build housing faster and more efficiently.

Results are best when the development process is predictable, timely, and not laden with administrative hurdles, yet Vancouver ranked in the bottom half of the 2022 Municipal Benchmarking Study of how local development processes, approvals, and charges affect housing affordability and supply in major housing markets across Canada.

Projects in Metro Vancouver are taking up to seven years to complete, often held up in permitting, and though the provincial government has bestowed itself with the power to step in and force the hand of dawdling municipalities, the City must take responsibility for streamlining its own processes.

Vancouver’s Permitting Improvement Program is an attempt to do so and has made some headway, including bringing more of the application process online.

But the City should also increase regulatory and financial relief for affordable housing projects, such as expanding a by-law allowing developments up to six storeys in zoning codes where all of the floor space is developed as social housing.

The faster, easier, and less costly the process is, the more new housing that will come from it.

An extra layer of support

It finally must be noted that while building more housing and expediting the process will ease costs, it is not enough for the poorest residents, for whom there must be another layer of support.

Increasing housing subsidies, like Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters and the Rental Assistance Program, is a needed measure as part of a broader anti-poverty strategy to help low-income renters find housing and stay in their homes.

The housing crisis developed over generations and will not be resolved in the short-term. There was some good news this week with the provincial government announcing new elements to its housing action plan, including being able to build extra units on a single-family lot, but it is time to be even bolder.

Progress will be made much faster if we stop looking around when the answer is right in front of us, and redouble our efforts to maximize purpose-built rental housing.

Until that happens, more people will be pushed out of this beautiful city and from the people they love.

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