Opinion: Vancouver's scenic beauty belies a deeper crisis

Apr 4 2023, 11:16 pm

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Henry Bee, co-founder of CoPilot AI.

Vancouver is, of course, often hailed as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but for those who call it home, the reality can be far from idyllic. Vancouver is also facing a mental health crisis, with many residents struggling to cope with the cost and stress of daily life. For those who are unable to find the help they need, the fast track to homelessness can be all too easy.

The mental healthcare system in Vancouver is stretched thin, with long wait times and limited availability of beds and treatment options. And when someone does finally get a chance to receive treatment, it’s often just a couple of weeks in the hospital before they are sent back out into the world.

This is made all the more difficult by the fact that the only long-term mental institute in the area, Riverview Hospital, was discontinued, torn down, and defunded, sending thousands of people to the Downtown Eastside every year.

The Downtown Eastside has become ground zero for Vancouver’s homelessness and addiction problems, with many residents struggling to survive on the streets.

A data-driven approach to homelessness and affordability

Our current provincial government champions socialist ideals, but what we truly need is a measurable, scientific, and data-driven approach to governance.

The management of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, was a resounding success precisely because it relied on measurable outcomes and key results (OKRs). Decision-makers were able to evaluate, test, and adjust strategies until death rates dropped below acceptable thresholds.

This level of precision is notably absent from our approach to homelessness.

The provincial government’s objective — reducing stigma — is not something that can be easily measured. The objective shouldn’t be to simply minimize homelessness, but rather to increase affordability. If we can increase affordability, homelessness will naturally decline.

Overcoming the housing supply bottleneck

Reframing the homelessness problem as affordability boils the problem down to supply and demand. The provincial government has long focused on interventionist demand-side solutions, such as rent control, and taxing foreign buyers and speculators, but rent control reduces rent yield, ultimately decreasing the return for land developers and landowners, reducing supply and increasing prices.

Instead, we need to focus on increasing the supply of housing.

The severity of the supply problem is glaringly apparent when examining the building permit process. Coquitlam, a progressive city in the Lower Mainland, is grappling with an enormous backlog of new building permit applications — 40,000 to be exact. With a current capacity to process just 2,000 permits per year, it would take fully 20 years to clear this backlog.

Other cities like Port Moody are voting against increased density, essentially ruling out the construction of multi-storey housing. The lack of media coverage surrounding the permit backlog is concerning, as those with knowledge of the situation often work in government or land development and fear backlash.

Progressive cities like Coquitlam are exploring smart solutions such as pre-approved templates for multi-family units, allowing developers to bypass the lengthy six-month waiting period. However, this is only one part of a broader, multifaceted solution that must be implemented to address the housing crisis effectively.

In addition to streamlining the permitting process, we must establish better housing supply objectives. For instance, a comprehensive goal might be to increase housing starts such that they exceed new household formations by two times until the price-to-income and rent ratios drop to the OECD median.

Another way is to introduce incentives to lower labour costs and other major input costs. This could be achieved by doubling the number of trade school graduates within five years or providing subsidies to companies that produce materials currently in short supply.

After all, if it costs less to build a home, it could cost us less to buy a home. And we can build more of them.

Relationship between homelessness, unaffordability, and crime

The issue of unaffordability and homelessness is not only a humanitarian crisis but a breeding ground for criminal activities. Desperate for basic necessities such as food, shelter, and safety, some individuals may feel compelled to resort to illegal means to survive.

The Vancouver Police Department reports that property crime rates in the city increased by 12% in 2022 compared to pre-pandemic figures, which coincided with a 7% rise in homelessness.

In conclusion, addressing the homelessness and affordability crisis requires embracing data-driven solutions. By streamlining the permit process, and supporting new housing developments, we can alleviate the issues of homelessness, crime, and affordability.

There needs to be a call for real effective, meaningful, and timely change, urging policymakers to tackle the crisis head-on, laying the foundation for a brighter, more prosperous future where every Canadian has a safe, stable, and affordable home.

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