Opinion: Vancouver needs a housing champion

Jun 27 2022, 4:07 pm

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Michael O’Shaughnessy, who is a communications strategist living in Vancouver. His clients include non-profits, labour organizations, and Fortune 500 companies.

The Broadway Plan ticked all the boxes: in a city with a crushing affordability crisis, it would deliver much-needed supply. In a planet facing climate change, it would direct a significant amount of growth to be within walking distance of a subway line. It had ambitious affordability targets.

And it was very nearly gutted by ill-considered, last-minute amendments.

Thankfully, these amendments were defeated or defanged. But the fact remains: millions of dollars, years of consultation, and the opportunity to build badly-needed housing were almost squandered.

This is an indictment of the process. But it also highlights a gap.

Any large project needs a champion – someone in leadership who will be the project’s face, who will communicate the vision, who will refute misinformation and who will bring along nervous, but still reachable, citizens.

The Broadway Plan didn’t have a champion. And it showed.

Throughout the public debate over the Plan, individuals and organizations attempted to muddy the waters through misinformation and fear-mongering. Inaccurate renderings depicting impossible “concrete canyons” went viral on social and traditional media, mostly unchallenged. Inaccuracies about the Plan’s proposed renter protections were allowed to fester and to be exploited.

City of Vancouver staff, to their credit, eventually began to push back in media. But it should not have been their job.

Had a project champion followed basic communications principles, the risks might have been mitigated — and the process might have been smoother.

Communicate your vision – early

Had a Broadway Plan champion been communicated early and often about the Broadway Plan’s vision, it would have been well-understood and set the frame for the debate.

Had accurate renderings been produced and communicated widely, fear-mongering would have been much more difficult.

And the fears of vulnerable renters might have been assuaged with frequent communication around the Plan’s renter protections — and lengthy, three-decade-long timeline.

Ensure that the whole community is represented

The Broadway Plan involved consultations with thousands of Vancouverites over multiple years — but the voice of “the community” was appropriated by self-appointed neighbourhood associations composed of people with the time, money and familiarity with the City’s processes to participate in public hearings.

These people — who are frequently older and wealthier than the average working Vancouverite — were overwhelmingly opposed to the plan.

A project champion cannot and should not delegitimize project opponents. But they can ensure that the story is balanced by providing media and commentators with an accurate and comprehensive picture of community sentiment — ensuring that local supporters, and people not yet living in Vancouver who would benefit from the project, are heard.

Set the stakes

A Broadway Plan opponent famously called the fight against towers a “fight for the soul of Vancouver.” In a way, that opponent was correct.

The City of Vancouver estimates that over 130,000 new housing units must be built over the next decade — just to meet current demand. To make progress on the housing shortage that is at the root of our crisis, housing construction must outpace even that bold target.

By communicating early and often, a project proponent for the Broadway Plan could have made the stakes clear: Vancouver needs housing, and we cannot afford to wait. This would have put project opposition in the proper perspective.

This is not the final fight over housing in Vancouver. The Vancouver Plan will be heard at Council in July 2022, and should the Plan be passed as envisioned, the Broadway process will be repeated all over the city.

Our civic leaders should take this lesson from Wednesday’s vote: Vancouver housing needs a champion – to sell the vision, to provide the facts, and to bring nervous people along.

Ending the housing crisis is too important. We cannot allow misinformation and fear-mongering to fester again.

vancouver draft area plan

Densification strategy of the draft Vancouver Plan, April 2022. (City of Vancouver)

vancouver draft area plan

Opportunities for more housing in the draft Vancouver Plan, April 2022. (City of Vancouver)

vancouver draft area plan

Opportunities to increase employment areas under the draft Vancouver Plan, April 2022. (City of Vancouver)

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