Opinion: Vancouver's housing crisis is worse than ever, so what are we doing about it?

Mar 11 2021, 1:30 am

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Dylan Kruger, a city councillor with the City of Delta.

An entire generation is being priced out of the housing market before our eyes.

We all know the narrative by now. Responding to COVID-19, the Bank of Canada drastically cut interest rates, disincentivizing saving and encouraging Canadians to invest in the economy. At the same time, work from home and social distancing requirements mean young professionals are staying local and saving money. The result: an unprecedented run on housing.

Across the country, housing sale prices have increased by over 22%, and bidding wars have become common practice. Here in Metro Vancouver, the problem is exacerbated, worsening already severe housing affordability and availability problems. It’s 2016 again, and while established homeowners are cashing in on the crisis, non-owners and the underhoused are left on the outside looking in.

Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason recently wrote a piece on housing, noting that 2016-levels of outrage are noticeably missing from the political narrative this time around. Of course, this time, there is no foreign buyer to create a scapegoat narrative around. It’s now clear that the housing shortage is a problem of our own making.

In 2016, pundits and politicians looked for every possible villain to blame the housing crisis on, searching for any solution that didn’t involve actually increasing the supply of housing. They blamed foreigners. They blamed casinos. They blamed Christy Clark. They even blamed lattes.

Fast-forward to 2021, a year into a global pandemic. The borders are closed, immigration fell by nearly 50%, the casinos are empty, Christy Clark has been out of office for close to half a decade, and another Starbucks franchise just sold their last latte. Given the dominant media narrative, one would have expected homes to be more affordable than ever. Yet, prices are at record highs.

Here’s the reality: zoning that bans apartments and townhomes on most residential land, constantly escalating fees and red tape delays, and planning approval processes that undervalue the underhoused have put us decades behind in building housing stock that is proportionate to demand.

In the majority of our city neighbourhoods, every type of housing is illegal except for single-family detached homes. We need to let our cities evolve as living organisms again, like they did throughout history until the introduction of top-down planning regulations that turned our neighbourhoods into time capsules.

Metro Vancouver is expecting a million new people over the next 30 years. This is a good thing. Vancouver is the only major city on Canada’s west coast, and Canada badly needs to grow its population if it is to develop domestic economic capacity, support its aging population, and enhance its sovereignty.

Those who disagree should call for changes to federal immigration policy, instead of trying to strangle urban housing production. If builders are still blocked from creating the needed scale of housing, this crisis will continue to get a whole lot worse. Here are a few ideas to start:

  1. Tie provincial and federal grant dollars to achievable municipal housing targets. We can’t keep spending billions of dollars on SkyTrain projects without guarantees that cities will actually allow transit-oriented development.
  2. Zone cities to match what is already designated in Official Community Plans. Edmonton began this process last year. By not updating the zoning, new housing is forced through a completely redundant second layer of bureaucratic processes, delaying and killing countless projects. Our cities have community plans for a reason – let’s use them.
  3. Allow modest types of multi-family housing citywide, such as coach houses, duplexes, townhouses or four-storey apartments. Such types of housing have a low visual impact but if widely allowed, would create tens of thousands of new housing options for young families and downsizers. In Delta, a local family recently redeveloped their rancher into four small homes: One for mom and dad, two for the kids, and one for grandma. It’s an innovative idea that should be replicated by families looking to stay in their communities and create opportunity for their children.
  4. Remove parking minimums in proximity to quality transit service. Once again, Edmonton is leading the way. The average parking stall adds tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of a home. On top of the stall, the average cost of car ownership itself is about $10,000 a year. Homebuyers and renters who choose to live car-free shouldn’t be forced to pay for parking they don’t want. Residents should be given the choice to determine the transportation solutions that work for them.

This is just a start. Thinkers much smarter than me could add dozens of bullet points to this list.

After years trying and failing to suppress demand for housing through new taxes and fees, government has an opportunity to take concrete measures to end the housing shortage. Let’s seize the opportunity to give the next generation hope that they too can live the dream of raising their families in Metro Vancouver.

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