Opinion: Vancouver's Mayor and City Council have failed on affordable housing

Aug 4 2022, 8:34 pm

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Arny Wise, an urban planner and economist with 35 years of experience as an executive in the property development industry. He also previously served on the board of directors for the Toronto Economic Development Corporation.

You’d think that a left-leaning activist majority on Vancouver City Council would make “affordable housing” its number one priority. It’s certainly the top issue concerning Vancouver voters in the fall municipal election, according to the latest Mainstreet Research survey, which found that 82% believe housing in the city is unaffordable.

But what has Mayor Kennedy Stewart and his left-leaning allies on City Council done about affordable housing? In particular, we’re speaking about Green Party councillors Adrian Carr, Pete Fry, and Michael Wiebe, along with OneCity councillor Christine Boyle, and the ABC party’s Rebecca Bligh, Sarah Kirby-Yung, and Lisa Dominato.

They’ve all given away profitable gifts to developers to build luxury condominiums for wealthy investors by gifting spot rezonings to developers — approving high-density buildings and more developer profits, in exchange for community amenity contributions (CACs). The developer gets huge profits from the 80% high-end luxury market condominiums, and the City’s residents get a mere 20% affordable housing units in the condominium tower.

That’s a great deal for the developer and a naive, financially illiterate deal for the City, the community, and Vancouver residents.

The 28-acre Oakridge Park development under construction requires only 13% of the 3,300 homes to be “affordable.” Massive development proposals like the 90-acre Jericho Lands, 21-acre Heather Lands, and 25-acre Pearson-Dogwood site require only 20% “affordable units” in exchange for the gifts of high density and high profits. Why not require 50% affordable housing for any up zonings?

Existing municipal policies at City Hall, under this BC NDP mayor, have not produced nearly enough affordable housing in Vancouver. Housing affordability is the main issue that BC Premier-in-waiting David Eby is concerned about.

How has this left-leaning mayor and City Council failed to deliver on affordable housing?

Let us count the ways.

First of all, Mayor Stewart and his City Hall friends and staff are naive and financially inexperienced in the world of real estate finance and housing market dynamics.

City Hall is routinely taken advantage of by experienced and financially savvy real estate developers, who extract huge rezonings, high density, and high profit favours from City Hall in exchange for peanuts. There are no guiding city planning principles to direct City Hall to create more affordable housing, other than the strictly mercenary one of raising more CACs from developers.

Secondly, City Hall has never understood that the Vancouver housing market is dominated by demand from investors — both foreign individuals and domestic REITs and equity funds — who have gobbled up most of the new condominiums being built.

At last count, 22% of Canadian mortgages were held by individual investors who bought up second, third, and fourth units to rent or flip. No matter how much housing supply is built, it can never meet this investor demand, which drives up land prices and higher housing prices beyond the reach of locals. Gifting developers higher densities just creates real estate parking spots for investors in Vancouver for their money.

Residents of Vancouver have not benefited from this increased housing supply because of the commodification of housing by investors.

And finally, the mayor and certain city councillors think they are at the United Nations, instead of overseeing the more mundane but essential municipal responsibilities of land use, parks, community centres, housing, water, and public safety.

The mayor and the Green Party, in particular, spend our property tax revenues on pet vanity projects, like $700,000 suing big oil or a $500 million Climate Action Plan, while withholding $5.7 million in funding for the Vancouver Police Department, and making pronouncements and spending City money in areas of international, federal, or provincial jurisdiction.

This is municipal politics folks, not the United Nations.

For these three reasons, this mayor and most of the incumbent city councillors do not deserve a second chance in the October 15, 2022 election to fail again on the affordable housing file.

A change in the City’s leadership group is necessary and required to deliver affordable housing for Vancouver’s residents and particularly for young people with good earning jobs, like nurses, teachers, police, and firefighters who can’t afford to live in the City they serve.

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