Selling density as a means to affordability is Vancouver's myth

“…let's not bite when reports to council dangle vague references to affordability in front of us.”

This discussion is about density and home ownership. As density and rental accommodation trends parallel those in the home ownership world, this article is relevant to the OBUC development.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Published April 17, 2015 Updated May 13, 2018

Remember EcoDensity™? I do.
It was June, 2006, when Vancouver mayor – now (seldom seen) B.C. Liberal MLA – Sam Sullivan introduced the brand to Vancouver and the entire planet as the city played host to the World Urban Forum.
Despite the gloss of the hot-off-the-press brochure, critics accused him of rebranding an idea already in practice: Increasing density would reduce the city's environmental footprint with the secondary benefit of making housing more affordable.
At the time, I questioned Mr. Sullivan on the second point. Density in the downtown core had virtually doubled over the previous two decades and condos were not getting any cheaper. In fact, each new development represented a significant jump in price.
"Don't you know anything about economics?" I recall him asking me rhetorically.
"Supply and demand, m'boy, supply and demand. We build more supply and the prices come down," he said, stretching out his suspenders with his thumbs and chomping on a cigar. Okay, there were no suspenders or cigar, but his answer did conjure up grainy black-and-white images of W.C. Fields, sans top hat. Also, I'm pretty sure he didn't call me "m'boy."
The point is that selling density as a means to affordability in this city is nothing new.
But it's a myth, and an especially cruel one to wave in front of well-educated young people hopeful that one day they'll be able to afford the sort of housing in which they might be able to raise a family in Vancouver.
And yet, it persists.
This week, council approved the third phase of the Cambie Corridor Planning Program.
This phase will see the city rezone the areas between the new developments currently under construction and the lower-density single-family homes in the neighbourhood – think townhouses and row houses in a sort of transition zone between the buildings on main arteries and single-family homes.
Once again, the foggy mirage of affordability appears in the latest report: "Phase 3 provides an opportunity to increase housing options and improve affordability by broadening the range of housing choices that will help young families put down roots and stay in Vancouver."
Susan Haid, the city's assistant director of housing for Vancouver South, also talked about affordability when I spoke with her about the plan this week. "Affordability is something that we're really going to explore; a range of options through the planning process," she said.
That's where the townhouses and row houses and other options come in.
Yes, there are opportunities for "lock off suites" that would allow an owner to rent a portion of their townhouse, and opportunities for low and mid-rise apartments.
But as for the definition of affordable, Ms. Haid conceded the city was talking about what she called "relative affordability."
"Affordable compared to a single family house in the area may be a desirable option for some families," she said.
We've seen block after block of townhouses and row houses spring up along Oak Street and Granville Street in the past few years as a result of rezoning along those busy roads. A quick scan of listings shows a 1,300-square-foot, three-bedroom townhouse in the 6,100 block of Oak going for $870,000. That's not in a quieter "transition zone" – it's on six lanes of rush-hour traffic. Two blocks up the street is a similar but slightly larger two-bedroom row house listed for $1.18-million.


From there the prices only go up. (And don't forget the strata fees.)
As for low-rise apartments, I found a lovely, 1,100-square-foot two-bedroom suite in a new building on Cambie going for $780,000.
By whose definition are those affordable to a young family putting down roots?
Before you venture an answer, remember that we're talking about "relative affordability."
So with the law of supply and demand apparently suspended, and with so many market drivers beyond the city's control, let's just admit that the myth of affordable housing in the Cambie corridor is exactly that – a myth. We can talk about "providing opportunities" and "broadening the range of housing choices," but in the end, the real estate market in Vancouver is what it is.
Let's stop pretending the city can do anything to make housing more affordable for anyone. And let's not bite when reports to council dangle vague references to affordability in front of us.
Here's what it has done to us: when I told a young colleague this week about the 1,100-square-foot apartment on Cambie listed for $780,000, her response said it all.
"$780,000? For a two-bedroom?" she said. "That's a deal!"
Relatively speaking, I guess it is.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

OBUC Submits Development Application - OBN Aug 31, 2018

The rezoning application for Oak Bay United Church’s proposed affordable housing project on Granite Street has been submitted to the District of Oak Bay, though the mayor says it will be the next council who decides its fate.


“We are really happy with the design we’ve ended up with,” said Cheryl Thomas, property development committee chair for the project. “We have listened and tried to accommodate everything we possibly could from the community’s suggestions.”
At open houses in November, the church showed residents scenarios that ranged from 80 to 150 units in a four- to five-storey building. With feedback from the community and near neighbours, the church settled on a design that has 96 units: 55 to 57 of which are designed to meet government criteria for affordable housing; 35 that are market – affordable units aimed to support those who don’t meet standard government criteria but still need help with affordable homes; and 4 to 6 larger units with up to three bedrooms aimed to support families.
In January, the church had asked for their application to be fast-tracked, but the committee of the whole instead suggested that the best way to save money is to get to a design that will receive the acceptance of council and the community, which would be aided by listening carefully to the community.
For some, the project presented in the rezoning application submitted Aug.13, didn’t go far enough to address neighbours concerns. Of note, was the amount of parking spots included in the project (53 for the residential units, 50 for the church, and 12 for visitors), the size of the building, and the number of units.
The church conducted a survey during their open house and contracted an independent public opinion polling contractor to conduct an opinion poll by telephone.
The results of the survey, provided by the church, state that 44 per cent of the neighbours to the project were neutral or agreed the project fit the neighbourhood, while 67 per cent of those in Oak Bay who do not neighbour the project were neutral or said it fit. For traffic and parking, the survey shows 50 per cent of neighbours say they are neutral or agree that the design addresses parking and congestion issues, as opposed to 73 per cent of non neighbours.
The public will have an opportunity to speak to this project when it comes before committee of the whole. Mayor Nils Jensen says it is currently with staff and will go to the new council who will be sworn in in early November.

Neighbourhoods being transformed for the worse - OBN April 6, 2018

“Gentle density, as I mean it, is a growth strategy where the growth doesn’t alter or reduce the physical character of the assets or character of a neighbourhood or community.  I think there are some highly controversial projects in Oak Bay and there will be more in the future it’s inevitable. The community needs tools to convince its politicians and to convince property owners and property developers that there is an option to multi-storey development.  I’m going to try to make the argument for gentle density as a growth strategy so nobody gets the idea that I’m anti growth or anti development.  I think our neighbourhoods are being transformed for the worse not for the better.”
Gene Miller
Oak Bay News April 6, 2018

Click on the image to read the entire article

Click on the image to read the entire article

counter-protest - Oak Bay News March 14, 2018

Neighbours wake to shocking signs on their lawns


Densification debate heats up in Oak Bay
Oak Bay discussions around infill housing, affordable housing, and the legalization of secondary suites has created a divide in the community. Many residents have attended council meetings and written letters to the editor to voice their support or concerns around the densification of Oak Bay.
The situation got more heated on Sunday morning when a few residents woke up to find signs on their lawns that they describe as “offensive and obnoxious.” The signs read: “We support class-based segregation” and “I fear poor people.” The Oak Bay Police were notified.
The signs that appeared overnight were staked in next to lawn signs that the homeowners had previously put on their lawns that read “Stop Over Development. Respect Neighbourhoods.”
The homeowners’ signs are part of a campaign by local residents concerned about how a redevelopment of the Oak Bay United Church site would affect their neighbourhood. As part of their “Neighbourhood Outreach Initiatives,” the Concerned Citizen Network has distributed lawn signs “showing support for neighbourhood respect.”
The citizen group says it is not opposed to affordable housing.
Read the online article here.
Comment: No one stepped forward to claim responsibility for these signs but given the lack of transparency through the entire proposal, that was unsurprising.