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.

Problems with densification - TC June 30, 2018

The following article from the Times-Colonist points out many of the problems caused by densification:

Victoria’s aggressive densification plan is unnecessary and unfair, causing people to ask: “Is accelerated densification being pursued for the right reasons, in appropriate locations, following an honest public process that puts people who live here first?”

In Fairfield-Gonzales alone, at least 10 groups have arisen from these concerns, people willing to consider sensible proposals, but fed up with what they have experienced as an unfair process. This phenomenon is happening across the city.
Unfairness has occurred in numerous ways:
• A questionnaire asks leading and misleading questions.
• Meetings are poorly publicized and held at inconvenient times, such as during summer.
• Anyone from anywhere is allowed to participate, diluting input from people living here.
• City consultations have been far more sales job than sincere collaboration
• Developers are involved in what should be public decision-making.
• Community associations and land-use committees are used to promote approval.

Many criticize the process as undemocratic and question the role of developers. Some seek provincial review. Others are organizing for November’s election, seeking to ensure mayor and council put community interests first. Community associations and land-use committees are being challenged to restore independence and public representation.
And questions abound about the need for expensive new plans. Significant growth has occurred over the past 15 years under existing plans. During the same time, the city failed to expand services or facilities to accommodate growth. What will be the cost for additional police, fire, roadwork, etc., and who pays? Will accelerated growth worsen existing problems such as the shortage of family doctors?

My Gonzales neighbourhood exemplifies why accelerated densification is not needed.
• Between 1991 and 2011, our population increased by 27 per cent, more than twice Victoria’s overall rate of 12.5 per cent. Single-family homes decreased from 74 to 54 per cent, duplexes and secondary suites increased from 18 to 27 per cent, and apartment buildings from seven per cent to 18 per cent.
• At the same time, no appreciable improvements were made to meagre infrastructure or services, nor did the city deal with increased traffic and parking problem.
• Heritage homes were permitted to be destroyed and replaced by oversized out-of-character houses
Gonzales residents have done more than their share and overwhelmingly reject accelerated densification. Most oppose proposals that will dramatically change the neighbourhood, including a multistorey Fairfield Plaza and redirecting traffic from Richardson Street to busier Fairfield Road. Urban villages are regarded as Trojan horses for more development.
Is it reasonable for everyone who wants to live in Victoria to do so? That’s not possible, unless the rest of us are willing to accept increased traffic and pollution, reduced greenspace, more pressure on already insufficient schools, health services, roads, parks and recreation and the increased costs to maintain and expand them.
Finally, let’s stop the accusations levelled against residents, who have a different vision for Victoria than canyons of high-rises, more traffic and pollution and greater pressure on our limited amenities.
This fight is not about privilege or an intergenerational conflict. Victorians are supportive of help to people confronted with soaring housing costs, but accelerated densification raises serious questions that are not being answered about where, how much and for whose benefit.
It’s time for mayor, council and city staff to work with neighbourhood groups in good faith.
The most reasonable option is to update the existing 2002 plans, which are doing their job. At the same time, let’s fix other problems.
• The official community plan is easily exploited for its loopholes.
• Spot re-zoning is too easy and lacks meaningful community oversight.
• Neighbours have too little input during approval of developments directly affecting them.
• Developer involvement in local politics and planning contradicts transparency and fairness.
And while we are making our civic process more democratic, the mayor and councillors should live in Victoria. Otherwise, are they truly accountable to their neighbours and fairly sharing the burdens of the decisions they seek to impose on others?
How many more people does the city plan to shoehorn in, for whose benefit and at what cost? It should be up to the people who live here to decide Victoria’s future not developers and politicians pushing accelerated development for their own reasons.
Michael Bloomfield is a sustainability advocate and a resident of Gonzales.