Affordable-housing crisis requires local solutions too

Originally published by The Georgia Straight.

By RJ Aquino, David Chudnovsky, and Cara Ng

In a city where housing costs reach stratospheric heights, it seems Vision Vancouver will continue approving luxury-condo towers rather than creating the affordable housing for seniors, families, and young people that we so desperately need.

Vancouver’s governing party is, rightly, calling on the provincial government to implement speculation and luxury-housing taxes. Vision has also offered 20 city-owned sites to the federal government for affordable housing. We at OneCity support Vision in these initiatives.

We also agree that the provincial government is failing low- and moderate-income households and young families. The 2016 B.C. budget does not come close to tackling the immensity of the homeownership challenges facing young households—nor do the B.C. Liberals seem to comprehend (or care) about the crisis facing renters in Canada’s most expensive and lowest-vacancy market. In fact, the B.C. government quietly doubled residential-tenancy-dispute fees—a move that further tips the residential-tenancy system in favour of landlords.

We believe there is a great deal of merit in a speculation tax. Hey, wait a minute. That sounds like the policy idea OneCity first proposed during the 2014 Vancouver municipal election. In fact, it is—only Vision’s proposal deflects municipal responsibility for addressing speculation. They have proposed a provincial speculation tax whereas in 2014, OneCity proposed to implement That Flipping Levy at the municipal level, with the City of Vancouver taking the revenue and creating new living spaces for low- and middle-income households.

We’re flattered Vision Vancouver is putting forward the affordable housing solutions we proposed back in 2014. But, unfortunately, their proposals fall short because they cede responsibility for a municipal role in protecting and creating affordable housing, leaving the success of such a plan entirely in the hands of the province.

Vision has the opportunity to demonstrate leadership by creating affordable housing, not more expensive condos. A current rezoning application before city council proposes a 26-storey mixed-use tower at West Georgia and Cardero in Coal Harbour with 175 market-rate condos—not one unit of affordable housing. Zero. Not only is there no provision for affordable housing in this new tower, but the city may also sell public land in order to, in their words, “facilitate the optimum development of the block”. Do unaffordable condos really qualify as the “optimum development” of a block? We don’t think so. The City of Vancouver can—and must—do better.

While approximately 46 percent of the units are planned to be two- and three-bedrooms and “suitable for families”, there are no guarantees these units will actually be affordable for low- and moderate-income households or that the units will even materialize after the rezoning is approved. Without the city using its legal tools, there are no guarantees these units will be even remotely affordable or large enough for young families. Also problematic is the proposal to sell city-owned land to make the development more lucrative for the developer. We believe these priorities are skewed.

“Community amenity contributions” (CACs) are cash or in-kind contributions paid by developers to the city as part of the rezoning process. The problem with CACs is that they are often minuscule compared to the private profits derived from rezonings, and they do not deal with what everyone knows is Vancouver's immediate crisis: the critical need for affordable housing units. Once again, good public policy is secondary to developers' profits. It's long past time to shift that balance at city hall.

Vision Vancouver could take strong leadership and borrow another OneCity idea that would deliver affordable housing immediately: require 20 percent of the 175 units to be reserved at rates affordable to households at or below the median income threshold. Our 20 Over 5 Affordable Housing Plan means that for all new developments of five living spaces or more, 20 percent of units should cost no more than 30 percent of household income (the widely accepted Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. definition of affordability that Vision refuses to adopt).

With the annual median household income stuck at $56,113 in Vancouver, under the 20 Over 5 Housing Plan, mortgages or rental rates for these two- and three-bedroom units would be capped at approximately $1,400 per month.

Although Vision is absolutely correct to demand action from senior governments, tackling the affordable-housing crisis also requires local responses. If you’re going to borrow our ideas—and please do—we ask that you fully utilize municipal-policy tools to start protecting and creating affordable housing now. On March 8, Vision Vancouver can show strong leadership by requiring affordable units to be part of this proposed development.

 

RJ Aquino is a young father, community organizer, and founding member of OneCity Vancouver.

David Chudnovsky is a retired teacher, was the MLA for Vancouver-Kensington, and is a founding member of OneCity Vancouver.

Cara Ng is a youth mental health researcher, mom, and founding member of OneCity Vancouver.

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