Vancouver City Hall coming up short on increasing housing supply

Vancouver Housing Policy Drafted on the Back of a Napkin

Originally published by Vancouver Courier

When it comes to addressing housing affordability in Vancouver, are politicians choosing “belief” over research?

Anecdotal reports were the foundation of at least two city council initiatives in recent weeks. First there was their plan for a snitch website to report unoccupied homes, and then came the mayor’s surprise call for a speculation tax.

Both ideas looked like they were drafted on the back of a napkin, which is not how you make good public policy.

The trend toward governments resorting to emotion instead of evidence-based decision making is the premise of a book by Hamline University professor David Schultz called American Politics in the Age of Ignorance.

Schultz argues that state and local governments are less “engines of innovation” than replication — merely copying ideas or programs that have been formulated (and often failed) elsewhere.

In the case of the City of Vancouver, a policy to protect older rental stock from demolition is having a direct impact on the city’s ability to house families and grow the economy, say development industry representatives.

The so-called “Rate of Change” demolition moratorium to protect existing rental buildings was approved by the last NPA majority council in 2007. It was a questionable, albeit politically expedient, policy back then.

Today, with the city’s shamefully low rental vacancy rate, Rate of Change is negatively impacting housing supply by limiting property owners from rebuilding their sites.

Preventing old buildings from demolition is a core tenet of Vision’s housing policy, but is it exacerbating the city’s biggest challenge — namely, where to house all the people who cannot afford to buy real estate here?

Snitch websites and calls for higher taxes on empty houses are ideas aimed to please Vision’s political base. Conversely, removing barriers that would allow aging rental stock to be replaced with new, denser market rental buildings would alienate some of the party’s supporters.

How any politician can support redeveloping old rental properties — with their inevitable displacement of tenants — is a real conundrum. Particularly for Mayor Gregor Robertson, who has frequently shown his solidarity with renters in low-rise buildings.

Arguably, it is those credentials as a defender of renters that could help him pull it off.

If Vancouver city council really wants to tackle low rental vacancy rates and meet the nearly endless demand for rental housing, development advocates say it is time to be bold.

This will mean higher density allowances within neighbourhoods zoned for rental buildings, as well as near rapid transit stations and traffic arterials.

Real estate agent David Goodman, publisher of The Goodman Report and principal of HQ Commercial, follows the rental development business closely. Unlike most in the development industry he is not shy about publicly criticizing the city’s bureaucratic approach.

In a recent opinion column Goodman described “dizzying levels of red tape, disincentives, financial extractions, sustainability requirements and other demands” made by city officials.

Add this to a “snail’s-pace vetting process involving at least two to three years of difficult city negotiations,” and you can begin to understand the reluctance to build rental here, even if it was profitable to do so.

Goodman says the city’s political class needs to stop treating property developers as pariahs and more as partners. When the city’s vacancy rate is less than one per cent, and families with decent household incomes are prepared to throw in the towel and move away, you better work side by side with the folks who can solve the problem.

Another occasion to “believe” what is driving the low availability of rental housing is the mayor’s familiar refrain that senior levels of government must provide more financial incentives. It is the theme of a campaign promoted by the Big City Mayors Caucus, of which Robertson is the current chair.

The evidence shows instead that the federal and provincial governments have poured hundreds of millions into the city through rental assistance, shelter aid for seniors, emergency housing for homeless, and the SRO renewal initiative in the Downtown Eastside.

Senior levels of government, at least for the time being, are committed to provide assistance to those with low incomes rather than making investments in the rental housing market.

It appears that Robertson’s council will need to set aside the napkins and rely upon sound evidence about supply and demand — and not Ottawa or Victoria — if it wants to tackle the city’s rental housing dilemma.