By Daniel Sturgeon and Meg Holden
In early April of this year, The Walrus magazine published an article titled “The Highest Bidder”, a commentary on unaffordability, predominant speculation, and foreign investment in the Vancouver housing market. The article postulates that these factors are negatively impacting the demographic makeup and permanent residency of Vancouver. Loaded with images of the new Vancouver ruin porn, along with misrepresented data, the article makes a sensationalistic case for Vancouver as a “dystopia” that is “stripped of civic culture […] a seaside resort ossified by wealth.” It’s blatant hyperbole even prompted a response from City of Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robinson. To an extent we disagree, with both, and offer an alternative more constructive stance.
The more we turbo-charge the housing affordability debate in metro Vancouver with anecdotes and innuendo, the further we stray from a solution. Yes, we have an affordability crisis. We need to do something about it. But unaffordability is not the only problem within our regional housing situation: neighbourhood change, housing supply, land use regulation, connections to transportation and amenity, and sensitive infill development are also calling out for new ideas. Nor is our housing mess isolated to central city Vancouver. Our housing context is regional, and making it work for all of us, now and into the future, requires collaborative, multi-jurisdictional, and inter-governmental solutions.
Accurate and representative research is required to address this challenge. The piece in the Walrus seems unconcerned, citing figures from the Demographia International Housing Affordability Study which have been panned for their inaccuracies and omissions, and twisting Andy Yan’s case study results from 172 home sales as though they represented all west side sales. As anyone who has recently considered purchasing property in Vancouver has learned, while we all try to make sense of what is happening to our housing, there are some basic complexities to understand: Housing in Coquitlam, Surrey and Langley is not at all the same as housing in Vancouver, Burnaby, and North Vancouver; single family homes are a different species from apartments; and there is more to affordability than land use regulations, holding a Chinese passport, or geography (as Richard Florida recently claimed). Inaccuracies only perpetuate misunderstanding of a complex situation.
In April, a research, policy and practice partnership initiated by the Greater Vancouver Home Builders Association released the second report in a series titled Getting to Groundbreaking. We at SFU Urban Studies were responsible for the research. Rather than pitting municipalities against each other for most affordability and least livability, G2G represents the benefit of collaborative dialogue amongst these same actors. Our collaborative effort stands for the value of regional solutions to regional problems.
This second report focused exclusively on woodframe apartments (up to 6 storeys). We undertook a review of existing housing stock and development patterns, conducted a comparative analysis of development approvals policy, gathered feedback from home builders, and surveyed residents on their opinions towards development. Lastly, we gathered feedback from municipalities about the development approvals cost, processing time and procedure, and potential outcomes of a simulated case study 4-storey apartment development proposal.
As with the 2014 G2G report on townhouses, we found that there is no clear correlation between development costs (with respect to municipal fees) and housing prices.
Housing in the metro Vancouver region is at a tipping point, both literally and figuratively. While we grapple with soaring housing costs, we also anticipate over one million new residents by 2040. The number of residential units in Metro Vancouver is nearing a threshold of 50% apartment units. From 2012-2015, 50% of all new residential units constructed in metro Vancouver were apartments. And yet, based upon a 2015 representative survey of the metro Vancouver region that we conducted, 50% of residents would oppose seeing a new 4-storey apartment building in their neighbourhood. And yet, to begin to address the challenges of affordability and livability, new housing must come in the form of densification.
Quoting our colleagues at the GVHBA: “The low-rise wood-frame apartment building, the subject of this year’s G2G research, offers a smart form of densification in areas with existing services and infrastructure, without having to resort to high-rise towers which can cause community angst.” This is the affordable anti-sprawl. We found that there is considerable time and cost savings in pre-zoning land; in this instance for apartment buildings. These are some of the solutions that can begin to contribute to our housing dilemma.
Getting to Groundbreaking doesn’t rely exclusively on data, which some have wisely cautioned that, as important as it is, will not provide all of the answers. Rather, G2G highlights the benefits of collaborative research, information sharing, and potential for change at the intersection of policy, procedure, best practices, and transparency. In any event, it is critically important that when data is used, it is represented accurately. Robust research informs good decision making.
The decision by the Province of British Columbia this past summer, in typical knee-jerk and un-consultative reaction, to slap a 15% tax on purchases made by non-citizens, shows the lack of depth of understanding of this complex issue is rooted beyond the region. The tax, only applying within the Metro Vancouver region, has been met with mixed reactions from all sides, and further stands to put increased pressure on other regions within the Province. While preliminary data in the past 2 months suggests a trend towards decreases in foreign purchases, it would be presumptive to suggest this single tax could address the systematic issue or begin to help with our understanding. Our Federal Government has taken a different approach to housing, launching an strategic and consultative program but this is likely years in the making.
Just as we can’t blame problems exclusively on lack of data, or regulation, or limited land, or foreign investment, or development costs, we can’t expect a single catch-all solution. There is no omni-bus that will drive us down that road. Unaffordability in the metro Vancouver region is complicated. Solutions won’t come easy. If they come, it will be through ongoing, collaborative region-wide dialogue in pursuit of a common goal: a livable region. Defeatist innuendo, the walrus in this room, will get us nowhere.