The Ironies of Vancouver: The Post-Gentrified City

Vancouver       Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada may be a case study of the post-gentrified city.  Average housing prices have dropped all the way down to $1.4 million per house.  The Vancouver Sun reported that a Habitat for Humanity house had sold for $330,000.  ACORN Canada’s office and all of our groups are in the working-class suburbs of Burnaby, New Westminster, Surrey, and other communities.  It is difficult for low and moderate-income families to afford to even think about living in Vancouver.

The government is progressive.  Leadership has been stable with an excellent and forward-thinking mayor in Gregor Robertson for a number of years.  There is no lack of people trying to do the right thing.  There is no confusion at the top or at the bottom of the economic and political ladders that housing is unaffordable.

So, what does Vancouver do to assure that housing is affordable and to prevent the city from just become the living and working space for the rich and elite?

While in the city for the ACORN Canada board meeting and annual general meeting, the next four years city budget for capital or big construction and development projects was published.  The capital budget is big time for the coming four years, $2.6 billion.  Surprisingly though, 55% of that budget or $1.44 billion the Sun reported are “earmarked income from ‘development contributions,’ which are raised by charging real estate developers.”  At first glance, we might say that’s great, “Make them pay!”  At second glance it is hard not to think that the city of Vancouver may be riding the sharks as much as regulating them.  If developer money is funding so much of capital expenditures, then the city also depends on new development, which gives developers a lot of leverage

In fact, when it comes to affordable housing and child-care spaces, which many might argue are the top priorities for lower income and working families in the city, the capital budget is scary.  First, it only provides for 1200 to 1600 nonmarket rental house and 1000 child-care spaces, which annually is only 300 to 400 units per year and 250 child care spaces. That’s way too little.  The fiscal number for the construction was $539 million and the budget says that 99% or $535 would come from development contributions, meaning the city and its taxpayers have zero skin in those projects.  For the $117 million for child-care development contributions are 94%.

The Sun helpfully defines these development contributions.

“Development cost levies…are typically a standard calculation.  Community amenity contributions tend to be individually negotiated between the city and a developer over rezoning for a specific project and can be paid in straight cash or the building of an on-site amenity such as a pool or community center.”

One is a tax and the other is what we would normally see emerge from community benefit agreements, although it almost seems like the developer is driving the decision to benefit their own project, rather than the community or the city.  An amenity would seem to accelerate the rewards for gentrification as well.

It would seem like a rich, gentrified, progressive city like Vancouver could – and should – be doing so much more.

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Citizens Desperate for Effective Public Policies to Save Affordable Housing

Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 10.33.38 AMHalifax    The discussion of fights between tenants and landlords was a central part of the organizers’ agenda in the ACORN Canada head organizers’ meeting. In Ottawa it was another fight to save the 1300 unit, Herongate, a frequent target. In Toronto and Halifax landlord licensing is an ongoing fight and there were steps forward around inclusionary zoning, but ground zero for much of the struggle was the blazingly hot housing market in British Columbia cities of Vancouver and its satellites cities, where most of our members live, in Burnaby, Surrey, and New Westminster.

Average home prices in Vancouver are now considerably over $1 million. The Premier was in The Globe and Mail promising to end “shadow flipping,” which is a good example of how overheated the market is. Shadow flipping involves a real estate agent, who represents a seller, recommending and securing a “sales contract” from a new purchaser at a fixed price, and then continuing to try to get another buyer to pay more than the original contract and pocketing the difference from the higher price before the deal goes to closing. Shadow flipping is just a fancy term for felony robbery.

What’s the fix for low and moderate income families being pushed out of affordable housing? That was the question before the organizers.

Burnaby was about the worst case. The council has approved something called a “density bonus” for developers, which allows them to pay more, millions more to the city, to go up higher with more units. 20% of the so-called bonus goes to a fund for the creation of affordable housing, though little has been approved or built. 80% goes for civic improvements and amenities in Burnaby. The result is that the city council has a huge incentive to allow for total displacement and gentrification!

Vancouver supposedly has a program of one-for-one replacement for every rental unit lost. The RAP or Rental Assistance Program is supposed to require placement of the tenant before a rental unit can be converted or demolished in comparable housing within a range of 10% of the rent they were paying within a reasonable distance from their current residence. Sometimes this will stop the redevelopment, but in other cases this and other programs are subverted by developers who simply throw money at the lower income tenant which is too good to resist, inducing them to vacate voluntarily with some money in their pockets.

For all of the strategies and public policies discussed the best model that emerged in the discussion centered on the city council of New Westminster. There is no fancy bylaw or housing program, and there have been a lot of developers who have come, blueprints in hand with proposals, and admittedly some of them have been built, but for the most part they have not succumbed to the high-rise, density bonus allures for a simple reason: they just say, “No!” They vote down the proposals that too often simply eliminate the housing without hopes for residents finding replacements.

Protecting affordable housing and our neighborhoods in many cities in Canada may not come as much from fancy, well-crafted policy solutions, but from old fashion, hard-knuckled politics. Moving the developer patsies out of office, and putting home protectors in when the chance arises to pull the voting levers.

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