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2015 Newsmaker of the Year: Vancouver's affordability crisis

Affordability is the Courier’s choice for Newsmaker of the Year. Why? Because it seemed not a week went by in this city where someone wasn’t talking about insane real estate prices or the exorbitant cost to rent a dumpy basement suite.

Affordability is the Courier’s choice for Newsmaker of the Year.

Why?

Because it seemed not a week went by in this city where someone wasn’t talking about insane real estate prices or the exorbitant cost to rent a dumpy basement suite.

That’s if you can find a dumpy basement suite to rent.

With a vacancy rate that hovers around one per cent or less, and more than 50 per cent of residents paying rent, the competition for rental accommodation is fierce.

In Vancouver, affordability — a term used liberally by politicians and developers — is really supposed to mean that a person (or household) spends no more than a maximum of 30 per cent of his or her income on housing.

Which, for many residents, is a cruel and depressing joke.

That’s why the city saw people protest so-called renovictions (in the West End), accuse developers of gentrifying neighbourhoods (in the Downtown Eastside) and launch the #donthave1million social media campaign (a pointed shot at the average price of a Vancouver house).

The issue of foreign ownership and the demolition of prized old character homes also set off a media bomb, with various opinions and studies leading to accusations of racism and calls for a speculator’s tax.

Yep, it’s ugly out there.

Uglier and more newsworthy, the Courier concluded, than other contenders for Newsmaker of the Year, including Mayor Gregor Robertson failing to meet his goal to end “street homelessness,” his globe-trotting climate change crusade, the failed transit and transportation plebiscite, council’s decision to demolish the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, the city’s unprecedented move to regulate illegal marijuana dispensaries, the firing of city manager Penny Ballem, the hiring of new police chief Adam Palmer, the federal Liberals’ election victory and the Syrian refugee crisis.

Even the mayor acknowledged what people are up against in Vancouver, one of the most expensive cities on the planet.

“Families renting homes in Vancouver deserve a better option than paying palace-sized rents on postage stamp [sized] apartments,” he said in his inaugural address a year ago this month and continued to articulate this year. “Yes, rising prices are a consequence of growth and prosperity. Affordability is a non-stop challenge in a city like ours. But that doesn’t mean we have to allow working and middle-class families to be priced out of town.”

POLITICAL SPEAK
So what has Robertson done about it this year?

First off, he complained to Premier Christy Clark in a letter he sent her in May. He requested the B.C. government build more housing and implement a tax to penalize property speculators and increase the property transfer tax on luxury homes.

“The single biggest step the province could do to address the soaring housing costs in Metro Vancouver is to generate thousands of new housing units that are affordable for lower and middle income taxpayers,” he wrote. “Even a sharp correction in the housing market won’t enable opportunities for people to rent or buy without an increase in supply of housing geared to low and middle incomes.”

He went on to say council was doing its part, setting aside $61 million in the city’s 2015 capital plan to invest in housing and support the fledgling affordable housing agency.

In a strongly worded response to the mayor, the premier said the city could do more to create affordable housing by resorting to better land use planning and lowering fees and levies for new homes.

“Using any method of new taxation with the goal of driving down the price of housing could have the unintended effect of hurting current homeowners across the region,” Clark said in her letter. “Driving down the cost of housing by just 10 per cent would mean a family with a home currently worth $800,000 could lose $80,000 in equity in their home. That could put some homeowners with large mortgages into negative equity.”

The result of that back-and-forth: More talk, no direct action and housing prices still laughably expensive.

Rent control is not even on the table.

RENTAL AWARENESS
A careful read of the city’s recently released budget documents shows city council has made some gains in an area in which it has some control: rental housing.

Since 2010, almost 1,000 new units of market rental housing have been built and occupied while another 1,500 units are under construction. More than 400 secondary suites and laneway houses were approved in 2015, adding to the 2,800 approved or built since 2012.

The Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency identified 12 city sites this year that will see more than 1,000 new units built over the next few years in areas such as the River District, the Downtown Eastside and Kensington-Cedar Cottage.

Other non-market housing projects also moved forward this year, including the construction of 21 units for low-income mothers in Strathcona and another 31 units for the same group in a fire hall/YWCA complex on East 54th Avenue.

Added to those projects is the Community Housing Land Trust Foundation’s initiative to create 358 units on four city properties. Tenants on low to moderate incomes, as well as seniors and singles, will occupy the homes.

Last week, the city announced the proposed Tenant Relocation and Protection Policy and Guidelines, which goes before council Dec. 10. The aim of the legislation is to implement a combination of measures to relocate and compensate tenants when a developer renovates or redevelops a residential building.

FED UP
But while the city has made some progress in building rental housing — and Robertson continues to wrangle the B.C. government to buck up for more units — the mayor has repeatedly said the federal government needs to get back in the housing game to really make a mark on affordability.

The Liberals’ massive federal victory in October has given him hope that changes will soon come and lead to a renewal of the long-ago-scrapped national housing program.

In his campaign to become prime minister, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised the following, if elected:

  • To provide tax incentives to boost development and renovation of rental housing.
  • Renew existing co-operative housing agreements set to expire.
  • Provide operating funding to support municipalities.
  • Provide project financing through Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and the new Canada Infrastructure Bank.
  • Review temporary and/or non-resident home purchases.

Robertson has talked with Trudeau and travelled to Ottawa to meet with newly sworn-in cabinet ministers to discuss housing and other issues facing Vancouver such as transit and climate change.

The mayor appears to have an ally in Trudeau, but that friendship and aligning of priorities has yet to be tested.

And with unpredictable economic forces driving real estate prices and the cost of rent in Vancouver, there is a good chance affordability — an oxymoron to many in this city — will be a contender to repeat as the Courier’s Newsmaker of the Year in 2016.

Unless, of course, the market crashes and you can buy a fixer-upper in Kerrisdale for half a million bucks.

But then, hey, what would Vancouverites have to talk about, tweet about and read about?

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings