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2016 Newsmaker of the Year: Affordability (again)

Vancouver's housing problems topped this year's news

An eye roll please…

After months of anguish and sleepless nights endured by the Courier’s editorial staff to settle on the one topic that topped the news in Vancouver this year, we’ve finally agreed on a winner.

It’s affordability — again.

Yep, for the first time in the Courier’s history of picking the Newsmaker of the Year, we’ve got a repeat winner. It was, in all seriousness, an easy call — and a topic we predicted last year would likely contend, if not repeat, for top newsmaker honours in 2016.

Which, in the case of anyone trying to find a place to rent or buy in this city, is not a good thing.

You probably knew that.

Especially if you or people you know were trying to live out a politician’s definition of “affordable:” No more than 30 per cent of your income should be spent on housing.

That number was not pulled out of a hat. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation established that percentage years ago, and politicians rely on the figure when asked to describe their definition of affordable.

Like we said last year, the 30 per cent goal is not only unattainable for many people in Vancouver who want to remain here, but depressing for those who have thoughts of moving into the city.

The richy rich excluded, of course.

The unfortunate reality is dumpy houses on small lots on the East Side continue to fetch way north of $1 million. The price balloons to $3 million and $4 million in well-to-do West Side neighbourhoods, where bidding wars have become a sport.

For renters, who comprise more than 50 per cent of residents, the news is not good, either: Vacancy rates are holding steady below one per cent and rents continue to rise. For example, two-bedroom apartment rents are roughly 45 per cent higher than the national urban average.

Bidding wars, sadly, are now part of that world, too.

It’s no wonder the rest of the country has a collective head shake anytime it hears that bungalows in Vancouver are being sold for more than 10 times Mayor Gregor Robertson’s annual salary of $161,308.

We’ve become a national joke: British Columbia=Bring Cash!

Government intervention

But the doom and gloom that hangs over the city’s housing market got a little less gloomy this year with some intervention by government in the way of taxes, cracking down on shady realtors, promising more affordable housing and introducing new mortgage rules.

Less gloomy and more newsworthy, the Courier concluded, than other contenders for Newsmaker of the Year, including Minister of Education Mike Bernier’s decision to fire the nine trustees on the Vancouver School Board, the overdose drug epidemic that has seen hundreds of deaths in Vancouver and the rest of the province, the federal cabinet’s approval of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, the progress of First Nations in the city and the city’s purchase of the Arbutus Corridor property from Canadian Pacific Railway for the purpose of building a transportation greenway.

The mayor, as you’ve read in these pages, has been pretty much on autopilot the past few years on the need to make housing more affordable. It’s an issue that has consumed his third term in office. His fear is the city will become a bland, characterless place to live, with only those with big dollars calling Vancouver home.

Some would argue that’s already happened.

Maybe you’ve heard Robertson say this: “Housing needs to be first and foremost about homes, not to be treated as a commodity but as a human right.”

Nice quote.

But what, you ask, has his administration done this year to address the housing affordability crisis? A lot, he’ll say. Or, as he often qualifies in his statements on housing, the city is doing what it can but needs more help from the provincial and federal governments.

‘Weak and lagging response’

This is the point in the story where the reader should expect to learn more about the city’s work on the housing front. That’s coming in a few paragraphs. But Evan Siddall’s words last week to a crowd of business types belonging to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade need to be dropped in this space for some insight into what the city is not doing, or could do better.

Siddall is the president and chief executive officer of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the same agency that concluded Canadians should be spending no more than 30 per cent of their income on housing.

“Municipal leaders talk of a housing crisis and their primary solution is to demand $12.6 billion in urgent funding from the federal government,” he said in his speech Nov. 30 at the Westin Bayshore, in reference to the funding request from big city mayors, including Robertson.

“The weak and lagging response in Vancouver — rezoning restrictions, density limits, development fees and the time it takes for approval of new supply, and not just for affordable housing — needs urgent attention. If there’s a crisis, we should all act like it.”

Sound familiar?

Premier Christy Clark told Robertson something very similar last year when they tangled via a letter exchange over the affordability crisis. The mayor called for the provincial government to build more affordable housing and implement a tax to penalize property speculators and increase the property transfer tax on luxury homes.

The premier wrote back, saying the city could do more to create affordable housing by resorting to better land use planning and lowering fees and levies for new homes.

Sharp words, but neither politician budged.

Foreign buyers’ tax

Then along came 2016.

That political prose punch-up was replaced by some direct action by Clark and Robertson. At the provincial level, Clark announced a 15 per cent tax on foreign real estate transactions in Metro Vancouver and a luxury tax on homes priced over $2 million.

The provincial government also ended self-regulation of the real estate industry by appointing Michael Noseworthy as superintendent of real estate. His job is to crack down on those realtors run amok and engaging in illegal and unethical practices.

Much of the government’s action, we might add, was thanks to some fantastic journalism by Kathy Tomlinson at the Globe and Mail and others on the real estate beat. Suddenly, “shadow flipping” was watercooler talk.

David Eby, the NDP MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey, raised his profile over the last year as his party’s housing critic, hosting town hall meetings and calling on Clark and the Liberals to provide more affordable housing.

To address the supply side of housing, Clark and Housing Minister Rich Coleman announced $855 million for affordable housing projects in B.C., with at least 10 in Vancouver. Total number of units promised was 4,900.

“It is the largest single year investment in affordable housing that any government in the history of this country has ever made,” Clark boasted at a news conference last month.

Robertson would obviously like to see more but told the Courier that any investment in affordable housing in Vancouver was a good thing. That promised investment comes the same year that saw the city approve more housing, including market and rental, introduce a vacant homes tax, which comes into effect next year, look to regulate short-term rentals like the ones you see on Airbnb and increase the family housing requirement in new buildings to 35 per cent — that essentially means more three-bedroom units.

In April, the city introduced an “affordable home ownership pilot program” targeted at households earning no more than $96,000 per year, approved a modular housing complex for low-income people at Main and Terminal and gave the green light for the development of more lowrise townhomes and stacked townhouses along the Cambie Corridor and in Marpole.

Since 2011, the city claims, council has enabled 12,000 new affordable homes.

2,500 homes in five years

The mayor’s goal is to have another 2,500 affordable homes built in the next five years. That goal would be accelerated and possibly surpassed if senior governments dole out some serious cash to build more housing on 20 sites offered up by the city.

Back in Ottawa, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has watched the insanity that is Vancouver’s housing market unfold since it took office last year.

Trudeau has promised a national housing strategy and pledged in this year’s budget to spend $2.3 billion over the next two years on a series of affordable housing measures, including low-cost loans for municipalities and developers.  Another $2.7 billion is targeted at the rental supply.

In October, the mayor applauded the Trudeau government for closing a capital gains tax loophole that enabled unregulated, speculative global capital to churn up Vancouver’s real estate market.

Robertson said he was also encouraged by new mortgage rules introduced by the Trudeau government to ensure buyers can afford a loan, if interest rates rise, or their personal financial situation changes.

All of what governments are doing on the real estate front, they say, is to cool an overheated housing market. As anyone knows looking to buy or rent, none of the measures appears to have had a significant effect. In time, maybe.

Meanwhile, there are still those out there who put all this madness at the feet of the so-called foreign buyer. B.C. government data shows that from June 10 to Oct. 31, foreign nationals accounted for seven per cent of property transactions in Metro Vancouver.

Is that significant?

To some, yes, to others, no.

Regardless, it’s newsworthy and it satiates the appetite of countless people in this city who love to read, talk and obsess about real estate. Apparently, there’s nothing else going on in Vancouver.

Maybe the Christmas holidays will give us a reprieve.

Property assessments arrive in the mail in January.

Good luck everyone.

Newsmaker runners-up:

  1. You’re fired: In October, Education Minister Mike Bernier fired the nine-person Vancouver School Board because he said they failed to comply with School Act and adopt a balanced budget on time. “What we have witnessed from the Vancouver School Board is a misplaced focus on political tactics rather than responsible stewardship,” Bernier told reporters. Vision Vancouver’s Mike Lombardi was among trustees who disagreed.
  2. Fentanyl crisis: The B.C. Coroners Service says 622 people died of a suspected drug overdose in B.C. between January and October of this year, with 124 recorded in Vancouver. That’s about two people dying every day. The deadly synthetic narcotic, fentanyl, was detected in 60 per cent of those deaths. The epidemic caused harm reduction advocates to set up temporary drug injection sites in the Downtown Eastside.
  3. Pipeline fever: Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the federal cabinet approved Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain Edmonton-to-Burnaby pipeline expansion project. The announcement sparked outrage on social media and in the streets of Vancouver, where protests are expected to continue into next year. A seven-fold increase in oil tanker traffic in Vancouver waters is part of the plan.
  4. Truth and transformation: As the Courier’s special series showed this year, First Nations are making progress in the city in various areas, including politics, land development, policing, education and at city hall, where Ginger Gosnell-Myers (pictured) is manager of Aboriginal relations.
  5. Bye, bye CPR: In March, Mayor Gregor Robertson announced that a years-long battle over the future of the Arbutus Corridor had been resolved in a $55-million deal between the City of Vancouver and Canadian Pacific Railway. The city plans to turn the corridor into a greenway for pedestrians, cyclists and potentially see light rail running along the nine-kilometre route from First Avenue to Milton Street, near Southwest Marine Drive and West 75th Avenue.

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