Cities “Can Solve Affordability by Building Housing”

Other global cities having been “building their way to affordability for decades,” asserts Seattle research group
Joannah Connolly
October 24, 2017

As Vancouver and, to a slightly lesser extent, Toronto grapple with housing affordability issues, a recent report out of Seattle asserts that many other global cities have been “building their way to affordability for decades.”

The report from Seattle research group The Sightline Institute asserts that it is a myth that a city cannot build its way out of an affordability crisis.

Report author Alan Durning, executive director of Sightline, writes, “What if you can build your way to affordable housing? What if, in fact, building is the only path to affordable housing? What if cities around the world have been building their way to affordability for decades? You can. It is. And they have.”

Durning told Vancouver’s News 1130, “While housing prices in Vancouver, as in my home city of Seattle, have been going through the roof, cities around the world have been keeping housing prices flat or rising very slowly by building lots and lots of housing.”

In his report, Durning examines the successes of a number of global cities including sprawling Houston, high-density Tokyo, pro-development Chicago, gently dense Montreal and state-supported Vienna, where extensive housing supply has kept prices flat.

Durning concedes that the Vienna model of “massive public spending and massive public control” might not work in North America, as it relies on a long history of “public-sector involvement in housing plus entrenched institutions and national laws that are beyond the pale of North American politics” and points out that comparable efforts to control housing in San Francisco have failed.

He adds, “A different, hybrid model is called for … one that harnesses the private sector to public ends. Which is not to say lessons from Vienna are not transferable. They are. Where large blocks of public land are available, for example, [they could be developed] through design competitions among developers.”

Durning extrapolates lessons from each city examined. “Houston… can be [a] model for how easy it ought to be to get permits to build homes… Tokyo, meanwhile, reminds us that placing control over development at senior levels of government, and making development of urban property a right of its owner, helps to elevate the broad public interest in abundant housing choices over parochial opposition to change. Chicago teaches that a pro-housing political orientation can provide abundant housing even under conventional zoning in a deep blue city, while Montreal offers… a model of a cityscape no longer of single-family homes but of three-story rowhouses, walk-up apartments, and condominiums on quiet, tree-lined streets close to transit and neighborhood centers.”

Durning concludes, “To have affordable housing, you have to build homes in great abundance, and without that, other affordability strategies such as rent control and inclusionary zoning can be fruitless or counterproductive, as in San Francisco. Building plenty of housing is not just one way to affordability, it is the only way – the foundation on which other affordability solutions, measures against displacement, and programs for inclusion rest.”

Joannah Connolly
Joannah Connolly is editorial director of Glacier Real Estate, Glacier Media's real estate division. Joannah writes and curates real estate news for Glacier Media's local newspaper websites, including the Vancouver Courier, North Shore News, Burnaby Now, Tri-City News and others. She also oversees editorial content in Real Estate Weekly Homes, West Coast Condo, Western Investor and Glacier's special real estate publications. A dual Canadian-British citizen, Joannah has 22 years of journalism and editing experience in Vancouver and London, with a background in construction, architecture, healthcare and business media. Joannah has appeared on major local TV outlets as a real estate commentator, has moderated and spoken on various industry panels, and spent two years hosting the Real Estate Therapist radio show on Roundhouse Radio.