Last week I was lucky enough to get a free pass to the City’s re:address housing summit main event, a one-day conference on October 27 at the Vancouver Convention Centre. And it was a very interesting event, with expert speakers from all over the world sharing their experiences of tackling housing affordability; their successes but also their challenges, in cities like New York, San Francisco and Sydney, where the affordability situation largely mirrors what’s happening in Vancouver.
One of the realizations that hit me was that when one facet of what’s problematic in your market is solved or improved, it doesn’t necessarily help other aspects. Take New York, for example, where there’s amazing work being done, as described by the opening keynote speaker, New York housing commissioner Vicki Been (pictured above, second from right). Been is running incredibly ambitious projects to build and retain hundreds of thousands of non-market income-based affordable housing throughout New York – a fantastic program that is genuinely helping huge numbers of low-income residents to live in the city.
But the fact remains that there are a thousand applicants for every one of those lotteried affordable housing units, so it’s never enough. And it’s also doing absolutely nothing to bring the price of home ownership prices. New York is still an incredibly expensive city to buy a home – much more expensive than Vancouver on a per-square-foot basis. It’s not as though demand to buy real estate slows just because there are better rental options for low-income residents. Of course, this is also true for Vancouver. So I found it really interesting to think about how separate the home-ownership market is from market rental and also from non-market affordable housing. People so often lump them all together under this umbrella of “unaffordability,” but that term is, in itself, multi-faceted.
After Been’s opening talk, during the next panel event being moderated by Mayor Gregor Robertson, a group of protestors burst in and took over the stage (with no sign of security until a minute or two later). And these activists were wielding their banners and chanting “Take the rich to house the poor” and “Build our homes now” and pretty much forced the panelists off the stage. It was somewhat ironic, because they were interrupting a discussion on exactly how best to supply more rental housing to house low-income residents, but the protesters seemed unaware of this. And when the event eventually resumed, the Mayor said that he sympathized with their frustrations, and that that “taxing the rich to house the poor” was something that he was indeed trying to do – presumably a reference to the new vacant home tax being implemented next year.
Throughout the conference, and at the two half-day events the following day, there was a lot of smart discussion about housing and affordability, one of which was the importance of improved transportation and development around transit. It turns out that when you actually look at affordability as not only housing costs but both housing and transportation costs combined, because the two are intrinsically linked, it turns out that Vancouver Proper is actually one of the more affordable areas of Metro Vancouver to live in, because transportation costs are much lower compared with outer areas. So we can talk about how people looking for affordability should consider moving to outer areas, but perhaps that’s not necessarily the case. This really informed and somewhat reframed my thinking on that whole topic.
Another thing that really resonated with me was a number of calls for widespread rezoning of Vancouver’s single-family-zoned land – there was a lot of big-picture thinking on how we’re using our land here in Vancouver, with suggestions that maybe it’s time to give up the single-family home dream (more on that discussion here). And also that there needs to be a whole host of new ways to own and live in homes, such as more housing cooperatives, and shared equity programs, and better renter protection, and rent-to-own schemes... All sorts of innovative programs could and should be implemented.
All of which is great, and it’s valuable to discuss all these ideas and have Vancouver’s housing leaders all agreeing that this is the way forward. But one more thing that struck a chord with me was another phrase that the activist group was chanting, over and over – and that was “Action not words”.
Because, let’s face it, we know all this, already. We talk about these topics every week on this website, on my radio show, in the local media, and between city and regional and provincial leaders. But our housing affordability situation is not waiting for anybody – it’s time to get these changes and programs actually done. The summit is intended to inform the City's next iteration of its housing policy, and we can just hope that translates into real action before too long.
If ever there was a prime example of the phrase “it’s easier said than done”, this is surely it.
Listen to Joannah Connolly with Todd Talbot, co-host of Love It or List it Vancouver, discussing the Vancouver housing summit, dissecting the current market and offering advice to callers on the Real Estate Therapist show on Roundhouse Radio here.