Opinion: Thoughts on the Return of a National Housing Strategy

This article originally appeared on
Michael Geller
September 19, 2016

REW.ca's sister website Vancouver Courier. To read the original article, click here - and for more news and comment, go to www.vancourier.com.

Let’s talk housing.

Housing was certainly top of mind this past week as The Honourable Jean-Yves Duclos, Federal Minister responsible for Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, was keynote speaker at a special Metro Vancouver Board of Trade luncheon.

The board invited the minister since deteriorating housing affordability is regarded by many as the greatest challenge impacting Metro Vancouver. In the 2016 Greater Vancouver Economic Scorecard, Vancouver earned a “D” grade in housing affordability, coming 15th out of the 17 jurisdictions measured.

In his remarks, the minister described the federal government’s vision to keep housing in Canada’s urban centres affordable and accessible for everyone, and steps the federal government is taking to achieve this vision, including the development of a National Housing Strategy.

While the federal minister was speaking to the Board of Trade, Rich Coleman, the provincial minister responsible for housing, was addressing stakeholders from across the province who had been invited to a one-and-a-half-day workshop to help inform the BC government’s formal submission to the federal government on its National Housing Strategy.

Minister Coleman spoke about the province’s six “Housing Matters” priorities, namely: access to stable housing with integrated services for the homeless; priority for BC’s most vulnerable; addressing aboriginal housing need; improved access to affordable rental housing for low-income households; homeownership as an avenue to self-sufficiency; and a safe, stable and efficient housing regulatory system.

Earlier in the workshop, I participated on a panel with SFU’s Gordon Price, urban affairs commentator Frances Bula, and urban futures demographer Andrew Ramlo. I reviewed the federal government’s historic role in housing and shared many of the ideas I have written about in the Vancouver Courier [and for REW.ca – see “Related"] over the past two years.

For seven decades, the federal government has played a major role in financing and building Vancouver’s affordable housing.

Much of the city’s rental housing was financed through a myriad of programs including the Limited Dividend Program, which provided 100 per cent loans to developers who agreed to limit their profits, ARP (Assisted Rental Program) and CRSP (Canada Rental Supply Program), which offered preferential financing, and the CCA (capital cost allowance) program, which allowed Canadians to write off a portion of their investments in rental housing against other income.

While these programs usually made rental housing projects feasible, my dear friend Morris Wosk, who built many apartments around the city, often reminded me that in the early years, it was the coins from the washers and dryers that made the difference between positive and negative cash flow.

In addition to rental housing programs, the federal government offered first time homeowners’ grants and programs such as AHOP, the Assisted Home Ownership Program, which provided preferential financing for Vancouver homes selling for $47,000 or less.

From 1947 to 1985, the federal and provincial governments developed public housing developments, including Little Mountain, Maclean Park and the West End’s Sunset Towers. Today, most of these projects are ripe for regeneration.

While redevelopment of the Little Mountain project has been a complete fiasco, hopefully more successful strategies will be followed in coming years. Lessons can certainly be learned from Toronto’s Regent Park, once the most notorious public housing in the country, which has been phased into a most successful mixed-income community.

In the 1970’s the federal government introduced new programs to allow non-profit organizations to build rental and cooperative housing projects catering to lower income households.

During this period, the redevelopment of the south shore of False Creek got underway. This project was highly controversial at first, with one senior city planner resigning, arguing it would be a terrible place for families to live. Over the past 40 years, the community has been highly acclaimed, but today it, too, is ready for renewal, offering numerous opportunities for additional affordable housing.

A National Housing Strategy will hopefully offer additional federal money. However, there will never be enough. Other innovative approaches will continue to be required, including changes in municipal regulations to allow smaller houses on small lots, basement suites in duplexes and rowhouses, stacked rowhouses and other compact housing forms.

It is also time to revise building codes to allow smaller rental apartment buildings like those built 50 years ago. With laundry rooms and coin operated washers and dryers.

Michael Geller
Michael is an architect, planner, real estate consultant and developer with more than four decades of experience in the public, private and institutional sectors. Some of his notable projects include the redevelopment of the South Shore False Creek, Bayshore in Coal Harbour and UniverCity at SFU. He is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and is an affiliate of the UBC Masters in Urban Design program. Michael is a well-known commentator on real estate and housing and an adviser to the City of Vancouver's Affordable Housing Task Force. He is also a past president of UDI Pacific and UDI Canada, and has been honoured as a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners and a Life Member of the Architectural Institute of BC.