Creating affordable housing: Learning from Vancouver

This article originally appeared in the Vancouver Observer, October 28, 2016

What responsibilities do cities, with their relatively limited tax base, have to ensure its citizens have decent accommodation?

Downtown Vancouver. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

Downtown Vancouver. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

What responsibilities do cities, with their relatively limited tax base, have to ensure its citizens have decent accommodation?

Some, including some in the lower mainland do nothing, claiming it is the responsibility of another layer of government. Some take token measures, hope the problem goes away and then hope no one notices when it doesn’t. And some, like the City of Vancouver, take it very seriously indeed. 

When it comes to housing, affordable and otherwise, Vancouver is a roiling cauldron of debate, disputes and demonstrations. In the pages of this and other media, the rhetoric over who is to blame and what should be done has raged for years.                       

This week, Vancouver welcomes hundreds of local, national and international housing experts to its Re:address Summit on ways to address housing unaffordability. 

The summit, according to City messaging, is an opportunity to learn, share best practices and explore creative solutions from other cities struggling with similar affordability challenges. I’m guessing most of the learning will be on the part of the visitors. 

Learning from Vancouver is not a new phenomenon. Since it hosted the first UN Habitat conference in 1976, a mini cottage industry has emerged to host visitors from Canada and around the world to visit projects and learn how policy tools such as public benefits, inclusionary zoning and density bonusing can be applied.

Let’s consider a few recent numbers. In its 2011-2014 Capital Plan, Vancouver set an affordable housing target of 1,950 units or 650 units per year.

This target was met (at the end of 2014 2,050 units were either completed or in the development/construction pipeline) and renewed in the 2015-2018 Capital Plan. Included in these Capital Plans is about $22.0M per year of City funds allocated for the creation of new affordable rental housing.

About one-third of the Capital Plan targets will be created through Vancouver’s public benefits process. The remaining will be achieved by partnering with local not-for-profit agencies, Foundations, other levels of government (primarily BC Housing) and by using the City’s own land, zoning tools, and other financial resources.

Some will argue it’s not good enough and perhaps they’re correct but let’s compare it to another municipality. 

The City of Ottawa’s population is 30% larger than Vancouver’s. It has one of the country’s highest median incomes and has (unlike Vancouver) jurisdictional responsibility for housing. It has high rents, a serious shortage of affordable housing, and high rates of homelessness. So let’s look at what Ottawa is doing to provide decent accommodation for its vulnerable residents.  

According to the 2015 statistics, 7,000 individuals used Ottawa’s emergency shelters and 10,100 applicants were on the waiting list for affordable housing which has a wait time of up to five years. Only 34 new affordable housing units were created: the lowest since 2005. Between 2011 and 2015 Ottawa created about 120 units per year.

Ottawa’s ten-year Housing and Homelessness Plan outlines a community goal to end long-term homelessness. It provides aspirational statements about partnerships, building on collective strengths etc., but no firm targets for creating units and few concrete suggestions for using the City’s own resources. And despite the Plan, Ottawa is reducing the resources it commits to this critical issue.  

Data compiled from City Ottawa budget documents indicate that while Ottawa contributed between $4.0M and $5.0M of its own funds towards the creation of new units between 2012 and 2014, it doesn’t plan to contribute any of its own funds between 2015 and 2019. Instead, the City plans to replace its funds with Federal/Provincial funding instead of supplementing these funds. 

This disinvestment is reflected in the City’s funding priorities. A recent Carleton University analysis of the City budget trends (helpfully sub-titled Balancing its Budget on the Backs of the Poor) indicates spending on social programs has lagged behind other budget items since 2010. Despite an overall increase in City spending and a demonstrated need from vulnerable populations, community services investments have fallen behind other service areas. 

Recently, Ottawa’s land development corporation, which like Vancouver’s Property Endowment Fund has a mandate to add value to social value to land transactions listed several properties for sale. Some of them are excellent multi-unit residential and mixed-use sites that could have been used to further the City’s long term strategic goals. 

Particularly egregious is the sale of a family housing property on the City’s list of affordable housing sites notwithstanding the fact that in 2015, 39% of all shelter clients were members of a homeless family!  The sale contradicts Council‘s own Housing First policy for surplus City lands. 

Still not convinced? While Vancouver fast tracks non-profit housing applications, Ottawa has an expedited ‘concierge service’ for large private sector development applications making other projects, including affordable housing projects wait in line. 

While Ottawa’s ability to negotiate public benefits is significantly weaker than Vancouver’s, its Council further weakened this tool by agreeing to accept only 75% of the potential contribution.

Vancouver is a long way away from solving its affordable housing and homelessness problem but at least it is putting every reasonable resource at its disposal towards finding a wide range of solutions. 

The creation of new municipal facilities such as the new East Hastings Library or the Firehall #5 was used as an opportunity to provide affordable housing for single moms and their kids.

Taylor Manor, a vacant City-owned heritage building has been converted into supportive housing for people with mental health challenges.

The City’s New Neighbourhoods policy has been used to create hundreds of affordable housing units. Its grant program has helped non-profit agencies and even BC Housing create new units. 

Vancouver‘s strategic land banking has resulted in a partnership of three not-for-profit agencies currently constructing 360 rental units, 75% of which will be subsidized.

Another City-owned site has been used to create the Immigrant Service Society’s brilliant new Welcome House. The Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency which has a goal to create 2500 units on City land by 2021 recently announced plans to build 250 units in the East Fraserlands district entirely without assistance from the federal or provincial levels of government. 

There are many more examples but behind Vancouver’s success is a strong commitment to create policies that enable a livable, sustainable city and the political will and staff resources to put the policies into practice. 

Politicians can always be more accountable, bureaucracies can always be more effective and better ways can always be found to engage partners. But let’s take a step back from the hyperbole and give Vancouver some acknowledgement for its achievements.  

Dennis Carr has 26 years’ experience creating affordable housing and social facilities in Ottawa and Vancouver. From 2009 to 2014 he was Assistant Director, Social Infrastructure, for the City of Vancouver. He is the recipient of the 2016 Canadian Housing and Renewal Association Lifetime Achievement Award.