Vancouver’s affordability crisis: No more excuses, we need action

When it comes to Vancouver’s crisis of housing affordability, our city’s municipal politicians are better at making excuses than at taking action.

As I’ve noted previously in this space, Vision Vancouver resorted to pointing the finger at other levels of government to explain away this year’s shockingly high homelessness count numbers.

One of the problems, of course, is that Vision has been reluctant to really take the gloves off and put strong, public demands on the provincial government. That tends to happen when both levels of government are backed by the same developer and big money interests.

Despite Vision’s acute awareness of the lack of municipal decision-making and financing powers, they are nevertheless headlining their 2014 re-election efforts with two other issues that rely heavily on the actions of other levels of government. The Broadway Skytrain expansion – a flagship issue – will require huge amounts of support and funding from Victoria and/or Ottawa. And the Kinder Morgan pipeline, which Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vision have admirably been very vocal about opposing, will of course be decided at the level of the federal government, after the National Energy Board give its inevitable rubber stamp.

The biggest problem with Vision’s excuse-making around housing, however, is that municipal governments are not powerless. Especially a municipality as big and as wealthy as the City of Vancouver. There are things we could and should be doing right now. It’s just that the available policy tools would piss off the major developers who back the governing party.

One effective measure for tackling the affordability crisis is being proposed by the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE). They are calling for a local Housing Authority with some real teeth, and the proposal is serious and deserves wide discussion. COPE has outlined its case for a new Housing Authority in a 100-page report, released earlier this year.

The report is a breath of fresh air. First of all, it puts Vancouver’s failure in global context. It’s much harder to accept excuses for homelessness and unaffordability when local policies are contrasted with practical measures implemented elsewhere. The report examines what we might learn from public housing in mega-cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, New York and Toronto, as well as smaller municipalities like Whistler.

Some of the statistical comparisons are staggering. Only three per cent of Vancourites live in public housing, whereas in Vienna its 60 per cent. The Austrian city is an important example; “Red Vienna” is known globally for its stringent caps on rent and ample affordable housing in the city’s downtown core.

Stockholm is a particularly instructive example for Vancouver, because the Swedish city manages its own public housing. In the context of a disinterested BC provincial government, and a federal government that abandoned its support of social housing back in the 1990s, Vancouver and other cities will be forced to go it alone in many ways. Stockholm hints at what might be possible, if we could muster the political will. Swedish renters also benefit from a strong legacy of public housing construction: from 1965–1975 alone one million units were built. Historically, rent was set at 20% of a workers’ total income.

That brings us to a major problem with the discourse around affordability locally. Vision Vancouver hasn’t agreed on a clear definition of the term, and many councillors seem to understand affordability as synonymous with building more rental stock. The COPE report, and many other housing advocates, are seeking a clear definition of affordability as 30% of total household income. (Not as good as the Swedes’ old standard, but much better than no definition at all.)

COPE’s report concludes with a 10-point summary of policy recommendations. Each one is sensible and achievable, and implementation of all or part of this program will go a long way to alleviating this city’s affordability crisis.

Vision Councillor Geoff Meggs, quoted in the Vancouver Sun, dismissed the recommendations around funding: “COPE’s proposal is to raise taxes, expropriate land and get into large scale development. That looks like three strikes and out from a public opinion perspective.”

That pretty much captures the essence of two different political perspectives. One is to remain basically powerless other than to get the odd concession from omnipotent developers; the other reimagines the role of government as something that aggressively delivers urgent human needs and tackles entrenched privilege and unequal distribution of land and wealth.

Which way Vancouver goes in the future is up to us. Whatever party you support, COPE’s report deserves a close reading and more public debate. Check it out here:

2 thoughts on “Vancouver’s affordability crisis: No more excuses, we need action

  1. Well, you’ve nailed it. I could only add (Because you’re writing as a journalist & I’m not) that Geoff Meggs is a sociopath, he’s in this for Geoff, end of line. He needs to lose his seat on council.

  2. Well, Sweden has one of the highest taxes in the world.
    Here is not the case, as a matter of fact Vancouver has the lowest taxes in North America. Then there is the thing that asking for social housing is not going to take you anywhere, action is required and there is an absolute lack of leadership when it comes to mobilizing people.
    Also home owners as in tax payers are not sensitive to the need of social housing, not even supposedly progressive politicians and is because they know the issue is going to make them loose votes. I remember a meeting about housing I attended with people working on the issue, Grand Chief Steward Philip was present ,and on behalf of the system MLA Jennie Kwan and MP Libby Davies, Ms Kwan was so insensitive to our concerns that spent 50% of the meeting texting, honestly it was the theatre of cruelty at its max.
    Soon after in a separate occasion we met with Mayor Robertson , he listened to us and even made eye contact ! it became clear we will get nowhere but at least he didn’t text during our meeting.
    It is simple tax foreign ownership like other countries do and use the money to build social housing.
    Well you know when it comes to social housing, after all is said and done, more is said than done.

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