Mayor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver crew at City Hall continue to push for ever more densification. Vision and their allies claim that we need to keep building to solve the housing affordability crisis, even though this strategy has been tried since before Sam Sullivan’s EcoDensity days, always without success — the ever-increasing cost of property in Vancouver since, say, 2000 proves the failure.
This desire for more new building — which only helps the development industry keep the money flowing — is creating an alarming situation where Vancouver is being over-built. Proof of this claim is to be found in the 2011 Census data.
The 2011 census for Vancouver shows that there were a total of 286,742 private dwellings in the city. A “private dwelling” is defined as “a separate set of living quarters designed for or converted for human habitation in which a person or group of persons reside or could reside.” In other words, a house, a condo, an apartment, or anything similar. The same census shows that only 264,573 of those dwellings were occupied by “regular” residents of Vancouver, i.e., those folks who claim Vancouver as their place of residence.
The difference of 22,269 dwellings (8% of the total) is made up of vacant dwellings or dwellings occupied by people who do not claim Vancouver as their place of residence.
Stats Canada has not yet provided a breakdown of the 22,269 dwellings, so we are obliged to make some assumptions.
One of the abiding beliefs in Vancouver is that non-residents are driving the Lower Mainland housing market. Clearly, if one out of every twelve dwellings is occupied by non-residents then this claim is patently true. However, supporters of “Vancouverism” (Vision and others) say that is just a myth and isn’t so; and who are we to disagree?
Which means that most of these 22,269 dwellings are vacant.
It gets worse: That 22,269 number does not include buildings that were under construction at the time of the census. Nor does it include the vast numbers of additional units that Vision Vancouver’s majority on Council — generally against strong neighbourhood opinion — have approved since the census.
And lest Vision and its surrogates try to say the 2011 figures were just a blip, the relevant figure for 2006 was 20,592 showing that under Vision’s management this problem has grown by 10% and, of course, continues to grow as Vision continues to feed their development buddies.
The Census figures clearly show that, either the non-resident occupiers are distorting the housing marketplace or that Vancouver is seriously over-built. Given the arguments by Vision and its pals that the former is not the case, then the latter must be true.
Below is an article I sent to the Globe after two misleading articles on Vancouver in the Saturday focus section. After reading your article I realize the article on foreign was even worse than I realized.
The Densification Myth
Perhaps Doug Saunders has been away from Canada for too long, certainly away from Vancouver too long to appreciate the green wash associated with the notion of “densification.” (F2, February 23, 2012) The former mayor of Vancouver, Sam Sullivan, in another green wash, attempted to copyright the concept of “Eco density” which was designed to sell the notion that building high-rises in ground oriented housing neighborhoods was good for the environment. Whereas, what such development is actually good for is the developer. Healthy neighborhoods are as fragile as forests. Dumping high-rises on either is catastrophic.
The largely varied use, ground-oriented neighborhoods that constitute most of Vancouver already have a level of density that makes public transport and local shopping economically rational. Sensible, neighborhood-respecting densification can be done and is being done by allowing various forms of infill housing and low-rise development along arterial streets. No big profits for speculators and developers, but sustainable neighborhood densification.
While not mentioned by Saunders in his column, another argument given for densification is that it will drive down the outrageous prices of Vancouver housing. But the increasing densification of Vancouver has had no such effect. This is not surprising since developers build housing to benefit from rising prices not to reduce prices.
In the article addressing house prices in Vancouver, entitled “The Myth of Foreign Buyers.”(S1) Andrea Woo makes the classic mistake of taking the “absence of proof as the proof of absence.” Finding inadequate evidence of foreign ownership, she makes the inference that such purchasing is not driving up Vancouver prices. But Vancouver home prices are notoriously out of line with the income that even people with very good jobs can make in Vancouver, so it cannot be workers in Vancouver that are driving up prices. The reasonable suspicion that it is non-resident buyers who help drive up prices is not answered by the sketchy evidence in the article. As Councillor Loouie admits, the City of Vancouver has not done any effective research about non-resident ownership. Why pay for research if there is no real political will to solve the problem and plenty of will to keep development high and the city receiving its considerable fees?
Vancouverites are not be fooled by the use environmental concerns or the reduction of high house prices as an excuse for the imposition of neighborhood destroying development. We know is not about affordable homes or livable communities. And we suspect that non-resident ownership does contribute a considerable part of the high price of housing in Vancouver. Aspects of “Vancouverism” such as adding housing above street-level retail, and having mixed office and residential use in the downtown core are certainly reasonable urban development strategies. But there should be an end to the current council’s strategy of imposing midrise and high-rise development on low-rise and ground oriented neighborhoods. Nor should council be deluded by the large fees they can sometimes extract for allowing large scale development. These fees do not begin to cover the inevitable long term costs that results from densification.
Neighborhoods already support a level of density that makes public transit and local shopping financially viable. Intense densification will inevitably erode the beloved quality of urban life for which Vancouver is renowned. Liveable densification requires the city to provide more libraries, more parks, more community centers, etc, not simply, as Saunders states, more places to shop. But as densification increases so does the cost of providing social amenities. The city is already barely able to afford the maintenance of the current level of amenities—the park system is bursting at it seams– and the city cannot afford to purchase new parkland.
We should be clear that the push for densification is not about the environment; it’s not about affordability. It’s about developers profiting in the city’s hot real estate market and councillors who believe that short term boosts from development fees are worth the long term disaster of ruined neighborhoods and unfunded amenities.
Mark Battersby, Ph.D
Past President of Kitsilano Arbutus Residents Association (KARA)
And member KARA
Professor of Philosophy
Diana Davidson, CM,LLb,Bed(elem)
Excellent piece, Mark. I hope your corrective gets published soon.
If there is such a surplus of housing, why haven’t rents come down then?
Doubtful these are rentals. Most likely condos and similar being held back by developers until market improves or so as not to flood the market. A decent tax on vacant dwellings would help, I think.