Image: Greenspace #2

August 3, 2017


Towards An Affordable Housing Policy

August 3, 2017

Some weeks ago, I published my views on densifying Grandview. I wrote it primarily as a prophylactic against the lies that others were putting in my mouth but, when it was done, it was a relief that I had finally put it out there; whether others agree with it or not is irrelevant, the fact is I am willing to stand up and be counted for what I believe.

Yesterday afternoon, I was engaged in a discussion about housing policy — not for the first time — and I was disappointed that the idea of banning foreign house purchases was still so prevalent as a “solution” to our affordability crisis. I have real trouble with picking on an entire class of people (in this case, “foreigners”) as scapegoats for any problem — surely the 20th century taught us the dehumanising and murderous folly of that! Besides, a “foreign” tax would not stop rich Torontonians or Montrealers from buying all the property and we would be back at square one.

As an antidote to that kind of discussion, I have decided to list nine policy ideas that I believe will significantly improve the housing situation in Vancouver. A few of these ideas are repeats from my densification model. This list  is not in priority order, and I bet that some of the things I want to say will be forgotten before I get to them, but this list should encourage a debate of what is practicable in the near future.

1. New Building Development approvals:  I believe that the  primary reason we are in this mess is because City Council and their development cronies have deliberately continued to build housing units at costs/prices that ignore the median income levels in our city. They have built for greed rather than need. I would make it clear by City By-Law that approvals for new builds must meet an income test — a high percentage, say 75-80%, of all units for sale or rent must be available at rates equivalent to a maximum of 30% of Vancouver’s media family income. Failure to meet that test will guarantee failure of development approval.

2. Elimination of CACs, full payment of CACs: I have argued this point in a lot more detail elsewhere.  Not only would this reduce the cost of building but, at least as important, it would return a measure of democracy to decisions on public amenities.

3. Empty unit tax: One of the results of building for greed rather than need is the vast amount of empty housing units to be found in Vancouver, tens of thousands of them.  I would impose an empty unit tax that really bites; it should be high enough to encourage the sale or use of most of these units. The revenue from such a tax would  be collected in an Affordable Housing fund (see #9 below).

4. Property value:  If we really believe that a house/apartment should be a home not an investment (which  is what it has been for most of our history) then I would end the free market in property for sale.  In the same way that we already limit rents to a certain CoL increase each year, then the value  of a home for sale should be similarly limited. The million-dollar windfalls that have fallen into the laps of certain sellers are an historical anomaly and have helped destroy the market for young and lower-income families. Market pressures will allow prices to fall if required, but the law will limit any maximum increase.

5. Property Tax:  Regardless of the bellowing we hear every year, property taxes in Vancouver are comparatively low. The standard $1.5 million house in Vancouver pays about $5,000 in taxes. A similarly valued property elsewhere in most of North America pays multiple times that much (see examples in New Jersey [tax $US14,971] , Connecticut [$US21,145], Kansas [US$10,000],  Portland OR [US$12,128]).  I would add an affordable housing surtax to Vancouver properties all of which would be devoted to an Affordable Housing Fund (see #9 below).

6. Rental units:  I would change the law to ensure that rents are tied to the unit not to the tenancy. In other words, there can be no increase in rent simply because a tenant moves out (or is forced out). This works well in other jurisdictions such as Montreal and would deal with the appalling eviction rate we have in Vancouver.  There would have to be some incentive to landlords for suites to be upgraded and renovated as needed (need more thought on this) but there should be no permanent displacement and current tenants would gain the right to return at the same rent.

6. Existing suites:  There are still a large number of “illegal” suites in the City. I would grandfather all these suites, without additional permit requirements, so long as they are registered. Once registered, they should fall under the Rate of Change legislation, ensuring that the number of rental units is not reduced. I would amend the Rate of Change rules to include any group of three suites on a lot rather than seven as of today.

7. Suites in Older Homes:  I am aware of a number of older homes, in perfectly good condition, where the owner would like to add a revenue suite. However, the current rules at City Hall require extraordinary, expensive, and quite unnecessary adjustments, sometimes to the entire house before a suite can be approved.  Health and safety are one thing, but many of these rules seem designed to obstruct the construction of suites and, at the same time, to serve as profit centers for the City coffers. I would push for far less stringent regulations for new suites constructed in buildings built before 1940.

8. Increase units per lot: Rezone most areas to allow three units per lot if wanted, and maintain rental-only for laneway houses. This is described further here.

9. Affordable Housing Fund: I recognise that the policies outlined above would primarily assist the average working person or family.  Something different is required for very low income/welfare/homeless residents. It is vital that all three levels of government get back into the low-income housing business. At the municipal level I have suggested two revenue streams that could be fed into an Affordable Housing Fund. This should also be the receiving point for funds loosed by senior levels of government. The fund should be used to build housing on city-owned land for welfare & low income residents. In the event that we can clear up the crisis at that level, the fund could then be used to create publicly owned housing or to fund cooperative housing societies.

Well that’s it. I have never professed to be a housing analyst, but these ideas seem like common sense to me, especially as we drag along on this unaffordability crisis. They are just ideas and I welcome debate and discussion to ensure that, as soon as possible, we find the right balance.