I attended the Urbanarium debate last night, along with hundreds of others in the crowded lecture theatre at UBC Robson Square.
The resolution was in support of “Build more missing middle housing without lot assembly.” The proponents were Patrick Condon and Scot Hein, both of UBC; and the opponents were long-time developer Chuck Brook, and Anne McMullin, CEO of the developer’s organization UDI.
The way these things work, they take a vote at the beginning and see how it changes from a vote at the end. In this case, 74% of the audience said it was possible to achieve “the missing middle” without lot assembly. However, I heard a number of people around me say they were Con but voted Pro at the beginning so they could then show a big swing of the votes at the end to the Con side. So we have to take all these numbers with a large grain of salt.
Scott Hein began the debate by noting he was here on behalf of his daughter, a well-qualified professional who can not find affordable housing in Vancouver. He said that the massive assembly of lots that characterizes development in Vancouver today was “an addiction” that was “killing off and destroying our communities” and killing “community vibrancy.” He pushed hard for democratizing the development process by incentivizing the owner-developer to expand units on each lot. He also called for a war on the car and the hugely expensive underground parking regulations forced on builders by the City, which added $50,000 to each unit.
He was followed by Anne McMullin of the UDI. She made a sales pitch for real estate and development now being the major industry in the Province, and then used a thoroughly inaccurate graph to claim that for years we have failed to build enough housing to supply the growing population (it was inaccurate, and deliberately so in my opinion, because the graph compared housing starts to population, rather than to households — as if we had to build a unit for each person). She claimed that small unit increases (by owners and others) could not meet the growing need. We should not be scared of condos, she said, and complained about the years and years the City took to approve projects. Supply was everything, she insisted.
Patrick Condon’s opening statement focused on changing the rules to allow the owner-developer to build 5 or 6 housing units on each lot, and he showed examples that looked no bigger than a large house if builders could go up to just 1.75 FSR. Such buildings increased density, satisfied the need for growth, were very much more affordable than the big builds and land assembly, and allowed each community to retain its favoured look and feel. His plans needed the City to rezone most neighbourhoods for this, rather than the current policy of doling out small sections for development which inevitably led to a land rush and huge price increases.
Chuck Brook was perhaps the most surprising. His pitch was for “respectful density” up to about 1.5 FSR and focused on townhouse and apartment complexes that were similar in design to Patrick Condon’s ideas, but larger in scope. He showed several examples that he had worked on over the years but admitted quite cheerfully that none of them would be considered “affordable” for the average buyer. His main concern with Condon’s concept was that it was difficult to build such single-lot multiplexes (my word) that were suitable for seniors or the disabled. Finally, he was adamant that condo towers did not belong in most residential neighbourhoods.
During the few questions, Condon noted that his ideas start with the idea of affordability rather than with the idea of making the 40% return on investment that the big developers demand. McMullin complained that single lot density would take too long to achieve (forgetting, I suppose, her previous complaint that assembly took an average of two years to accomplish even before any development application could begin).
In closing, Anne McMullin said the only solution was tons more supply, that we needed to build on a scale to mitigate land costs. Chuck Brook agreed with Scott Hein that parking was a tyranny that needed to be addressed, and that lot assembly had to be carefully chosen and was not suitable for many neighbourhoods.
Scott Hein closed by noting that assembly “hollows out” neighbourhoods, and that moving to a single lot concept in many cases will retain “social capital”. Patrick Condon concluded by saying that the building rush is destroying beauty for profits; should we follow the “insatiable thirst of global capital” or build what our young people can afford?
It was an interesting debate with only the UDI pushing wholeheartedly its supplyist agenda. In the end, 69% of the audience still supported the Pro side.