Build for Need, Dammit!

The truth was a long time coming. The City of Vancouver’s grand plans to build housing units — using the policies that have brought our city to such insanity as incentivizing $4,000 per month apartments on the eastside on the basis of their tone-deaf definition of “affordability”, and which continues to propose to incentivize thousands more units than any reasonable population projection can support — was built on a scaffolding of zero data.

Staff at Vancouver Planning and development were, essentially, making it all up in their presentations to City Council in support of urban planning initiatives and individual developments.

Spurred by Sullivan’s eco-density, put on steroids under Vision, and continued under whatever regime we claim to have today at City Hall, Vancouver’s build and build again for growth’s sake — driven by the City’s “expert” staff (some of whom moved on to financially-rewarding careers with developers), combined with the City’s insatiable need for development fees to help balance their inflated budgets, and the RE industry’s need for profit — has failed to deliver the affordable housing we need to meet local salaries, has exacerbated the homeless crisis and all that goes with it, nd has fueled the vast inequities that we see around us in Vancouver every day.

There have been questions raised by activists and urbanists for years about the level and type of housing developments that CoV was pursuing. For more than a decade civic minded figures such as Elizabeth Murphy and CityHallWatch have been actively seeking information, for example, about the existing zoned capacity in the city, and being chastised for asking the question. Even in this blog, I have argued that Planning’s “facts” didn’t seem to match reality (see, for example, Why Are We Building So Much So Fast?)

Things began to become clearer (or at least so we hoped) when Councillor Colleen Hardwick took up the fight. As CityHallWatch described it:

“This breakthrough is largely thanks to persistent efforts by Councillor Colleen Hardwick, who spearheaded a motion, adopted by Council in May 2020, directing City staff to provide planning data upon which the planning department was basing its projections, policies, and development and rezoning recommendations. And thanks to persistent efforts by academics, particularly Prof. John Rose, who accelerated his attempts this past year. Many citizens and community groups also voice their requests for the City to release the data, in writing and in person. It is difficult to understate the amount of effort that went into all the various requests. Previous responses by senior staff were incomplete and unsatisfactory.”

Now, finally, the Director of Planning, Theresa O’Donnell has admitted in a letter to Professor John Rose that a primary graph used to sell the growth policies was “inaccurate and misleading.” The primary trend line had “no data-driven analysis behind” it. “It was an approximation made by staff for illustrative purposes only.” Moreover, the approach used by CoV to determine Development Capacity has “a number of limitations”.

And yet it these “illustrative purposes only” policies that are continuing to drive development and urban planning in Vancouver.

I have my doubts as to whether the majority of the current City Council will have the willingness or understanding needed to follow through on these revelations. What implications do they have for the Vancouver Plan, for example? Will this new willingness to open up by the Director lead to a thorough-going overhaul of transparency at City Hall? What kind of people do we need to elect to hold the staff accountable and to move us to a build for need strategy in the future?

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