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.

 

 


Campaign Finance Reform in BC

July 4, 2017

Now that we have finally dumped the cash-soaked BC Liberals, and an NDP/Green alliance is preparing its parliamentary program, we need to engage in a serious discussion about electoral finance reform.  I am glad to see the debate beginning to heat up on Twitter and elsewhere and I thought I would add my few cents to the discussion.

First, I am sure most critics of the present system agree that (a) corporate and union donations must be banned; and (b) reform needs to encompass both provincial and municipal politics. Beyond that, differences emerge.

In the discussions I have seen to date there is much concentration on limiting individual contributions; mainly, it seems, as a way to stop the infamous $25,000 lunches that Christy Clark and Gregor Robertson seem to enjoy so much. I believe that to be the wrong focus, preferring instead to concentrate on transparency and equalising opportunity for independents and smaller parties.

Transparency is vital for keeping the system honest and open. But transparency cannot just be for campaigns, it must cover all aspects of party financing between elections too. Vision Vancouver (and no doubt other parties) have received millions of dollars in contributions in the “dark years” between elections when no reporting is required. This must stop  Political parties are public entities and their accounts must be public also. In addition, the reporting of contributions should be as close to real-time as technically feasible — no more waiting for the end of the quarter or the end of the year.  Monthly statements should be the least we should accept, and with modern accounting software there is no excuse for anything less.

Limits on campaign spending are key to allowing smaller parties and independents to compete. What those limits should be is open for debate (and will presumably be different for municipal and provincial constituencies) but they need to accomplish two goals: creating a more level playing field for all who want to run, and limiting the extraordinary waste of resources that, for example, we see so blatantly in Vancouver elections. I believe that whatever limits are set should cover at least a period of one year up to the election date.

These limits also need to encompass and control so-called third party expenditures. I haven’t thought through a solution to that issue yet, but I want to make sure it is not forgotten.

Finally, let me return to the question of individual donations. Limiting campaign spending and real-time contribution reporting will reduce the gross discrepancies that have occurred in the past. However, I am not at all sure we need to worry about it anyway.  Let us say that a campaign limit of $50,000 is set for a mayoral contest. If Joe Billionaire wants to fork out the entire $50,000 why should that bother us providing it becomes immediately known through the transparency rules?  I would argue, to the contrary, that the payment would quickly become a campaign issue with that candidate being branded Joe Billionaire’s lapdog and probably costing at least as many votes as her backer’s money may have gained.

Well, that’s a start. As always the devil is in the details and I look forward to a healthy and thorough discussion of this vital topic.


The Broadway Beast Is Back!

June 21, 2017

The outrageously expensive, technologically unnecessary, and entirely developer-profit-driven Broadway subway to nowhere is back for another round of propaganda/sales meetings.

There will be “open houses” as follows:

  • June 24: 10am-2:00pm at 511 W. Broadway
  • June 27: 4:00pm-7:00pm at 511 W. Broadway
  • June 28: 4:00pm-7:00pm at 511 W. Broadway

You can read the City’s propaganda at their website.

I wrote my own thoughts on this quite a while ago, and do not see any reason to change my opinion that the subway is a disaster designed solely to feed huge for-profit condo towers along Broadway to the detriment of transportation throughout the city.

There are far better ways to deal with our transit issues than a $4 billion (or much more) hole in the ground, but I bet these “open houses” will not be a forum for that debate.


More On the Broadway Plaza

June 9, 2017

It seems I wasn’t the only one disappointed with the Planning meeting last night regarding Broadway and Commercial. Local resident and GWAC director Dave Carman who attended the meeting has sent the following letter to the Mayor, City Council, and Planners. He has kindly allowed me to republish the letter here:

My name is David Carman and I attended the Grandview-Woodland Plaza Exploration on June 7th. In addition to learning about the new plaza proposal I wanted to get information about the rationale behind the significant change being proposed. Other than a desire to “Heal the Divide”, no other information was provided in this regard on the display boards.

During the controlled question period it was revealed that the impetus for the proposed switch in location was unsurprisingly driven by the fact that the main tenant (Safeway) and main developer (Westbank) were not on board with having the public plaza built on their site. They apparently wish to see the plaza moved from their private property and placed elsewhere – in this case onto city owned land.

Considering the amount of time, preparation and planning I can imagine would have gone into the original plaza proposal I was very surprised to learn of this suggested change. Surely to have proceeded with a plaza plan of such magnitude – a plaza considered by some to be the anchor point of the entire Grandview-Woodland Plan – in-depth consultation and buy-in from the tenant and developer would have been required. I discussed this matter after the presentation with a member of the city planning staff, Yardley McNeill. Ms. McNeill was either unaware of or not forthcoming about any previous consultation planning staff may or may not have had with the tenant/developer and said the proposed change came “totally out of the blue”.

The aforementioned response can only leave me three possible conclusions:

  1. City planners formulated the original plaza plan with the blessing of the tenant/developer who have since back-pedaled on their commitment;
  1. City planners formulated the original plaza plan with no consultation or commitment from the on-site tenant/developer;
  1. City planners consulted with the tenant/developer, were aware of their concerns and knew that ultimately the original plaza proposal could possibly fail – yet put the plaza plan forth regardless to help to sell the GW plan.

The first scenario would suggest incompetence on the part of the tenant/developer, the latter two on the part of city planning staff.

Much of the feedback from the general public regarding the GW plan was ignored, but as this new plaza proposal demonstrates, city planning staff appear to be much more accommodating to corporate and development interests. In fact, based on the results I’ve seen from previous “public consultations” this suggested plaza relocation is not simply a proposal, but more likely a done deal.”

I also heard from another attendee that the City’s meeting last Wednesday on the North East False Creek project was run in a very similar manner to the one I described. Is this the new “open house” style for the future? Yet more bread and circuses peddling smoke and mirrors for the masses while the important decisions continue to get made behind closed doors?

 


A Vision For Robertson’s Millenials

June 7, 2017

I have written before about my belief that the aim of the Billionaire Boys’ Club and their political arm, Vision Vancouver, is to create a Vancouver that is solely for the 1%; a city of refuge for the rich. The proletariat — or at least that fraction of them required to maintain the lifestyle and businesses of the 1% — would be forced to live in the suburbs and travel in and out of the city via the rapid transit lines (preferably hidden below ground so as not to disrupt the aesthetics of the city beautiful) so favoured by Vision.

Since coming to power in 2008, Vision Vancouver have worked hand in glove with the development and real estate industries to being about these desired aims; and they have succeeded brilliantly, ensuring that wages are kept low, that no regular worker in Vancouver can afford to buy a house or even an apartment, that rents are skyrocketing beyond all reason, that provision for the least fortunate is collapsing around us. One of Vision’s bag men has openly boasted that Vancouver is not for regular people.

However, when they have forced most of us out, there may be a reason that some workers will need to be kept in the city, rather than be shipped in every day, and Hong Kong provides an excellent illustration of the kind of thing Vision Vancouver — famous for stating that affordable housing is whatever you can afford — may have in mind for the long term, for the millennials they are courting, perhaps:

 

 

These images are from a Guardian article concerning so-called “coffin cubicles”.  They show 15 sq.ft cubicles that people have adapted for “living.” And the article helpfully notes that a standard 400 sq.ft apartment can be subdivided into 20 double-decker sealed cubicles of this kind.

Now, Vancouver has about 25,000 vacant housing units ….


GWAC and Renters

June 6, 2017

I attended the regular GWAC meeting last night, the main subject of discussion at which was the potential improvement of tenants’ rights in the over-heated property market that is Vancouver today.

Given that about 60% of Grandview’s residents are renters, I have to begin by expressing my disappointment at the low turnout for this meeting; at no time were there more than a dozen non-GWAC-directors in the room. Many recent GWAC meetings have had better attendance than this, on subjects of less immediate concern to so many. There was also a notable lack of presence by organisations — the BIA, for example, the Kettle, church groups, to name just a few — who claim a community interest but rarely partake except when their own direct interests are concerned.

The main business of the evening was a joint presentation by Marilyn and Emma of the Grandview Renters’ Action Group and Neil from the Vancouver Tenants’ Union. These are both recently formed groups and they want to introduce themselves to the community. After a brief recitation of the well-known problems facing renters in Vancouver today, the Grandview Group listed its priorities (my summaries):

  1. Affordable rents;
  2. Steady supply of both new and renovated units;
  3. An end to renovictions and other dodgy “evictions”;
  4. Provision of safe housing;
  5. Legislation to make housing a human right.

The local group is in the process of reaching out to renters and other groups in the neighbourhood, and hopes to swiftly become the go-to place for tenant’s information and advocacy in Grandview. They have monthly meetings and they urge renters to become members through the website.

The Vancouver group is doing much the same thing, although acting more as an umbrella group for local groups. They are also working on eliminating loopholes in the RTA to bring more stability and certainty to renters. They are keen to get tenants’ reps into each multi-family building, and they look to implement a Montreal-style linkage of rent to a unit rather than to a tenancy (thus ending the practice of massive rent increases between tenancies and the subsequent pressure this puts on some landlords to evict existing “rent-controlled” tenants).

The Vancouver Tenants’ Union plans to have a convention this fall to elect a Board, establish principles, etc.

After the presentations, there was a free-wheeling Q&A/discussion that covered a lot of ground including RTA horror stories, AirBnb issues, empty suites, and possible ways of reducing rents. It was generally agreed, I believe, that in Vancouver’s current market, renters are becoming second class citizens, marginalised by insecurity. It was also understood that the Vancouver permitting process has become so unwieldy and costly as to discourage many homeowners from establishing legal suites. It also seemed to be agreed that one part of a solution is for all three levels of government to get back into the business of building genuinely affordable housing units, owned by the municipality and thus protected from market pressures.

A very useful discussion, and a well-managed meeting. We can only hope that ever-larger numbers of Grandview residents will find enough interest in these topics to come to meetings and have their say. GWAC offers that opportunity to everyone and is a vital resource for the neighbourhood.

 


Discrimination Against Chinese

May 10, 2017

Later this month, the City of Vancouver is conducting a series of community forums on historical discrimination against Chinese immigrants. Details of the forums are on this image from the CoV.