It’s municipal election time again in Vancouver and, just like four years ago, housing is the most important issue for Vancouverites. Why haven’t we made any progress? How should the promises being made now and the voting records over the past 4 years affect your vote? Let’s dig in.
When I moved to Vancouver in 2006, housing was expensive. What a wild ride it’s been since then. Prices have quadrupled while wages have remained relatively flat. And while the chart above focuses on the cost of owning a home, rents have also gone up. It’s a huge problem. If you haven’t been priced out of the city, I’m sure you know someone who has.
The causes are debated, but the main ones smart people agree on are:
- Tax breaks given to homeowners (BC’s homeowners grant and Canada’s capital gains exception) encourage people to use their homes as their primary wealth investment.
- Record-low interest rates allowed people to borrow a lot (but that’s changing now).
- Chronic under-building of housing, including purpose-built rental, because of a lack of government investment and zoning rules that restrict where housing can be built and in what form (this is where municipal governments come in).
This is not just a Vancouver problem. It’s being felt in cities across Canada and the United States. If you want to dig deeper, I recommend this interview with Jenny Schultz. It’s mainly about American cities like San Francisco and New York but applies equally to Vancouver.
The impulse to give communities control has been weaponized by wealthy white communities, which then used this to say you can’t build apartments and low-income housing in our wealthy neighborhoods.
And so the high opportunity places, both metro areas across the country and neighborhoods within metros, aren’t building enough housing. And that means they’re essentially gatekeeping access to things like public schools, jobs, transit, all of the amenities that people want. They simply won’t allow you to move there if you don’t have enough money.Jenny Shultz
Cities have control over what housing can be built. They can allow more diverse, affordable, and dense housing options. Still, they must overcome the opposition of powerful homeowners who are nervous about their principal investment and are financially rewarded when they constrain supply.
80% of Vancouver’s residential land is reserved for single-family homes. Attempts are being made to change that.
Four years ago, Vancouver elected a new council with many fresh faces promising to do something about housing affordability. What did they accomplish?
Here is their voting record on some of the big housing issues they voted on in the past 4 years.
|Limited Sixplexes 2020||⛔️||✔||✔||X||XXX||XXX||X||X|
|Limited Sixplexes 2022||✅||✔||✔||✔||✔✔✔||✔✔✔||X||X|
|Apartments On Arterials||✅||✔||✔||✔||✔✔✔||✔✔✔||✔||X|
|Fast Track Social Housing||⛔️||✔||✔||✔||XXX||XXX||X||X|
|Broadway / Arbutus||✅||✔||✔||✔||✔✔✔||✔✔X||X||X|
|Broadway / Birch||✅||✔||✔||X||X✔X||X✔✔||✔||X|
|Broadway / Granville||✅||✔||✔||X||✔✔✔||✔✔✔||✔||X|
|Broadway / Alma||✅||✔||✔||X||✔✔X||✔✔✔||✔||X|
Vancouver Plan – ✅
Developing a comprehensive city-wide plan was a key promise for the NPA and Green Party last election, and after winning 8 of 10 council seats, they quickly sent city staff out to work on it. 4 years later, we have a shiny new Vancouver Plan, which sets a comprehensive vision for how Vancouver needs to grow. It envisions:
- adding more housing options and housing density throughout the city;
- expanding our transit network and building complete neighbourhoods so more people can walk, roll and ride, instead of driving;
- creating more opportunities for shops and businesses throughout the city; and
- lowering carbon emissions through more sustainable modes of transportation and denser housing options.
Honestly, it is a solid plan. But it doesn’t change anything on its own and leaves all the hard policy changes (like zoning reform) to the next city council to implement.
Empty Homes Tax – ✅
Initially introduced by Vision Vancouver in 2017, the empty homes tax charges investors who leave homes vacant instead of renting them out. In the last election, Kennedy Stewart (Forward) promised to triple it from 1% to 3%, while Ken Sim and the NPA vowed to scrap it.
The mayor won that fight. Not only did he manage to raise it to 3% in 2021, city council later unanimously agreed to increase it to 5% for the 2023 tax year.
Gentle Density – ✅
Kennedy Stewart (Forward) and OneCity promised to allow denser housing in Vancouver’s single-family neighbourhoods. The Vancouver Plan says we need more density in those neighbourhoods. But so far, we’ve only seen minor changes, like sixplexes in some residential lots and 6-story rental buildings along arterial streets (both of which were either rejected or delayed by council back in 2020 and later approved in scaled-back forms).
This council spent a record amount of time dealing with individual rezoning applications, with 80 meetings lasting over 4 hours. It took 6 days of public hearings to decide that a supportive housing project in Kitsilano was a good idea. A modest 4-story apartment in Shaugnessy was rejected. Apartments next to SkyTrain barely passed.
The criticism against the projects was often the same – they would change the neighbourhood’s character. The councillors most often voting against new housing were Hardwick (TEAM), Swanson (COPE) and Carr (Green).
Failed Initiatives – ⛔️
COPE and OneCity campaigned on a Mansion Tax, but even investigating the idea failed on a 5-5 tie.
OneCity tried to make it easier to build social housing but council rejected it on a 3-8 vote.
All of that brings us to today, where every city councillor is running again and making new promises about housing affordability. Here is a quick summary of what each party has included as promises on its website (linked from the logos). Note: I’ve ignored the toothless pledges like “triple the number of housing starts” and focused on actual policy changes.
I encourage you to read the party platforms for more details, but here are the more interesting ideas.
Vacancy Rent Control
BC has rent control that caps the annual rent increase. But, there are no limits on how much rent can rise when a tenant leaves (this is why landowners are incentivized to renovict tenants). Vacancy rent control would limit increases between tenancy and is supported by OneCity, COPE, and the Greens.
Less Restrictive Zoning
Depending on the party, zoning reform will mean different things.
OneCity, Progress, and Vision support bold zoning reform, allowing low and mid-rise housing throughout the city. Think of 4 to 6-storey apartments with ground floor retail.
The Greens want to “enable non-profit-owned and co-op housing to be built quickly without rezonings,” although they voted against a similar measure last year.
The NPA wants to “pre-zone our supply targets where possible,” which is awfully nebulous.
Update (Oct 4): Forward‘s platform promises to “allow multiplexes in all neighbourhoods” and “expand pre-zoning for rental and social housing,” which puts them barely ahead of the Greens in terms of ambition.
Progress wants to create the Vancouver Civic Housing Corporation (VCHC) to build mixed-income housing.
OneCity, Greens, and Vision want to use the existing Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency (VAHA) and give it resources to build more affordable housing on city-owned land and possibly new powers, like the right-of-first-refusal to buy new property.
In addition to the 9 (!!!) parties mentioned above, there are also the Socialists and Affordable Housing Coalition, each running a single candidate. The platform for the Affordable Housing Coalition is interesting to look at to benchmark the other parties against.
OneCity and Forward have the best voting record for addressing housing affordability.
OneCity, Progress, and Vision have robust platforms, including much-needed zoning reform.
It’s disappointing that with only 18 days until the election, Forward and ABC (two front-runners) don’t have any meaningful housing policies on their websites.
Update (Sept 29): ABC finally released a platform – it’s uninspiring but it is something.
Update (Oct 4): Forward finally released a platform and it is … ok. On housing, it includes modest zoning reform (multiplexes in all neighbourhoods) and promises to add more housing of all types (social housing, co-ops, pet-friendly rental, ground-oriented homes, etc) without really saying how or where.
There are some good ideas in the Green platform, but I have doubts about their ability to deliver on it, as their current councillors didn’t vote together on many housing issues. I also disagree with their quest to “fix the definition of social housing,” which they’ve used as excuses to vote against housing projects and staff have already responded to.
Housing is just one of the issues I’m considering when voting, but it’s a big one. I plan to do at least two more election-themed posts – a similar analysis on the climate change platforms and a candidate endorsement.
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