Vancouver mayor takes frank tone on housing crisis

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

Mayor lays out several ways he envisions increasing supply and lowering cost

Matt Robinson
The Vancouver Sun

Gregor Robertson faces two particularly tough tasks over the next year-and-a-half.

First, in the middle of a housing affordability crisis, the Vancouver mayor will have to sell residents on the wisdom of a reset, rather than an overhaul, of the city’s housing and homelessness strategy.

Second — and this assumes he runs for a fourth term — Robertson will need to ask voters to re-elect him in the belief that he is the right leader to pull the city out of that housing crisis.

Robertson took an early stab at that first task Wednesday during a keynote speech at the Urban Land Institute B.C., which offered an advance look at parts of the now-past-due strategy. Included in his comments was a list of five places where the city wants to see more density, including single-family neighbourhoods.

The mayor’s speech to developers, officials, investors, bankers, planners and other audience members started with a pair of anecdotes. One was of a young family that searched for months for suitable housing. When they found an apartment at last, they discovered it was infested with rodents and insects.

The other was about two seniors facing renoviction from the community where they had lived for three decades. They were “feeling betrayed and let down, really by every level of government in the situation, including ours.”

It was a frank acknowledgement of discontent, even for Robertson, who has never been one to downplay the severity of the crisis and the need for strong government action.

“We need some big moves and we need them now,” Robertson said before listing the types of land his government is considering for more homes. 

One is municipal lots. The city estimates private developers could build as many as 3,000 homes on six lots around False Creek.

Another is land surrounding future rapid transit nodes, which is seen as particularly appropriate for rental homes. 

Arterial streets and multi-family neighbourhoods are also being considered as sites that could take more density.

And last (or possibly “at last”), the city wants to see “significant new housing” in single-family neighbourhoods through “density without assembly.” More duplexes, infills, townhouses and row houses is what the city has in mind.

Robertson’s keynote address was based on a prepared speech. He strayed at times from what had been written and skipped the odd word or sentence here and there. The following comes directly from the written version:

“The time is right to advance a conversation about how we bring in more affordability and still preserve the essence of those neighbourhoods.

“The choice isn’t between change and no change: Our single-family neighbourhoods are changing now. We’re seeing character homes being razed and replaced with much larger single-family homes. 

“And in places like Kerrisdale and Dunbar, as we see from the census, they’re changing simply because less and less people live there at a time when prices are going higher and higher.

“So the question isn’t if our neighbourhoods will change. It’s who they change for. And it’s how we guide that change.

“And we need to stop fixating on density, because that’s not what this is about.”

Robertson is correct. The time is right to open single-family neighbourhoods to more residents. The time has been right for a while, as most tenants living in small, substandard, overpriced and insecure homes in this city will attest.

Yet to be seen is whether enough residents will believe in the government’s reset strategy, or in Robertson as the best-equipped leader to end this crisis.

© 2017 Postmedia Network Inc.

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