Vancouver council approves ‘bold, ambitious’ 10-year housing strategy

Thursday, November 30th, 2017

City council approves 10-year housing strategy after lengthy debate

Dan Fumano/Nick Eagland
The Vancouver Sun

After hearing from dozens of speakers throughout the day and following a lengthy — and at-times heated — debate, Vancouver city council voted late Wednesday to adopt a new major housing strategy.

The 10-year Housing Vancouver strategy, more than a year in the making, seeks to address everything from combating homelessness and revitalizing low-density neighbourhoods, to taming real estate speculation and increasing rental housing stock.

A three-year “plan” seeks to quickly implement some measures.

The strategy, released publicly last Thursday, was presented to council Tuesday, where Vancouver’s general manager of planning, Gil Kelley, told councillors the “bold” housing strategy marks part of a “major turning point in the city’s development.”

Only NPA councillors Melissa De Genova and Hector Bremner voted against it Wednesday.

Following Mayor Gregor Robertson’s introduction Wednesday of six amendments to the strategy, De Genova submitted a referral motion, calling for further consultation on an evening where more speakers were able to attend. She was supported by her fellow NPA councillors but her motion was voted down.

Robertson’s amendments included a call for council to support increasing the shelter portion of welfare rates and a $15 minimum wage, a “rights-based approach to housing,” and enhanced supports for renters through enhancing the mandate of the renter protection manager.

Upon the strategy being adopted, Robertson congratulated city staff members for their work on it.

“Housing Vancouver builds on measures the City is already taking that are the first of their kind in Canada — the empty homes tax, temporary modular housing for our most vulnerable residents, and regulating short-term rentals — and includes strategies that go after real estate speculation, offer more protection for renters and will transform single-family neighbourhoods across the city,” Robertson said in a release.

“This comprehensive approach will help us maintain Vancouver’s diversity and vibrancy, and create more affordable housing options for young people, growing families, seniors and our most vulnerable residents.”

The overall strategy includes, among other things, a target of creating 72,000 new homes for renters, families and vulnerable residents over the next 10 years.

That number of 72,000 new homes has been described by Kelley and city staff as “aggressive” and “ambitious,” but several speakers Wednesday questioned if that target is ambitious enough.

Paul Kershaw, a professor at the University of British Columbia, urged council to support the strategy, but asked: “Where does this 72,000 number come from?

“Where is the evidence in this strategy that that will be enough units to actually rein in prices?” asked Kershaw, the founder of Generation Squeeze, a national campaign advocating on behalf of people under age 40, many of whom have been priced out of Canada’s expensive urban housing markets.

Outside council chambers, Kershaw told Postmedia News he was encouraged that out of the first 30 speakers, almost all of them were in support of the plan.

“That’s an unusual degree of support, ” he said. “Is the plan perfect? No. Is it bold enough? Probably not. But is it better than what we had? There is no doubt about that.”

The housing strategy vote comes a little less than a year before the city’s next municipal election, in which housing is expected to be the dominant issue.

Robertson and his Vision Vancouver party, which has had a majority on council during all three of his terms as mayor, is seen to be vulnerable in next October’s general election, in part because of the Vision council candidate’s distant fifth-place finish in last month’s municipal byelection.

Last month’s byelection was won by NPA candidate Hector Bremner, whose campaign was largely focused around housing issues, particularly around increasing “the right supply” of housing for young working families, including densifying low-density neighbourhoods.

Bremner told council he wasn’t convinced the strategy addressed the issues on which he campaigned, including his pledge to put an end to “piecemeal zoning” in the city.

Vision Coun. Tim Stevenson said he was disappointed there wasn’t unanimous support for the strategy, calling NPA opposition to the staff-generated report “purely a political decision” rather than one that would benefit Vancouver residents.

Earlier in the day, Bremner said he’s been approached by people urging him to run for mayor in next year’s civic election, and he’s weighing his options and hasn’t yet ruled out that possibility.

“People are looking for new voices and approaches,” Bremner, 36, told Postmedia News. “I think we’ve had nearly 10 years of anticipation of change, but it never came. So what’s next for Vancouver? That’s what people are talking to me about.”

But for some political observers, even more noteworthy than Bremner’s byelection win last month was the second-place finish of Jean Swanson, a longtime anti-poverty advocate and activist.

Swanson, who ran as an independent in the byelection, appeared Wednesday as the 24th speaker before council. Swanson pointed out the city’s new housing strategy includes a proposed idea that sounded very similar to one of the main pledges from her byelection campaign: a surcharge on the city’s most expensive properties which she labelled the “mansion tax.”

“I’m delighted that you picked up on our idea of the mansion tax, which you called ‘applying differential property tax rates on residential properties,’ in planner-ese,” Swanson told council. “This is a fabulous way to get money and had lots of support from academia.”

The “mansion tax” idea would require collaboration with and action from senior levels of government, as would other measures proposed in the housing strategy, such as implementing a flipping tax, a speculation tax, or restrictions on property ownership by non-permanent residents.

After Swanson’s presentation, Postmedia News asked her how it felt for a social justice radical who spent decades battling the political establishment to see one of her own ideas actually included in the city’s new strategy. She replied: “It’ll feel good if they actually implement it.”

Swanson said her strong byelection results, particularly in areas of the city like Strathcona, Hastings Sunrise and the West End, sent a message that city hall needs to heed the situation of renters and lower-income Vancouverites.

© 2017 Postmedia Network Inc

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