Motion would see mansions in shadow of social housing

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017

Social housing in posh Vancouver postal code? Not so fast

Matt Robinson
The Vancouver Sun

If Hector Bremner had his way, mansions in tony West Point Grey would be flanked by six-storey flats flush with students, seniors and social housing recipients.

The new Non-Partisan Association councillor introduced a motion at city hall on Tuesday to rezone one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the country to permit thousands of affordable rental homes in the area. But the motion was effectively brushed aside by a move by Vision Vancouver Coun. Heather Deal to refer the idea to staff for further consideration.

Zoning in the neighbourhood, north of 4th Avenue and west of Blanca Street, not far from the University of B.C., “forbids homes on lots smaller than 12,000 (square feet),” according to the motion.

“This is a chance for this council to put its money where its mouth is and … actually take action and say mandated mansions in the 21st century is not more important than creating housing right next to UBC,” Bremner said in an interview before airing his motion at council.

West Point Grey is a pricey neighbourhood. Of the three properties on the market in the area Tuesday, a seven-bedroom, eight-bathroom mansion was priced at $28 million and a four-bed, six-bath pied-à-terre ran for the lucky-sounding sum of $18.88 million. The third property, a four-bed, two-bathroom shack, was listed at a meagre $14.88 million. “Build your dream home nested in the heart of your own ‘Stanley Park’,” the listing stated.

Bremner said he saw rundown properties “the size of football fields” while on a recent walking tour in the neighbourhood with advocacy group Abundant Housing Vancouver.

“I saw just how dilapidated and derelict many of them are. The rest are owned by numbered corporations, largely out of country, passing amongst each other to avoid property transfer tax,” he said, adding with a laugh that the properties were so large that “you could build six storeys … and not see your neighbour.”

Asked whether developers could make a profit turning such costly properties into affordable rentals, Bremner said he ran the numbers and believed they could.

“I went to folks that I know that know the business … and I said: ‘Tell me I’m nuts. Tell me, do the numbers work or do the numbers not work?’ And they came back and immediately said the numbers absolutely work,” he said. “I was really bolstered by that.”

Last month, Bremner voted against the city’s Housing Vancouver strategy, which aims to combat homelessness, revitalize low-density neighbourhoods, tame real estate speculation and boost rental housing. He said he voted against the plan because he thought its targets were too low, unclear and not properly resourced. He called his own motion a “very clear” way to turn some 150 underutilized acres into rental housing.

“What I’m trying to achieve is a conversation that is more serious than the vagaries and mealy-mouthed plans that we’ve been getting for the last 10 years,” Bremner said, taking a swipe at his Vision colleagues.

Bremner was criticized in council for having voted against the strategy and for being overly prescriptive in his motion before his idea was referred to staff. No councillors spoke against Bremner’s general concept per se.

In a letter to council, the West Point Grey Residents Association expressed “dismay and opposition” toward the idea. It faulted the motion for lack of consultation and stated that scarce social housing funds would be squandered on purchases of such high priced land.

Scott de Lange Boom, a member of Abundant Housing Vancouver, said before the vote that his group was thrilled with Bremner’s proposal.

West Point Grey “has larger-than-average lot sizes, and limits to detached housing there effectively creates a mansion-only zone. In our opinion, that’s a poor use of land, particularly in a housing crisis,” de Lange Boom said.

He said the motion for six-storey buildings in the neighbourhood was a good start that could feasibly lead to 10,000 new homes, and he hoped to see the idea extend to other areas in the city as well.

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