Non-Partisan Association (NPA)
Vancouver City Council
Just as Nero fiddled while Rome burned, Vancouver’s mayor is addressing a conflagration that is the city’s housing affordability crisis by facing the flames with a water pistol.
Gregor Robertson and his Vision councillors have been in power now since 2008, promoting themselves as the champions of ordinary Vancouverites. Yet they have done little to address people’s basic housing needs.
If anything, housing is significantly less affordable now than it was in 2008.
You can blame low interest rates, foreign buyers, the region’s livability, rigors of supply and demand. But the city’s government also is hugely to blame.
Vision Vancouver has failed to recognize the urgency and enormity of the issue, failed to enlist the help of senior governments, jurisdictions that have always been in a far better position to address the affordability conundrum.
Instead the current mayor has alienated himself from those senior governments by consistently taking strong positions against various policies they have advanced. Robertson’s stand against the Kinder Morgan pipeline favored by Justin Trudeau is just the latest example of such imprudence.
For how many more years are we going to sit around and complain about the cost of the city’s housing? For how long will we continue to watch as our children, elderly parents, the city’s nurses and teachers, firefighters and artists, and even our doctors, leave Vancouver in search of housing they can afford?
Mayor Robertson has tried hard to look like a housing activist. But he has utterly failed to create the political linkages so essential to the building of affordable housing; partnerships with Ottawa and Victoria, levels of government with the ability to do something meaningful about the lack of affordable housing stock.
Vision will point to the fact that, in 2011, it devised a Housing and Homelessness Strategy to be implemented between 2012 and 2021. In 2014 it created the largely ineffectual Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency.
It has been doing homeless counts every year and better regulating Single Room Occupancy hotels. It has allowed for laneway homes and coach houses. It has offered developers bonus density incentives to encourage more market priced rental construction.
On Thursday it announced the contribution of eight municipal sites for development of 1,350 new, affordable rental units.
But as many have noticed -- homelessness is not decreasing in Vancouver, it is growing. And so is the lack of affordability.
In the same vein, the nearly non-existent rental vacancy rate has not improved one iota. Chances are, developers will not be willing to take up the city’s latest offer of the eight city-owned building sites because the resulting units, offering rents at below-market rates, will not generate sufficient profit.
We cannot wait any longer. It is time for bigger hitters to get involved. Senior levels of government have intervened before in the housing market.
Indeed a National Housing Act was passed way back in 1938. It was only in 1978 that Ottawa started encouraging cities to create municipal corporations to build and manage social housing.
Throughout the 1970s the federal government was active in housing, offering tax-exempt registered home ownership savings plans and assisting construction of private rental housing through grants, preferential loans and tax concessions.
Likewise, by the mid-1970s all ten provincial governments boasted housing departments. The provinces offered home-ownership grants and financed non-market housing. Some provided tax credits or shelter allowances to renters, or introduced rent control.
Between 1974 and 1986 governments were funding non-profit groups such as churches, co-operatives and municipalities for the provision of affordable housing.
The truth is, cities simply do NOT have the financial capacity to create affordable housing – and they should stop telling us they do. Cities are limited to making zoning changes and offering developers carrots and sticks to encourage construction of “affordable” units.
The real answer to the intractable problem of how to provide reasonably priced housing for Vancouverites will come from senior governments.
This has always been the case. It is past time for Gregor Robertson to moderate his partisan ideology long enough in order to secure federal and provincial help in addressing Vancouver’s housing crisis.