Developers hoping small solutions help solve larger housing issues

Forgotten buyers?

One of the primary concerns in Vancouver affordable housing crisis discussions is how rising prices have left first-time homebuyers behind. Prices were always rising that much faster than savings, and soon hapless couples, singles and others found themselves priced out of everywhere but Chilliwack and Nanaimo. (And even those communities have been wrestling with affordability thanks to an influx of so-called housing refugees, some of whom kept their jobs in Vancouver, unlinking the local housing market from local incomes.)

With the departure of first-time buyers, Jason Turcotte, Cressey Development Group’s vice-president of development, told the Urban Development Institute last week, developers have focused on luxury buyers and forgotten the little guy.

“We literally ignored first-time homebuyers, as an industry,” he said.

Government programs to assist first-time homebuyers and a web of speculation, vacancy and heightened property transfer taxes on foreign purchases of residential real estate policies designed to cool the market haven’t reined in prices, either.

“It hasn’t created affordability by any stretch of the imagination,” Turcotte said.

High land costs, lengthy approval times and government levies also meant developers were happy to target top-end buyers who could swallow the higher prices market forces demanded, he added.

Turcotte would like to see that change, with developers building units that excite cash-strapped millennials and meet them where they’re at, but those speaking alongside him focused on providing affordable units within their projects.

Byron Chard, president and CEO of Chard Development Ltd., for instance, detailed his experience working with BC Housing to achieve a lower cost structure for units at a development in Victoria. Meanwhile, Kush Panatch discussed a rent-to-own program in Port Moody that allowed his company, Panatch Group, to give 30 buyers an entry to the market.

“It’s a small solution to a piece of the problem,” he said, noting that no one solution can address the issue.

Common ground

An open letter to Vancouver city council from residents of the neighbourhood surrounding Vanness Avenue and Copley Street, where 50 temporary modular housing units are planned for housing some of the city’s least fortunate, strikes a familiar chord.

Residents of the area, including Alicia Barsallo (who circulated the letter), have long advocated against towers in the area that (to echo Jason Turcotte’s recent comments to the Urban Development Institute) primarily serve the rich. But temporary modular housing, while low in form, doesn’t pass muster, either.

“We want social housing in our neighbourhood, but of the kind that is quality and permanent,” Barsallo writes. “We are afraid that what is getting built now as an emergency measure will, in the end, take the place of the kind of quality permanent social housing that low-wage earners and the homeless need and deserve.”

The group points out that the project makes neither financial nor environmental sense: “It is substandard housing that will be torn down in five years and will certainly be trash in less than a decade.”

Sound familiar?

Two years ago, when the first modular units were erected at Main and Terminal, the good folks at Goodman Commercial Inc. raised similar concerns.

“While the city is congratulating themselves on providing a solution, albeit temporary, to our unaffordability issue and/or housing shortage, the manner in which this program is being executed is misguided and a wasteful use of high-density land and taxpayer money,” a January 2017 statement read.

Situated adjacent to SkyTrain and next to an orchard (like the Vanness units), the 40 units of modular housing at Main and Terminal were criticized as a temporary, costly underutilization of a site that could accommodate up to 250 units of permanent non-market housing.

The assessment offered then echoes in the Nanaimo neighbourhood’s letter today: “While this stopgap development measure is noble in its intent, even with temporary status, it is but a drop in the bucket in terms of providing long-term permanent relief.” •