Social housing proposal aims wrecking ball at long-established development guidelines

It is an extraordinary proposal: 12-storey rental housing extensively in Vancouver, with no public hearings.

Under the guise of expanding the supply of “social housing,” Vancouver council is hearing a motion this week from councillor Christine Boyle – backed by mayor Kennedy Stewart – that would unleash a divisive remake of the community.

Forget that the proposal would suffocate public hearings when development is proposed. Forget that the proposal would override zoning that took years of negotiations to define.

Forget that the proposal doubles down on a move only last month by council to permit extra height and density in several districts.

Forget that the proposal would subvert an $18 million city plan process that council sanctioned only two years ago to instil a more orderly development of neighbourhoods.

The motion, innocuously titled “Reducing Barriers and Deepening Affordability for Non-Profit, Co-op and Social Housing in Every Neighbourhood,” feels very much like the kickoff of the fall 2022 municipal election campaign.

There is a tidy family tree in the mix, too. Boyle is married to activist Seth Klein, brother of activist Naomi Klein, married to filmmaker Avi Lewis, who will run for the NDP in West Vancouver and try to extend the Lewis political footprint into a third generation following David and Stephen. Stewart, we need be reminded, was an NDP MP before winning the mayor’s chair in 2018.

A central problem of the proposal – and something a touch ironic, considering its authorship – is that it disregards a tenet of social justice in its flagrant disregard to hear from a community as it confronts change. It is reckless as a sweeping gesture and delusional in its claim that it serves as a solution.

Everyone knows Vancouver is a preposterously expensive city insufficiently underwritten by well-paying jobs but with a creature conspicuous consumption. Without a sprawling land base, its scarcity has furnished a scenic trophy city with far too many people unable to rent, much less buy adequate housing for their needs.

The pivotal question is how to fix that. Answers are not evident, but this doesn’t feel like a good one.

Not surprisingly, those who found a way to get into the housing market earlier generally resist larger buildings in their districts. Any neighbourhood’s acceptance of a more varied, attainable blend of housing to help the situation is painfully slow and frustrating in the context of need. Many believe a “gentle densification” is possible, but it requires patience and process – and the Boyle proposal is anything but, recognizing a window is open with federal and provincial funds in the pandemic to be far more radical in reshaping the city.

The pretension in her plan – and remember, the mayor supports it, too, and is using it to develop a re-election database of donors and supporters – is how we define “social housing” and how we define “non-profit” in this day and age.

In Vancouver, “social housing” is any building with 30% of the units offered at below-market rents. This is a definition unique to Vancouver, and if you say it fast enough, I suppose you believe it’s true. By most definitions, a 12-storey building with more than eight floors rented at what the market will bear would not fit that term.

And “non-profit” is hardly well defined, either. It often involves partnerships with for-profit firms, and the cost of construction is hardly the stuff of donated materials arising from benevolence – it’s done with profit in mind. What you get out the other end is rent that, yes, is below the market. But when the market is nuts in the first place, it’s like saying a Range Rover is a below-market car in a city of Bentleys.

What you also get is a sudden spurt to develop without adequate checks on the process, without the accompanying (albeit maddening at times) process of public consultation. Intentionally or not, the proposal would generate a fair number of “demovictions” to make way for taller buildings. The displacement of residents is bound to be a consequence of the drive to develop, and there is no certainty that the displaced can afford to move back into new digs.

On the assumption it will survive this stage of consideration this week – Stewart hardly ever attaches himself to a council motion that he can’t win – the months ahead will define the years ahead as the motion produces a staff report with recommendations in time for the election.

The array of voices given little time to muster their opposition in recent days for the meagre public airing on the proposal this week might as well watch the NHL playoffs than wait for their commercial-break-length time to express their dismay across Zoom to council.

This train is leaving the station, so the main question is which politicians will be prepared to lay down on the tracks. •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.