Clearly, an overwhelming majority of Vancouverites feel that the city does not offer enough housing options.
Many more want purpose-built rentals to be the council’s development priority. Some fear the Broadway transit expansion will displace thousands of tenants, while at least one person doesn’t trust the developers.
These are just some of the frustrations expressed during a two-hour town hall-format Zoom meeting held on April 25 and hosted by A Better City Couns. Sarah Kirby-Yung, Lisa Dominato and Sarah Bligh.
The central principles of the meeting were housing, housing affordability, rental capacity and ways out of the colossal mess that these issues have become.
The three incumbents were flanked by a pair of developers – alley house guru Jake Fry and East Side boutique developer Jordan MacDonald – alongside architect and urban planner Mary Pynenburg.
The format of the meeting centered around a handful of probing questions; the responses then served as a springboard for debate between panelists and viewers online.
The first substantive question of the evening asked participants: “Does Vancouver have enough housing options or different housing choices?” To the surprise of very few, 83% of respondents said no.
“Regulate in dysfunction”
To this and other questions, Fry and MacDonald suggested that dealing with City Hall is often a protracted nightmare: long wait times for permits, city by-laws that conflict between departments and the obligation to comply with outdated rules that require both updating and streamlining.
It’s a process that Fry described as “regulating dysfunction.” His main talking point was to unlock the potential of single-family lots, where more than 10 or 12 people could live on one lot rather than two or three.
“We have an environment that’s very protective, very regulatory and it’s been that way for the last five decades,” Fry said. “It’s a very entrenched position.”
There has been little pushback from councilors on many of these claims, with Kirby-Yung suggesting that “the era of the single family home is behind us”.
Of all those who spoke, Pynenburg’s words seemed to carry the most weight. During her career, she has worked in the private and public sectors, where she worked in planning departments in New Westminster and Kelowna.
His list of potential improvements for city staff and their internal processes was long: using plain language in planning documents; move away from renderings with boxes illustrating what a building will look like and instead use real images; engage developers early in the process to assess the feasibility of a project and once a successful development is approved, use it as a model for future developments to replicate and build neighborhood buy-in.
Pynenburg also suggested the need for a central climax of a development to be identified early in the game and then prioritized. If a development is focused on green space, for example, make that green space the priority in renderings and planning documents, then base the rest of the project around that element.
His most-used word of the night was “pragmatic.”
“People always want to have a perfect situation where you get 100% of everything 100% of the time and that’s just not possible,” she said. “You really have to be pragmatic. My rule of thumb is that I’d like to get 80% of something, because that’s way better than getting 100% of zero.
What type of housing are Vancouver residents looking for the most?
When it comes to the types of housing needed, 64% said more purpose-built rental housing needs to be built, followed by townhouses/townhouses and co-ops.
MacDonald noted that some redevelopments require significant additional density to entice owners to sell and mitigate risk for bank lenders. The longer the verification and approval process, the higher the risk of a project failing.
“The challenge is that single-family homes are priced so high that it doesn’t make sense to redevelop them into townhouses,” he said. “You have to find really big lots with basically a dismantled house to make sense of it.”
When asked about affordability, respondents were asked what the city could do to make housing more affordable: 32% said simplifying regulations, followed by speeding up approvals (28%) and approving an offer increased (24%).
“It creates inertia,” Kirby-Yung said of the city’s housing regulations. “Staff is almost frozen because one policy conflicts with another and that’s where developers have uncertainty because they’re getting conflicting feedback.”
Bligh noted that the city approved a record number of purpose-built rentals in 2021 while acknowledging that vacant units are well below reasonable levels. The vacancy rate is around 1.2% and has been for years.
“We seem to be sort of treading water…trying to achieve maximum density when I think we need to be more creative in terms of how we actually look at the city,” said Bligh said.
It’s a situation that has created what Dominato has called the “missing middle,” where middle-income people are increasingly being squeezed out of the city and moving to other locations in Metro Vancouver or the Greater Vancouver area. Vancouver Island.
“I think people felt there were limited options,” she said.
The entire conversation can be viewed online HERE.