Candidates panel: Housing Policy in the 2018 Vancouver Civic Election – time cues for questions

Housing Policy in 2018 Vancouver Civic Election: A Candidates’ Panel

Hosted by the UBC Sauder School of Business on September 12, 2018 at the Fairmont Pacific Hotel | Total run time: 1:57:09

I definitely recommend watching this video at the link above – it is a recording of what may be (though I hope not) the only candidate forum of the 2018 civic campaign that focuses exclusively on housing policy. I’ve noted the times that each of the 17 questions was asked to make it easier to find the answers you’re most interested in over the 2+ hours. Many good questions were asked and watching this may save you the effort of repeating these questions to candidates yourself, or allow you to develop other questions that build on these ones. The written questions below are either verbatim or close paraphrases of what was said live.

Participating candidates

Mayor: Hector Bremner (Yes Vancouver), David Chen (ProVancouver), Ken Sim (NPA) Kennedy Stewart (ind.) Shauna Sylvester (ind.)

Council:  Christine Boyle (OneCity), Diego Cardona (Vision), Pete Fry (Greens) Jean Swanson (COPE)

0:00:03: Introduction by UBC Sauder School of Business professor Tom Davidoff, including thank yous to sponsors, staff, and volunteers who made the event possible. Introduction of moderators Nadia Stewart of Global BC TV and Ian Bushfield of the Cambie Report podcast.

0:3:05: Tom Davidoff explains the format of event and time allowed for each candidate response  (90 seconds). Note: The first question went to Hector Bremner. After that, the opportunity to go first went to the candidate seated one person to the right of the last person to go first.

0:4:40 First question to candidates is from Tom Davidoff. He says it’s a “Kobayashi Maru” (Star Trek) or nightmare type of scenario: You have an an extremely under-used, long-time vacant piece of land in an RS zone. A developer proposes to build 12 x 1,250 sqft 3-bdm, 2-bath townhomes. The developer will also either provide 3 of the units to the city to be used as affordable rental or $3 million in community amenity contributions for the city to use as it wishes. If you vote no, the developer will default to RS and build two large single-family homes. The planning dept. says it is a good project. But the neighbours and residents’ association think it’s terrible and are very angry. Candidates must answer yes or no only. Hector Bremner starts.

0:08:54: Ian Bushfield explains the format of the rest of the evening, which will last about 80 minutes. He and Nadia will ask each of the candidates nine questions that they each have 90 seconds to answer. If they don’t get through all the nine questions at ninety seconds per candidate, they will start lightning rounds where candidates can give one-word answers. The order of the questions is random.

0:9:33: Nadia Stewart asks Q1, which is from Alex Hemingway of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. How many homes will you create and what kind? Answers start with Kennedy Stewart.

0:18:42: Ian Bushfield asks Q2: What changes will you make in your first 90 days in office to clear the backlog in the planning office? Answers start with David Chen.

0:31:10 Nadia Stewart asks Q3: The Westside seems to be a target for rezoning these days. However, previous discussions of rezoning have often been met with stiff opposition. What is the role of community consultations with regards to what gets built? Answers start with Christine Boyle.

0:44:24: Ian Bushfield asks Q4: Everyone knows that Canada’s population is aging and that we have not built neighbourhoods to house our diverse seniors and our diverse residents. How do we move forward and house seniors in Vancouver? Answers begin with Shauna Sylvester.

0:57:42: Nadia Stewart asks Q5: Community amenity contributions (CACs) have become a bone of contention between developers and the city. Should CACs be negotiated or set at a predetermined rate? Answers start with Ken Sim.

— Lightning round —

1:09:57: Ian Bushfield asks Q6: Do you own, rent, or live in a coop? Answers start with Diego Cardona.

1:10:30: Nadia Stewart asks Q7: Would you introduce and/or advocate that the province introduce a land value tax? Answers start with Pete Fry.

1:11:39: Ian Bushfield asks Q8: Would you raise the empty homes tax? Answers start with Jean Swanson.

1:12:35: Nadia Stewart asks Q9: Should incumbent residents have a veto over rezoning applications? Answers start with Hector Bremner.

1:13:18 Ian Bushfield asks Q10: Will you develop purpose-built rentals on city-owned land? Answers start with Kennedy Stewart.

1:12:59 Nadia Stewart asks Q11: Are you in favour of a progressive property tax or mansion tax? Answers start with David Chen.

1:14:36: Ian Bushfield asks Q12: Would you have voted for the current council’s Making Room proposal? Answers start with Christine Boyle.

1:15:58: Tom Davidoff explains that the next part of the evening will be questions from audience. If you are just here for the schmoozing, you can go in the other room and do that now. There will be another 20 to 30 minutes of questions with one-minute time limits for answering. Questions came from online and audience.

1:16:46: Tom Davidoff asks Q13: Hypothetically, what would happen if the city insisted on getting 30% more in CACS on each development than it’s currently charging? How many fewer units would have been built and what would that have done to prices of condos and apartment rents? Answers start with Diego Cardona.

1:27:21: Tom Davidoff asks Q14: How do we get more rental housing built and should we? Or is it okay if all the building we’re doing is condos? Answers start with Pete Fry.

1:34:51: Tom Davidoff asks Q15: What is the role of foreign investment in Vancouver’s housing market these days – big deal, not a big deal? Also, what should be the role of foreign money in the city’s housing market – is there anything good about it, or is it all bad? Answers start with Jean Swanson.

1:44:08: Tom Davidoff asks Q16: What should we do about homelessness in Vancouver? Answers start with Hector Bremner.

1:54:50: Tom Davidoff asks Q17 (final question): BC’s rent control regulation is allowing 2% above CPI in 2019, for a total maximum rent increase this year of 4.5%. What number above CPI (or below) do you think should be allowed? Say a number. Answers start with Kennedy Stewart.

The end.


Learnings from Housing Central 2017

I’ve followed the issue of Temporary Modular Housing (TMH) in Vancouver fairly closely, so was glad for the opportunity to learn more about it as part of the annual Housing Central conference in Richmond a couple weeks ago, in a session called “New Options in Temporary Housing.” It covered both Vancouver’s pilot TMH project at 220 Terminal Ave. and the Vacant Homes program run by Richmond’s Chimo Community Services.

For starters, I learned that the main reason “temporary” modular housing is referred to that way is because it’s built to be moved – and not because, as some have suggested, it’s flimsy or of poor quality. Deconstruction and moving takes a toll on these structures, which is the main reason their lifespan is about 40 years, rather than any lesser quality of materials or construction. They are built to the same BC Building Code standards as other types of housing.

However, putting together these units in a factory in a standardized way does increase the speed at which they can be built (two per day) and decrease their cost. They can be built for about $75,000 per unit, not including land – at least this was the case in Vancouver’s pilot project – costs may vary with other suppliers.

Anyone who’s followed Vancouver’s recent debate over TMH in Marpole will know that one of the main objections protesters have raised is proximity to schools. Presenters addressed this “Why here?” question directly with a slide listing the various interrelated and overlapping factors the city wants to weigh and satisfy when looking for suitable TMH sites:

  • Ownership of land
  • Lease and legal considerations
  • Current land use and zoning
  • Financial considerations
  • Timeline for alternative use and development – this one being a major factor in the TMH siting on the privately owned Marpole property
  • Site access and servicing
  • BC Hydro considerations
  • Any environmental issues with the land (anything from soil contamination to mature trees)
  • Access to transit
  • Access to health services
Interior of a TMH display unit the City of Vancouver set up at Robson Square in September 2017.

Given that protesters are continuing their to efforts to stop the TMH construction in Marpole, the city’s intention to get a injunction allowing it to continue building, the need for enough sites to house 600 homeless people, and a welcome rally that Marpole high school students have planned for this Tuesday, TMH is likely to be in the news for the next few weeks at least. The city’s TMH web page is a good place to check for updates.

 The Vacant Homes Project in Richmond

The other example of temporary housing covered in this session was Chimo Community Services’ Vacant Homes project, which has housed about 50 people since it began in 2013, using 15 houses that would likely otherwise have remained vacant.

The program got started as a partnership between Chimo and a local property developer, which had houses sitting empty while waiting for building or development permits from the City of Richmond. The program was good for the owner of the properties because it brought in rental income and kept the houses more secure.

Presenters said that one of the unexpected challenges of the project has been negative reactions from some neighbours when they find out who’s living in the houses. However, overall, the project has been a success. For those who would like to replicate the program in their own communities, advice from presenters included the following:

  • Meet with the city
  • Create policies and guidelines
  • Speak with developers and obtain access to your first house
  • Match client and landlord
  • Communicate regularly with landlord/developer
  • Look for permanent housing for client
  • Develop clear and concise marketing materials

If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend reading this 2014 news story about the project: Richmond nonprofit makes most of empty homes

Next year’s Housing Central conference begins Nov. 18, 2018 and will be in Vancouver. As with previous years, it will likely include dozens of educational sessions spread over at least three days – definitely something to plan for if you’re interested in affordable housing. Follow @BCNPHA on Twitter for the latest on conference and BC nonprofit housing news.

Housing tenure statistics for the City of Vancouver, 1951 to 2011

We’ve seen much interesting information emerge from the 2016 Census so far, but the data I’ve been most eager for is still to be released – this Wednesday. Those statistics are on housing tenure – and more specifically, how many renters and homeowners exist in a given jurisdiction. I’m keen to see this data for the city overall, as well as for its individual neighbourhoods, which vary considerably in their percentages of renting households.

For sake of historical perspective, here is a table showing what the City of Vancouver’s tenure percentages have been, back to 1951. The source is a report prepared for the city in 2010 (by McClanaghan & Associates) as background for the city’s current housing and homelessness strategy (see pg. 24, Table 7). As is shown, the percentage of renting households in the City of Vancouver peaked in 1991 at 59 percent and has been slowly declining since then. Between the 1961 and 1966 censuses and again from 1966 to 1971, the percentage of tenant households took major leaps, increasing from 39 to 53 over that ten-year period. Tenant households have made up the majority of the city ever since then.

The decline in the percentage of tenant households since 1991 has happened despite various of what I view to be important and useful city policies aimed at retaining and increasing the amount of rental housing, such as the Rate of Change policy enacted in 2007 and more recently, incentive programs such as Rental 100. It’s notable that a similar decline has taken place at the regional level, with the percentage of renting households declining from 44 percent in 1986 to 35 percent in 2011.[1]

Percentage of owner and renter households in the City of Vancouver, 1951-2011[2] [3]

Year Owning HH Rental HH
1951 63.0% 37.0%
1961 60.8% 39.2%
1966 52.2% 47.8%
1971 46.9% 53.1%
1976 46.5% 53.5%
1981 44.9% 55.1%
1986 42.3% 57.7%
1991 40.8% 59.2%
1996 41.9% 58.1%
2001 43.8% 56.2%
2006 48.1% 51.9%
2011 48.6% 51.4%
2016 ? ?

Possible reasons for the changes in the percentage of renting households

I believe the most significant factors in this decline are the nearly complete lack of new, long-term, secure rental housing that was built in the city between the (approximately) late 1980s and early 2010s, as well as the conversions of apartment buildings to condominiums that took place from the 1970s and into the 1990s (and which are generally no longer allowed).

However, especially if interest rates are low and the economy is doing well, the decrease in the percentage of renting households could also result from existing tenants becoming homeowners. Depending on your values and views on home ownership, you might see a tenure shift stemming from those factors to be positive – for the tenants and for society overall.

While no doubt many Vancouver tenants have happily become homeowners since 1991, given what we know about current incomes of tenants and the current cost of housing in relation to local incomes, I believe the decline in the percentage of renter households is a serious problem – enough so that while these conditions continue, I’d like to see governments (at each level) try to halt this trend.

Why does this matter?

Our current combination of circumstances – i.e. high housing costs in relation to local incomes, very low rental vacancy rates and the declining percentage of renter households – strongly suggests that people who can’t afford to buy homes are finding it more and more difficult to stay in or move to the City of Vancouver, and therefore that people with lower incomes (who tend to be renters) are gradually losing access to the public goods (e.g. libraries, parks and cultural and recreational events) that a city such as Vancouver has to offer. Vancouver and cities like it provide economic and cultural opportunities – for jobs, for starting businesses and building skills, and for finding like-minded others – not available in smaller communities. Vancouver tenants forced out of the city due to lack of rental housing, or rental housing that’s affordable to them, also lose whatever community connections they’ve built up over the time they’ve lived here. If we care about equity, I believe it should be a policy goal to ensure that renters continue to have ample access to these high-quality opportunities and public goods. Simply residing in a vibrant, diverse and culturally rich urban environment should not be a luxury, but declining access to rental housing puts us on this trajectory.

Another consideration is that renters are vital to the functioning of the city’s economy. If we don’t halt this trend and make more room for renters, we’ll continue to see stories about the difficulties local businesses are having with finding and keeping workers – in some cases even having to cut back on hours of service or curtail expansion plans. Wages are obviously a big part of this equation too, but one way or the other, people who can’t afford to buy a home need to be able to rent one within reasonable commuting distance of their work, or they won’t be able to participate in the economy (and many other equally important activities).

Side note: 1921 was the first time housing tenure data was collected in the Canadian national census. So, any housing tenure data you run across from before then must be from other (perhaps less reliable) sources.

[1] Metro Vancouver, “2006 Census Bulletin: Dwellings by Type and Tenure,” December 2007, Page 2, Table 4. See also note 2 re: 2011 National Household Survey data.

[2] This table draws from the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS) because the 2011 Census did not include a question on tenure status. Statistics Canada has cautioned that due to differences in data collection methods between the census and the voluntary NHS, the two types of data may not be directly comparable. So a cautionary note there.

[3] Dale McClanaghan, “City of Vancouver Rental Housing Strategy Research and Policy Development Synthesis Report,” August 2010, p.24, Table 7. Also, Statistics Canada, “NHS Profile, Vancouver, CY, British Columbia, 2011.”

Support for two rezonings to allow for purpose-built rental units

At tonight’s (July 12) meeting, Vancouver city council will be considering two applications to rezone land for purpose-built rental housing. The addresses of the sites are 2805 E. Hastings and 445 Kingsway. My letter in support of 2805 E. Hastings is below. The circumstances of 445 Kingsway are much the same, so I haven’t posted that letter. If approved, together the two proposals will add 200 units of purpose-built rental housing to the city’s rental housing supply.

Dear Mayor and Council,

I write to support the rezoning of 2805 East Hastings to CD-1 zoning to permit a six-storey rental building with 91 secured market rental units.

I support this application for several reasons, the main one being the city’s dire need for more purpose-built rental housing. As I know you’re aware, the city’s vacancy rate for private apartments like the ones proposed here was 0.6% as of late 2015 and in fact the city’s vacancy rate has averaged under 1% for about the last 30 years. Industry and housing experts generally point to a healthy vacancy rate being as being at least three percent. The lack of rental housing has severe and far-reaching consequences for Vancouver’s renters and also the city’s ability to have a functioning economy, as was recently noted in the “Rent Race” report published by Vancity Credit Union. That report noted that renters are dispersed “throughout the entire economy—working as health and education professionals, in construction, finance, social assistance, and other industries” and that “renter workers making median incomes in several industries face the real possibility of being priced out of the communities they call home.”

I would further like to note that renters are present in all age groups in Vancouver, making the lack of rental housing a problem that affects a wide segment of our local population. According to the report, the renter population is comprised of 33% millenials, 30% Gen X, 26% baby boomers and 11% those aged 70 or older (page 4).

While currently just over half of Vancouver’s households are renters, this percentage has declined since 1991 (when it was 59 percent, see page 24 of linked report). As a renter myself, I am concerned about this trend and what it suggests for the future of renters in our city. The city also has a low rate of purpose-built rentals per capita – less than other cities that have a lower percentage of renting households, which also points to the great need for rental housing such as is being proposed here.

PB rentals by city per capita

Source: Ian Meredith @ian_meredith, Altus Group

Adding a lot more new secured rental supply is necessary to deal with our current shortages and in the shorter-term gives more choices to renters, which makes life easier for them and gives them a bit more housing security.

In terms of this specific application, I see that the proposed building would not displace any existing renters and that it would replace a fast-food franchise and a surface parking lot.

It’s located in an area where there are many shops, services and public transit to meet the needs of the future residents. Those future residents will also be customers for the area’s many small businesses. All these factors point to this building being a great benefit to our city.

I am also pleased to see that this project includes 34 two-bedroom and five three-bedroom units, which will provide much-needed family-friendly housing. I see as well that, in keeping with the city’s guidelines for housing families at high densities, this proposal includes common amenity space both indoors and outdoors and that is another reason why I support it.

I also note and support the condition of bylaw enactment (7(iii)) that says none of the units shall be rented for less than one month at a time, because this helps ensure that these units are not rented out as short-term rentals to tourists instead of serving their intended purpose as housing for residents.

For all these reasons, I support this project and urge you to do the same.

In favour of purpose-built rental…

Remarks at public hearing for rezoning of 3365 Commercial Drive (and other lots)

June 23, 2016 

Link to video of hearing. My remarks begin at 1:20:25

Good evening mayor and council. Thank you for this opportunity to speak. My name is Karen Sawatzky and I am here to support this rezoning application and urge you to do the same.

I am a long-time renter in the City of Vancouver, in a neighbourhood right next to Cedar Cottage –– Grandview-Woodland. It’s because I’m a renter, and one who strongly believes in the need for more purpose-built rental, that I favour this proposal.

While the reasons I support more purpose-built rental in general, and particularly here tonight, are probably familiar to all of you, I would like to explain at least some of those reasons now.

Over the last three to four decades, and in the absence of the federal tax incentives for rental housing that used to exist, very little new purpose-built rental has been created. This has led to the increasing predominance of what is known as the secondary rental market – especially rented condos and secondary suites. While these units are crucial and valued, they are much more easily converted to owner occupation, or just removed from the rental stock, than purpose-built units because they are not subject to various regulations and policies to prevent their conversion or demolition, such as the city’s rate of change regulations. In practice, this means that renters living in the secondary market have far less tenure security than those living in purpose-built units. An insane real estate climate such as we have been experiencing for the last several years provides owners of secondary market units with many temptations and incentives to sell or demolish those units, or more recently, convert them to more lucrative short-term rentals. Living as a renter in Vancouver in this climate and with an incredibly low vacancy rate brings with it a constant sense of precariousness and stress. The only thing that will cure this is more rental housing. This should most definitely include lots more social housing and coop units, but we also need to address the long-standing construction deficit of market rentals. As far as I’m concerned, the more of those market units that are purpose-built, the better off tenants will be.

I note as well that the need for rental housing is clear no matter where you position yourself in the local debates currently raging over whether it is more supply that is needed to remedy our housing crises, or more controls over foreign capital – and for the record, I think we badly need both. Our chronically unhealthy and abysmally low rental vacancy rate is proof of the need for more rental housing and there is no doubt that if built, these units will quickly fill with residents who will contribute to our city in myriad ways. They will not be used merely as a safe place to park capital.

I know that some object to projects like this on the grounds that they are not affordable enough to people making low and moderate incomes. I definitely share that concern, but I also realize that in the absence of senior government subsidies or incentives, there is no way to make brand-new construction on land bought at today’s square-foot prices as affordable as units in 50- or 60-year old apartment buildings, such as the one I live in. As a renter, I do not want to wait any longer for those senior government incentives to materialize – we have already waited far too long to build more purpose-built rental.

In any case, to the charge that these units are not affordable enough, I can only say that the alternative to approving this rezoning is allowing the developer who owns the properties to build what they are already zoned for – single-family housing. That would probably please the immediate neighbours, but it would mean that instead of higher-than-average rents that the many mid- and higher-income renters who have been shut out of our “freakshow” real estate market can actually afford, this transit-friendly housing would only be available to those who can afford the mortgage on a house priced at $1 to $2 million, or even higher. I’ll take the 100-plus units of market rental housing located near transit and parks, please.

I will also point out that the city-wide proportion of renting households has declined from a high of 59 percent in 1991 to its current 51 percent – or perhaps even less as of the 2016 census. Again, as a renter this trend causes me considerable worry and it’s one I would like to see you, my elected representatives, try to halt or even reverse. I realize you have recently exceeded many of your targets for enabling new market rental units and I commend you for doing so, but I would like to see you go further and this project could be part of that. I’d like to see you calculate the number of units that are needed to reach a vacancy rate of 3 to 5 percent (which is what I see cited as a healthy rate) and also the number of units that would be needed to ensure that our city continues to be evenly balanced in terms of renting and home-owning households – and then set your new housing targets accordingly.

There are more points about the need for this type of rental housing, and this proposal in particular, that I would make if I had more time, but I know I’m nearing my limit so will conclude here. Again, thank you for your time.


Additional points not said at hearing

Regarding the trees and green space arguments

While of course I value the mature trees – and have passed and enjoyed them countless times over the years – there does not seem to be a scenario under which all the trees that neighbours want to be retained actually will be. It’s not reasonable to compare an unrealistic scenario to the options that actually exist. A developer owns these properties (with the exception of the city lot) and therefore has the legal right to develop single-family homes on them if this rezoning is denied. This would not result in more trees saved. And, locating housing close to transit where people can choose to lead car-free lifestyles will ultimately have a far greater environmental benefit than saving the few trees that could be retained if the lots were developed as SFD rather than apartments – if that was even the case, which I don’t think it is. Some residents have called for there to be a park on this site. The parks board has said it’s not interested, so that’s not a realistic option. With Trout Lake and Clark Park so nearby, this area has far better access to green space than my corner of East Van.

Age exclusion vs. economic exclusion

There is much talk in the housing affordability debate about making sure the city remains (or becomes) livable and affordable for young people (millennials) and too often, in my opinion, these issues are framed as if the young and young families are the only ones affected or the only ones who matter.

This annoys me, since I’m a GenXer who has been living with the consequences of unaffordable Vancouver (and Victoria) housing (and also student loans, expensive childcare and an eroding social safety net) for more than 20 years – and I have the invisible children and non-existent mortgage to prove it. While I agree that young people are the future (because it’s a truism), I’m also concerned about fairness in the present and I value the ability of (just as an example) a single 55-year-old retail or service worker (who may play a vital role in their community) to stay in Vancouver just as much as I do the ability of well-educated 20- and 30-somethings with young children to do the same.

In my view, if a city requires the labour of minimum-wage and low-paid workers to function, then that city (along with other levels of government) has an obligation to plan and do as much as it can to ensure those same workers can be housed in the prosperous city they make possible. It seems cruel and unfair that anyone should expect the people who make the least and have the most challenges in life to be consigned to spend another two hours commuting back and forth to those low-paid (and likely tedious) jobs on top of having to work them. Hard to improve your station in life (such as through starting a side business, going to school or working another job) when so much time is taken up in unpaid shadow work. Of course we need better transit and that would help affordability a lot. But a vision in which the only people who can afford to live in Vancouver (proper) are those who are childless, highly educated and with high-paying jobs and/or inherited wealth – while the rest are consigned to the outskirts and killer commutes – is what I call dystopic, as well as poor urban planning from a climate-change (and social cohesion) perspective.

Back to affordability

Finally, and again to those who say they oppose this project because it’s not affordable enough or they would support it if it were more affordable, I have to ask – How do you see that greater affordability being achieved?

The city had to take several steps – through the Rental 100 and similar programs – to get any purpose-built rental constructed at all. Condominiums and single- family homes are much more attractive options to developers, as evidenced by the fact that there was so little purpose-built rental created before the city initiated these programs. Since we’re living in a market-based society, we can’t actually force developers to build projects they don’t want to or that don’t “pencil out” for them, as much as I would love to have that magic wand. I’d much prefer a scenario where more housing was publicly owned, such as in the Scandanavian and many other countries, but that’s not what we have now.

Are you suggesting we wait to build any more purpose-built rental until senior levels of government bring back the tax incentives and subsidies that encouraged its construction in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s? I absolutely support the calls for more social housing, but I don’t see how constraining the supply or delaying the construction of what has become an incredibly scarce resource will ultimately benefit those who need social housing. Those with the most economic power are always going to win the competition for scarce resources.

If you say you support more rental housing but only if it meets your affordability criteria, please explain how you see that affordability being achieved – and please reference reality in that explanation. I hope you will acknowledge that asking for a project to be both less dense and more affordable is a contradiction under current market conditions. Again, I wish it were different, but we need to find ways to get a lot more rental built now, not in some hypothetical future. Also, I think it’s unfair and unreasonable for those who are lucky enough to be securely housed to try to set conditions for how others can achieve that state. Housing is, after all, a major social determinant of health and a fundamental need – and should be recognized as an enforceable human right.

As a resident, you certainly have a right to input into potential developments in your area (as well as do people in other parts of the city, if they consider themselves affected). But you did not buy the neighbourhood when you bought your house.

As for future directions, here’s a group and set of statements that I think provides a good model. I find it more nuanced and inclusive than the straight-ahead YIMBY stances.

Portland for Everyone

Public talk on the history of apartments and condos in Vancouver, by Michael Kluckner

I love the topic of this talk and think I might learn some things I can use in my thesis. I also hope to eventually contribute knowledge to this topic myself, through my thesis, since I consider Airbnb to now be part of Vancouver’s housing story, especially where it concerns apartments and condos. I’m assuming Kluckner will draw on a key academic article about the history of condos in Vancouver, which I’ve mentioned elsewhereThe Condominium and the City: The Rise of Property in Vancouver, by Douglas Harris. The abstract is here.

I know Michael Kluckner is a good and well-organized speaker, based on a previous “brief history of” talk of his I attended a couple years ago, on gentrification. That was held at SFU and you can view the video here.

Highlights from housing (and other academic) journals

I recently set up table-of-contents alerts on a bunch of housing, urban studies, and tourism journals and am finding it a great way to keep abreast, however superficially, of current academic literature in these areas. I’m mainly doing this in order to be alerted to new articles on short-term rentals (see my other blog for more info on that), but this tactic has the side benefit (or curse?) of bringing a lot of other interesting stuff to my attention. How to deal with that? I sometimes feel I’m a bit compulsive about sharing information I think might be relevant to people I know. I know info overload and the flittish (word?), distracted frame of mind it tends to create is a real problem for me and many others, so perhaps I’ll use this blog as an outlet for my sharing impulse instead of spamming inboxes…

Please note: When I post a title and/or abstract here it doesn’t mean I’ve read the whole article or endorse the views expressed. It means I think it looks interesting, I might want to read it, and/or that it seems somehow timely or relevant to current urban or other social policy debates. Some of these articles may have been published in journals as long as a few years ago and just more recently made available online: Hope some find this useful…

One more thing: Regarding access to the full text of these articles…I have access to a smorgasbord of stuff right now (thanks SFU library!) by dint of the fact that I’m paying tuition to SFU. If you don’t have that same access, try searching for the full text through your own public library, such as the VPL. There’s a good chance that will work for you. If not, you might want to check out the external access programs offered by your local post-secondary institution – I think most have some version of that by now. Info on SFU’s program is here. There’s also Google Scholar…or google the article author/s – sometimes they post their own published articles or similar versions.

This first article is definitely relevant to current Vancouver debates on community planning and public engagement, and specifically to the question of whether we should have a citywide plan instead of (or in addition to?) a series of neighbourhood plans. Some point to the mid-1990s CityPlan process as a model to be revived, but I’ve heard other knowledgeable people suggest that process has been somewhat overhyped or romanticized…

Governing cities through participation—a Foucauldian analysis of CityPlan Vancouver

by Marit Rosolin in Urban Geography
Abstract: In 1995 Vancouver City Council approved new policy guidelines for future urban development that departed from the traditional model of suburban growth, instead prioritizing urban intensification. Theoretically guided by the Foucauldian governmentality approach, I argue in this paper that this shift towards intensification can be understood through an analysis of Vancouver’s extensive participatory planning process known as CityPlan. Created as an answer to conflicts around the intensification of historically evolved urban neighbourhoods, CityPlan Vancouver exemplifies a specific form of urban governance that has been understudied in geography and participation research: a governance consisting of conducting the conduct of citizens through participatory processes. The paper examines this “governing through participation” by carrying out a microanalysis of the problematizations, rationalities, and technologies of CityPlan. Such an analysis differs significantly from an evaluation of participatory planning processes against normative ideals, and thus enriches critical research on participation in urban governance.

Onto the next…gentrification, ever a hot topic in these parts (and rightly so):

“They want to live in the Tremé, but they want it for their ways of living”: gentrification and neighborhood practice in Tremé, New Orleans

by Trushna Parekh in Urban Geography
Abstract: In this study, I deploy an ethnographic approach to analyze the detrimental effects of gentrification on longstanding residents in New Orleans’ Tremé neighborhood. I focus on conflicts between long-established residents and gentrifiers over the use of neighborhood space on a day-to-day basis as a means for examining the consequent changes in neighborhood life. As their neighborhood gentrifies, long-term residents of Tremé must contend with greater policing, the erosion of place-based knowledge, practices, and cultural traditions, the loss of social networks, and the closure of vital neighborhood institutions. These changes in neighborhood life provide a starting point from which to begin to understand the broader effects (beyond displacement) that longstanding residents experience as a result of gentrification.

This one looks very interesting – think I will have to read it.

The rules of residential segregation: US housing taxonomies and their precedents

By Sonia Hirt in Planning Perspectives
This paper reviews how urban regulations in history have been used to relegate populations to different parts of the city and its environs. Its main purpose is to place the twentieth-century US zoning experience in historic and international contexts. To this end, based mostly on secondary sources, the paper first surveys a selection of major civilizations in history and the regulations they invented in order to keep populations apart. Then, based on primary sources, it discusses the emergence of three methods of residential segregation through zoning which took root in the early twentieth-century USA. The three methods are: segregating people by race, segregating them by different land-area standards, and segregating them based on both land-area standards and a taxonomy of single- versus multi-family housing.

Not recent published, but recently found…Another for the reading list….soon.

Are There Limits to Gentrification? The Contexts of Impeded Gentrification in Vancouver

by David Ley in Urban Studies
This paper examines conditions that impede inner-city gentrification. Several factors emerge from review of a scattered literature, including the role of public policy, neighbourhood political mobilisation and various combinations of population and land use characteristics that are normally unattractive to gentrifiers. In a first phase of analysis, some of these expectations are tested with census tract attributes against the map of gentrification in the City of Vancouver from 1971 to 2001. More detailed qualitative field work in the Downtown Eastside and Grandview-Woodland, two inner-city neighbourhoods with unexpectedly low indicators of gentrification, provides a fuller interpretation and reveals the intersection of local poverty cultures, industrial land use, neighbourhood political mobilisation and public policy, especially the policy of social housing provision, in blocking or stalling gentrification.

And related…

Urban rapid rail transit and gentrification in Canadian urban centres: A survival analysis approach

by Annelise Grube-Cavers and Zachary Patterson in Urban Studies
Despite the existing knowledge that urban rapid rail transit has many effects on surrounding areas, and despite some attempts to understand the links between transit and gentrification, there remain methodological gaps in the research. This study addresses the relationship between the implementation of urban rapid rail transit and gentrification, which is conceived of as an event. As such, an event analysis approach using ‘survival analysis’ is adopted as the statistical analytical tool. It tests whether proximity to rail transit is related to the onset of gentrification in census tracts in Canada’s largest cities. It is found that proximity to rail transit, and to other gentrifying census tracts, have a statistically significant effect on gentrification in two of the three cities analysed. By providing a methodological framework for the empirical analysis of the impact of urban rail transit on gentrification, this paper is a reference for both researchers and transportation planners.

She’s got Mike Davis eyes

Apologies if that title brings back bad memories of ’80s synth-pop (as it does for me).

Last week in my “Great Urban Thinkers” class, we discussed the well-known urban author and critic Mike Davis. In the “Fortress L.A.” chapter of his book City of Quartz, Davis writes

The neo-military syntax of contemporary architecture insinuates violence and conjures imaginary dangers. In many instances the semiotics of so-called “defensible space” are just about as subtle as a swaggering white cop. Today’s upscale, pseudo-public spaces….are full of invisible signs warning off the underclass “Other.” Although architectural critics are usually oblivious to how the built environment contributes to segregation, pariah groups – whether poor Latino families, young Black men, or elderly homeless white females – read the meaning immediately.

Although Davis was writing about the L.A. of the late ’80s, there are certainly examples of upscale pseudo-public spaces in contemporary Vancouver (e.g. Pacific Centre) as well as abundant signs and signals meant to thwart the presence of poor people in our downtown core areas (not to mention selectively enforced bylaws).

Knowing that, I decided to pursue a Davis-related short assignment: to walk around the Downtown Eastside (DTES) with Davis’s words in mind and notice both the overt and the subtle signs of inclusion and exclusion, as well as any barriers, obstacles and warnings related to security and policing.

I had no specific plan when I got off the bus on Hastings, just west of Carrall; I just wanted to wander and see where my eyes and interest took me. It took all of two minutes for a theme to develop. This is hardly an original observation, but wow – so many metal gates. Everywhere. At first I thought I might count them, but it quickly became apparent that it would be easier to count the ungated doorways. These are just a few of the gates I noticed within a few blocks of each other.


Actually paying attention to all these metal gates made me think about the messages they send to neighbourhood residents. Yes, some are more aesthetically pleasing, arguably less intimidating than others, but ultimately, don’t they all convey the same messages?

Keep out.

This is not for you.

Go away.

We don’t want you here.

How would it feel to spend all one’s days in this kind of environment? I think it would put me in a bad mood – or at the very least contribute to a chronic underlying crankiness and tension. These are feelings I can easily imagine turning to hostility and aggression. Supposedly the gates are sending the same messages to all who pass them, regardless of income, social status or relationship to property, but that’s not really how it works. If the keys to one or more of those gates jangle in your pockets as you walk around, if you’ve been behind those gates or know you could go there if you really wanted to (without breaking the law), the gates you can’t pass through are going to bother you a lot less.

The ubiquity of the gates also made me wonder about the minority of ungated properties. I’d be interested to know why those ones don’t have gates. Is it that they can’t afford to install them, or is it a deliberate decision not to contribute to the siege atmosphere that the gates produce? Perhaps some of the gated businesses inherited their gates when they moved into their spaces and they’d just as soon not have them, though removing them is not a priority. Or perhaps an inventory would show that the ungated properties are the ones that house businesses at low risk for break-in, or that don’t have much to steal. I didn’t keep a tally, but I noticed that the Potluck Café (run by the Portland Hotel Society) and Bean Around the World Café were not gated (unless they have internal gates not visible from the outside). Are the gates concentrated in particular sections of the neighbourhood? I think these are interesting questions and I wonder if anyone has researched them. Seems like a good topic.

All this is not meant to criticize or single out individual businesses for gating their premises. I don’t live or work in the DTES (though in the past I’ve volunteered at two neighbourhood nonprofits). Nor am I familiar with its latest crime stats. I’m sure if I had a business anywhere and I’d been broken into even once, I would at least think about taking steps to prevent it from happening again. No one wants to feel afraid and no one wants to lose money. I should also make clear that I don’t think having a gated property in the DTES and being a socially responsible business owner are mutually exclusive. There may be many examples of gated businesses with owners who hire locally, proactively work with local service agencies and who know and welcome low-income residents to their premises. Kudos to all of them. The points I’m trying to make are about the pervasive presence of metal gates, how that presence and materiality must shape both the psychology and everyday experience of low-income residents, and also how different that is from my experience of my own neighbourhood.

And of course, actual metal gates are not the only ways that messages of belonging, exclusion and defensiveness are communicated. As I walked around, I also thought about fonts. I’m no type designer or historian, but I do have a thing for fonts (particularly of the arts and crafts style). It comes with the word nerd territory. How do the fonts that signs are written in tell people whether they belong somewhere or not? I don’t know exactly, except that we’re all immersed and in the process of interpreting our visual and written culture each day, all day – even those of us who are illiterate or struggle with literacy (perhaps they even more so, since they can’t extract information from the textual content of signs.) Again, I didn’t keep a tally, but I can tell you that as I walked around, I saw very few fonts like this or this:













And a lot more like this.





I’d argue that if even if things were switched around so that the sign using the hip, postmodern font said “all-day breakfast,” low-income people would still be receiving a “stay away” message.

Seeing all the upscale restaurants and stores selling expensive clothing, furniture, jewellry and shoes, I also thought about times I’ve visited ritzy shopping districts in major cities such as New York. Sure, it can be fun to check these areas out and indulge a few fantasies, even though I can’t afford to purchase the items for sale. But would I want to live in an area like that, surrounded by things I can’t afford and by people so much wealthier than I? No way. Actually, I always keep my forays to such areas short because walking around feeling envious is no fun – it puts me in a bad mood. It’s true that some of that bad mood comes from exposure to what I consider to be obscene overconsumption and inequality, but I crave beautiful objects at least as much as the next person. And if I’m prone to fall into an envy-induced funk when I visit places like that for just a couple hours, what must it be like to have to deal with that all the time in your own neighbourhood? Especially when you can’t afford to live anywhere else. Especially when you have had little to no say in the rapid changes taking place around you. Obviously, these are points that DTES residents have been making themselves, loudly and for a long time. They are part of why the recent DTES community planning process (and its results) have been contentious.

Overall, walking through the DTES while trying to see through “Mike Davis eyes” yielded plenty of signals of exclusion and defensiveness – ones I’m certain are instantly decoded by those whom they’re meant for. But they are sign-makers too.


street painting
On the pavement of the alley between Hastings and Cordova at Cambie.


Responses to CAC post

I was very pleased to see that Gordon Price re-blogged my post on community amenity contributions (CACs) on his own widely read and respected blog, Price Tags. It generated some discussion there, and also prompted another blogger (Jens von Bergmann) to generate a map based on the info in the spreadsheet I compiled. I liked that.

Price Tags, State of Vancouver and Cityhall Watch are probably the three urban-related Vancouver blogs that I find the most informative and useful, so it’s great to be able contribute to discussions on any of those.

Jak King, who is among those I mentioned in the post, also responded on his blog, which is another one I try to read regularly. It’s more focused on East Van and Grandview Woodlands. While I don’t agree with all the positions he takes (same goes for the others), I definitely appreciate the information he provides about neighbourhood goings-on and history and the status of local businesses.

I recommend checking out all of the above blogs.

A timeline of housing-related Airbnb events

I’ve created this timeline of events related to Airbnb’s impact on housing (rental housing in particular). I thought it would be useful because there has been so much housing-related news about Airbnb for the past several months, and even before that. Sorting out everything that’s happened in New York, San Francisco, Portland and elsewhere can be confusing. I hope this timeline helps me (and anyone else who’s interested) keep things straight.


It’s a work in progress and I’ll be updating it as I go along. The information comes from online articles and news stories, which I’ve quoted and linked in most cases. Please bring any errors you catch to my attention through my contact form or Twitter.