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.

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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, http://www.metrovancouver.org/services/regional-planning/PlanningPublications/2006census_dwell_Dec2007.pdf. 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, http://vancouver.ca/docs/policy/housing-rental-housing-strategy-synthesis.pdf. p.24, Table 7. Also, Statistics Canada, “NHS Profile, Vancouver, CY, British Columbia, 2011.”

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.

Back and forth on CACs

So, did you know that community amenity contributions (CACs) are at the root of every housing problem Vancouver faces? Neither did I, until I watched Glen Chernen of the Cedar Party in a civic election debate on housing affordability last week. Perhaps I exaggerate slightly, but Chernen really did seem to work something about CACs into each of his responses, and I gather this was not a one-time occurrence. CACs, in a nutshell, are contributions the city negotiates with developers who seek rezoning. In probably 99% of the cases, the developer is asking  to  build more units than the current zoning allows, i.e. to increase density. And in the vast majority of cases, if granted, that extra density will be achieved through the construction of taller buildings. The amenities requested in return might be green space, public art, affordable housing, or sometimes just the cash to buy these things. There’s been a lot of interesting debate recently about the pros and cons of Vancouver’s CAC system, but suffice to say I don’t think Mr. Chernen’s remarks contributed to it. This was the first time I’d heard him speak and I didn’t find him credible (or informed) at all; I’m stretched to believe that anyone else would. You can view the debate here and decide for yourself.

However, the debate did include some substantive discussion on CACs, which came about one hour in, in response to a question from Vancouver Sun journalist Jeff Lee (a former journalism instructor of mine). Lee said that the money in the city’s CAC reserve fund had increased from $48 million in early 2009 to $128 million in 2013. He asked each of the candidates whether she or he would support spending that money on affordable housing.

Although it provoked responses I was interested in, I think the question was a bit off the mark in that, as I understand it (and I stand to be corrected), a good chunk of the CAC reserve fund is probably already earmarked for spending on affordable housing – that’s one of the various purposes for which the city uses CACs. The other thing is that the money in the CAC reserve that isn’t already designated for affordable housing has been designated for spending on other public goods, such as the ones already mentioned. I’m no authority on how CACs are negotiated and I’m not one to have blind faith in governments, but I am fairly confident that the amount and type of CACs that are negotiated for each project is not random, but instead the product of deliberate decisions, likely (hopefully) based on an assessment of neighbourhood needs. I’d even venture so far as to suggest that there is some means (I’m not saying adequate means) for communities affected by each development to have input into how the associated CACs are used. If that’s the case, it would be poor process and antidemocratic to overturn the existing decisions on how to spend CACs so that all the money could instead be funneled into affordable housing, as dire as the need for that housing is. The only candidate who seemed to agree with the idea was OneCity’s RJ Aquino, whom I otherwise think has worthwhile housing ideas. The others all said no, for somewhat different reasons. Chernen and the Green Party’s Adriane Carr called the current CAC system “broken.”

Even before this debate, I’d been thinking quite a bit about CACs because the topic came up in the class on “great urban thinkers” I’m taking as part of my master’s in urban studies. That discussion led me to wonder if there was a comprehensive list somewhere of all the city projects that had ever been funded partly or wholly through CACs. And if not, it made me think there should be. Doesn’t that make sense? CACs (and the related topics of development, housing and density) are subjects of debate and even controversy. It would be helpful for our local government to provide its residents with a list of public benefits the CAC policy has produced and what was traded to get them. I don’t see this information as supporting one side or the other of the debate, but instead just part of transparent and accountable governing. Unfortunately, a comprehensive list does not seem to exist, at least not in the city’s possession, and I did ask. Granted, such list would be very long indeed, stretching back about 25 years (for a brief history of CAC policy, see this article originally found on the Price Tags blog).

What does exist, however, are three publicly available (though not easily findable) annual reports that provide details on the benefits obtained through CACs in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The city planning department informed me that a 2013 report is in the works, which is good news. While I’m very glad the reports exist, they are provided in pdf format, which makes it onerous to sort and compare information, and they don’t have all the information I would like to see included.

Therefore, to aid analysis, I have compiled the information in those reports into a spreadsheet and posted it here:

https://docs.zoho.com/sheet/published.do?rid=32ek9248ec85b33014b818b229b4f0b138900

Please note:

  • The city reports do not include information about before and after floor space ratios.
  • The city reports do not include the names of the developments or developers (I plan to add those gradually), only their street addresses.
  • The city reports do not include a column for “recipient,” which I have added and aim to fill in as I’m able.
  • I created the “type” column and the types with the goal of making it easier to sort by type of benefit.
  • I have checked this data for accuracy against the city reports, but use it at your own risk – you may wish to check its accuracy yourself.
  • I recommend reading the city reports for context and policy information.

Adding pre-2010 data seems like a worthwhile but daunting project since it would require sifting through city reports on each rezoning. That’s unfortunate, since as former planning director Brent Toderian put it, “Our annual DCL and CAC reporting has made the results of public benefit system much more transparent and understandable for members of the public.”[3] I agree.

I have also compiled an incomplete list of some Vancouver civic leaders and urban thinkers who either support or critique the current CAC system. “For” or “against” in this case doesn’t necessarily mean that any of those listed are unreservedly in support or opposed to all aspects of the current CAC system; it just signifies where I think they best fit.

For

Against

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New publication! My short-term rentals story in The Tyee

I am pleased to announce my first actual byline in, oh…longer than I want to say. My story on how short-term rentals, as facilitated Airbnb and similar web tools, affect the supply of long-term rental housing in Vancouver appeared in The Tyee on June 27. Read all about it here: Are Online Vacation Renters Displacing Vancouverites?

I’m also pleased to see follow-up coverage by CBC Radio and TV. BC Almanac did a segment July 5, which covered much of the same ground as my story, though focused more on the lack of lodging taxes paid in these transactions.

Then on July 6, CBC TV did a 2-minute news segment. It’s great to see this, though I note that they interviewed a Yaletown resident who rents out the second bedroom in his condo. From a safety and security point of view, that sort of short-term rental is not really the issue, since the host will often be present when the guest is there and that does a lot to mitigate concerns and risks.

More to my point, I would argue that renting out a spare room (or an entire apartment or home while the usual resident is away) has a fairly minimal effect on the supply of rental housing that’s available to actual Vancouver residents. It’s true that that second bedroom could be housing a local resident instead of a tourist and we certainly need all the affordable housing we can get in Vancouver. But I think policy-makers should be much more concerned about the many entire apartments, condos and secondary suites and houses that are being rented to tourists (at higher rates and without the oversight of the Residential Tenancy Act) instead of adding to the city’s woefully inadequate and aging rental housing stock.

I also don’t know, but would like to, where CBC TV got the figure of 3,000 rooms available for short-term rental to tourists.

Elsewhere, Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs elaborated on the comments of his I included in my story on his own blog. And a Gabriola blogger chipped in here.

 

Post-semester reading

Ah, the end of the semester….freedom to toss all the books out the window, or to delve into the ones you’ve been dying to read but had to slot behind assigned reading lists. And these days, most of my academic reading is in the form of pdf or online journal articles anyway, so not that many actual books involved. Here’s an armful I took home from the library this week – left a few behind to spare my arms and back.

Books from Belzberg

Books from Belzberg

Methodologies in Housing Research, in particular, seems like it could be very useful for my thesis preparation and research.  I’m really looking forward to Manhattan for Rent by Elizabeth Blackmar, whom I remember and admire from researching the history of Central Park for my history undergrad honours paper. Blackmar co-wrote The Park and the People, one of my favourite urban history books, with Roy Rosenzweig.