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:
- 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.” 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.
- Geoff Meggs, Vision City Councillor on his own blog responding to professor Penny Gurstein’s op-ed below.
- Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s director of planning (2006-2012), responding on Frances Bula’s blog to what he calls “a campaign to have ordinary people turn against public benefits by suggesting they are contributing to unaffordability.”
- Gordon Price, director of SFU’s City Program and former NPA city councillor, saying “The city shouldn’t give up this wonderful cash machine.” Also see this dialogue between Price and Patrick Condon.
- Peter V. Hall, associate professor of urban studies at SFU, responding to Michael Geller.
- Patrick Condon, urban design program chair, UBC: Vancouver’s spot zoning is corrupting its soul.
- Jak King, former president of the Grandview Woodland Area Council, who calls CACs “the crack cocaine of city finance.”
- Penny Gurstein, UBC SCARP director, arguing that they are an obstacle to ending homelessness.
- Bob Ransford, consultant and former real estate developer, on their effect on housing costs.
- Peter Ladner, former NPA city councillor, on Gordon Price’s blog here.
- Ray Spaxman, former CoV director of planning: Is anyone else concerned?
- Michael Geller, architect and development consultant, on his own blog
- Adrienne Carr, Green Party councillor, saying the “The CAC system is broken” in the recent housing affordability debate (at around 1:10).