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Vancouver’s affordability challenge an old story, says developer

Peter Caulfield
Vancouver’s affordability challenge an old story, says developer

Many of Vancouver’s present housing concerns – the price of accommodation, the availability of houses and the role of foreign investment – have been vexing the city since the 1970s, says Vancouver developer and retired architect Michael Geller.

“Although housing cost less in absolute terms at that time, the affordability problem was much the same as today,” Geller says. “The issue received a lot of attention, including newspaper and magazine articles and even books.”

The problem today is more severe than it was 50 years ago, however.

“Affordable housing is more out of reach now in the Lower Mainland than it has ever been,” he says.

Geller discussed the region’s affordability problem and related ups and downs in a recent presentation at Simon Fraser University Continuing Studies called Looking Backward and Forward: Vancouver’s Changing Urban Development Landscape.

Vancouver is not the only Canadian city with a housing affordability problem, says Geller.

“Vancouver and Toronto have had similar experiences,” he says. “What differentiates Vancouver is its limited land supply. The region is hemmed in by the Pacific Ocean, the north and south branches of the Fraser River, the Coast Mountains and the U.S. border.

“And Vancouver has a relatively moderate climate. It’s still green here in January and lots of natural beauty that attracts people from all over the world.”

Beginning in the 1970s, governments recognized there was a housing problem, so they put in place programs, such as the Multiple Unit Residential Building Program, to mitigate the situation.

“In the 1980s, Vancouver began to encourage people to live downtown, not just the West End (between downtown and Stanley Park), where highrise apartment buildings had been popping up since the1950s and 1960s,” says Geller. “And there were government programs then to support the purchase of housing downtown.”

In the early 1990s, however, most of the federal government programs ended.

“Because there was still a need for housing, the provincial government and municipal governments in the Lower Mainland created their own programs,” says Geller. “Much industrial land was rezoned for residential development in Vancouver, North Vancouver and New Westminster.”

At the time there was little concern about the loss of industrial land close to the centre of the region.

“There was plenty of rental housing and condos created close to downtown, but by then many of the jobs had moved to the suburbs,” says Geller.  “Now Vancouver has a serious shortage of industrial land.”

According to a recent study commissioned by the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade and NAIOP Vancouver, a commercial real estate advocacy group, the city’s industrial land vacancy is about one per cent, among the lowest in North America.

Vancouver needs more multiple-family housing, says Geller, and it should be located along main streets, such as Broadway and Cambie, and close to schools and community centres.

“There will still be plenty of single-family housing,” he says. “What’s needed are more ‘missing middle gentle-density’ initiatives of the kind there are in Washington State and Oregon, small-scale townhouses in single-family neighbourhoods.”

Geller says creative solutions need to be found to make housing in the region more affordable.

“For example, some residential development should be allowed on light industrial properties,” says Geller. “Today’s industry is different from industry in the mid-20th century. It’s not as big, dirty or intrusive.

“And 50 years ago, nobody would have thought of building condos over commercial properties. But there’s different thinking today. Supermarkets, for example, make very attractive anchors for residential condominium developments.”

Another outside-the-box idea for tackling the housing situation is home-sharing.

“It’s similar to car-sharing, and it’s coming,” says Geller. “According to the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis, there are an estimated 800,000 empty bedrooms in Vancouver.”

Finally, he says, we should replicate the network of efficient interurban trains that used to connect the regional municipalities.

“There should be lines east as far as Chilliwack and northward to Squamish.”

Geller, who has lived in Vancouver since the mid-‘70s, says the city and the region are in danger of losing their quality of life.

“What made Vancouver attractive and what brought me and others here – the natural beauty, the openness, the greenery, the unobstructed views of the mountains and the ocean, little traffic, no congestion – is gradually being lost,” he says.

Geller’s presentation was followed by responses from Ray Spaxman, a retired architect, urban designer and planner; Michael Epp, Metro Vancouver director of housing planning and development; and Zoe Brook, development manager at Brook Development Management.

“My idea in selecting the responders was that Spaxman represented the past, Epp the present and Brook the future,” says Geller.

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