In less than a decade, Vancouver has seen its real estate prices go over the roof, including single-family homes, townhomes and condominiums. Much has been written about the reasons why Canada’s most expensive real estate has been in the midst of a worsening housing crisis — a truth that has been apparent for quite some time now.
During Vancouver’s recent mayoral race, the city’s newly minted mayor, Kennedy Stewart, ran on a pledge to build 85,000 new homes over the next decade, including 50,000 rental units, of which 25,000 will be affordable rentals run by non-profits targeting households with incomes at or below $80,000 a year. Stewart is still committed to that goal.
“In the early ‘90s we had a good track record of investing in affordable housing, but after the federal money dried up, investing in affordable rentals and co-ops stopped,” says Stewart. “If Vancouver doesn’t invest in affordable housing, the city will lose some really good young talent. We do not want to live in the kind of city that lacks diversity … A healthy city is a well-balanced one.”
Stewart comes to his new job with a wealth of experience. As a tenured professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU) School of Public Policy, he wrote, taught, and provided advice to governments and the United Nations about cities and housing, and he holds a PhD from the London School of Economics.
Stewart says the city’s housing affordability crisis will greatly impact Vancouver’s future progress if the talent needed to fuel the economy can no longer afford to comfortably live there. The housing squeeze, says Stewart, is affecting a lot of residents, but more so people on fixed incomes and those entering the workforce.
“Both governments are more willing partners in the effort to increase the stock of co-operative and non-profit housing in Vancouver,” Stewart says. “This issue did not happen overnight, and it won’t be resolved overnight. The middle class and those with moderate incomes are facing the crisis month-to-month.”
There are many ways available to government to improve the lives of people in Vancouver and improve the city at the same time. Stewart’s plan is to prioritize non-profit housing solutions for those low-to-medium income earners, while at the same time encourage the for-profit housing industry to provide homes within reach of first-time, local homebuyers.
Stewart admits that over the last decade, developers have been building high-end condos for the rich. “That era of the icing on the cake is pretty well over. I’m seeing a real willingness from developers to build more affordable housing,” says Stewart, referring to conversations he had with developers and builders during his campaign and since getting elected.
To accomplish his housing goals, Stewart has been working on several policies to speed up the pace of development. They include: Clearing the backlog of building permits for purpose-built rentals; hiring a renters’ advocate to offer information, advocacy, and legal assistance during tenancy disputes and reno-evictions; provide homeowners more opportunities to develop their own properties (i.e. laneway homes and suites), while allowing for more duplexes and triplexes to be built in single-family neighbourhoods.
The city also needs to continue to build denser neighbourhoods, especially around transit.
“The previous council identified increasing density in both the Cambie Street and West End corridors,” says Stewart. “We are now moving ahead with a new rail line to UBC which will allow for more mixed neighbourhood densification in this area.”
To deliver on his promise, Stewart says he has the support of federal and provincial governments.
“It is very encouraging that both levels of government are willing to work together to create long-term housing funding and bring back tax rules to encourage the construction of rental buildings,” he says. “For the city to grow and prosper and for our residents to share in that prosperity, all must have access to quality, affordable housing. I have a lot of confidence that we can deliver affordable housing to the city of Vancouver.”