Creating affordable housing: Learning from Vancouver

What responsibilities do cities, with their relatively limited tax base, have to ensure its citizens have decent accommodation?

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This disinvestment is reflected in the City’s funding priorities. A recent Carleton University analysis of the City budget trends (helpfully sub-titled Balancing its Budget on the Backs of the Poor) indicates spending on social programs has lagged behind other budget items since 2010. Despite an overall increase in City spending and a demonstrated need from vulnerable populations, community services investments have fallen behind other service areas. 

Recently, Ottawa’s land development corporation, which like Vancouver’s Property Endowment Fund has a mandate to add value to social value to land transactions listed several properties for sale. Some of them are excellent multi-unit residential and mixed-use sites that could have been used to further the City’s long term strategic goals. 

Particularly egregious is the sale of a family housing property on the City’s list of affordable housing sites notwithstanding the fact that in 2015, 39% of all shelter clients were members of a homeless family!  The sale contradicts Council‘s own Housing First policy for surplus City lands. 

Still not convinced? While Vancouver fast tracks non-profit housing applications, Ottawa has an expedited ‘concierge service’ for large private sector development applications making other projects, including affordable housing projects wait in line. 

While Ottawa’s ability to negotiate public benefits is significantly weaker than Vancouver’s, its Council further weakened this tool by agreeing to accept only 75% of the potential contribution.

Vancouver is a long way away from solving its affordable housing and homelessness problem but at least it is putting every reasonable resource at its disposal towards finding a wide range of solutions. 

The creation of new municipal facilities such as the new East Hastings Library or the Firehall #5 was used as an opportunity to provide affordable housing for single moms and their kids.

Taylor Manor, a vacant City-owned heritage building has been converted into supportive housing for people with mental health challenges.

The City’s New Neighbourhoods policy has been used to create hundreds of affordable housing units. Its grant program has helped non-profit agencies and even BC Housing create new units. 

Vancouver‘s strategic land banking has resulted in a partnership of three not-for-profit agencies currently constructing 360 rental units, 75% of which will be subsidized.

Another City-owned site has been used to create the Immigrant Service Society’s brilliant new Welcome House. The Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency which has a goal to create 2500 units on City land by 2021 recently announced plans to build 250 units in the East Fraserlands district entirely without assistance from the federal or provincial levels of government. 

There are many more examples but behind Vancouver’s success is a strong commitment to create policies that enable a livable, sustainable city and the political will and staff resources to put the policies into practice. 

Politicians can always be more accountable, bureaucracies can always be more effective and better ways can always be found to engage partners. But let’s take a step back from the hyperbole and give Vancouver some acknowledgement for its achievements.  

Dennis Carr has 26 years’ experience creating affordable housing and social facilities in Ottawa and Vancouver. From 2009 to 2014 he was Assistant Director, Social Infrastructure, for the City of Vancouver. He is the recipient of the 2016 Canadian Housing and Renewal Association Lifetime Achievement Award.

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