Discover more from Vancouver Needs More Housing
Housing as a local and national challenge
Fear of new housing as a powerful factor in local politics.
The housing ladder
My wife and I have two kids who are now 18 and 20. Like most parents in Vancouver, we’re worried about where our kids can afford to live.
Housing being so scarce and expensive in Vancouver is making us all poorer and worse off. After you pay for housing, you don’t have much left over. There’s a lot of people making an income which would be decent in most places, but in Vancouver you still feel poor.
What’s happening is, we’re not building housing fast enough to keep up with jobs. I think of housing as being like a ladder, with more expensive housing higher up on the ladder. People don’t move to Vancouver randomly, they move here because the jobs are here. We need people to work in health care, for example. So when people come here and find a place, other people are pushed further down the housing ladder. They can still pay the same amount, it just means that the housing they’re getting is worse. This is how we end up with pretty high rents for housing that isn’t great. And then a lot of people at the bottom of the ladder are just forced off.
To fix this, we need more housing.
We especially need rental housing, not just condos. With condos, you can either be rich enough to own, or you can rent but you have no security. In a purpose-built rental building, you have secure housing without needing a giant down payment.
We also need to build up public services, not housing alone. We need child care, schools, health care, community centres, and transit. And of course the construction workers who build these buildings, and the people who work there, like teachers and nurses, need somewhere to live.
Fear of new housing
We have a lot of people who want to live and work in Vancouver, and other people who want to build housing for them. The challenge is, there’s a lot of people who are afraid of new housing. I totally get it - it’s human nature to fear the unknown. Fear is a very powerful factor in local politics.
To give one example, whenever an apartment building is proposed, even five or six storeys, you need to notify everyone in the area, as if you’re trying to build a nuclear power plant. Our systems are set up to make it difficult to get permission to build more housing. That’s how we have such a severe housing shortage. That’s what we need to fix.
If we don’t fix this, if the only people who can afford to live in Vancouver are people who moved here 20 years ago, we’re going to end up with an aging population and an overstressed health-care system, because nurses and even doctors can’t afford to live here.
What this looks like at the national level
With Covid, we suddenly had a lot more people working from home, who therefore needed more space. So now we have a surplus of office space and a shortage of residential space. At the national level, this is what’s been driving prices up for the last couple years during Covid, despite the borders basically being closed. People move where the jobs are, and with more remote work, people could move across the country, but total demand for space increased.
In BC, we’re accustomed to housing being expensive, although it’s gotten a lot worse over the last 20 years. In Ontario, the situation with fear of new housing and scarcity of housing is similar, and it’s an even more explosive political problem. I spend a lot of time online, and I can tell you that younger people in Ontario are boiling mad. It feels like there’s a widening gulf between renters, who are typically younger and poorer, and homeowners, who are typically older and wealthier. There were areas in Ontario where home prices basically doubled in two years.
To fix this, to get back to the level of affordability in 2003, CMHC estimates that we need a massive buildout of residential floor space in both Ontario and BC. About twice as much as the business-as-usual rate, from now to 2030.
So if the bottleneck is at the local-government level, driven by people’s fear of new housing, how can the federal government convince them to allow more housing?
Machiavelli describes the three elements of diplomacy as persuasion, compromise, and threats. By coincidence, these are also the three elements of intergovernmental relations in Canada.
For example, at the provincial level, David Eby has been employing all three in trying to get municipal governments to approve more housing. He’s been championing the need for more housing, he’s been offering funding for municipalities, and he’s threatened to override municipalities which block housing. He can make these threats because municipal governments are creations of the province.
The federal government doesn’t have the same ability - instead of carrots and sticks, they only have carrots. But I’d suggest that the Trudeau government should also be making much more use of persuasion, making the argument that local governments need to approve much more housing, instead of just leaving the field to Pierre Poilievre.
I mentioned the CMHC report which says that BC and Ontario need to build more than twice as much housing over the next 10 years. It came out a few months ago, but I haven’t actually seen any federal cabinet ministers talking about this.
One thing I’m curious about is whether federal Liberals are afraid of the prospect of falling home prices causing homeowners to freak out. If so, I would argue that this fear is exaggerated. Homeowners don’t really benefit from their massive gains on paper unless they sell, and then where would they live? I’ve talked to a surprising number of homeowners with $2 or $3 million homes who don’t feel rich.
It’s a maddening situation, because we’re all worse off as a result. It’s a terrible situation for renters, but there’s no offsetting gains for homeowners. Everyone feels stretched to the limit.
The upcoming election
For the last four years, Kennedy Stewart has consistently voted for and spoken in favour of more housing, especially rental housing. That’s why I’m running with his slate, Forward Together. Our plan is to double the rate at which we’re approving new housing, so that getting approvals is no longer the bottleneck.
In this election we have a clear choice, because on the other side, Colleen Hardwick and TEAM for a Leavable Vancouver are leading those who fear and oppose new housing. The election is an opportunity to settle the issue, instead of battling it out at every public hearing.
Colleen Hardwick and her team like to talk about a fight for the soul of Vancouver. But the real soul of Vancouver isn’t the buildings. It’s the people who live and work here. We can keep the buildings the same, so that they become more and more expensive and younger people are forced to leave. Or we can allow the buildings to change, so that our children can find a place to live.