Dan Fumano / The Province / November 2, 2018 (with mention of BCNPHA)
Kennedy Stewart becomes mayor this week and is determined to build thousands of units of non-profit rental housing. Most councillors are onboard and both the B.C. and federal governments are talking about spending on housing.
The expanse of gravel on the south shore of False Creek, where crows splash in puddles beside rows of parked Vancouver police cars, doesn’t look like much.
But as Kennedy Stewart strolled around the property with an umbrella one rainy morning this week, he envisioned big things for this parcel of land. It’s one of the city-owned sites where Vancouver’s mayor-elect wants to build non-profit, affordable rental housing. Lots of it.
Any new rental supply will be welcome in a city with a near-zero vacancy rate. But with costs of land and construction soaring, it’s unlikely new rental units produced by the private sector would be truly affordable for many Vancouverites earning local incomes. That’s why Stewart wants to emphasize the non-profit housing sector in a way the city hasn’t in a long time. Maybe never.
Even though just over half of Vancouverites are renters, the city’s had a shortfall of rental housing construction in the last decade, while both developers and city hall have profited from a construction boom of market condos and detached houses.
Stewart’s housing plan largely aligns with the 10-year strategy that the City of Vancouver adopted last November, but with one significant difference. While the goals in the housing strategy adopted by the outgoing council were described by senior city staff as “aggressive” and “ambitious,” Stewart’s plan more than doubles the number of non-profit units proposed in that plan.
The site on the False Creek waterfront, just east of the Cambie Bridge’s southern end, figures into Stewart’s vision for building 25,000 non-profit rental residences in the next 10 years, including homes geared to families earning $80,000 a year or less, seniors and “supportive housing for our most vulnerable citizens.”
The mayor-elect has other ideas for combating Vancouver’s housing and homelessness crisis, including priorities he’s pledged to tackle in his first 100 days in office.
But Stewart faces a different situation than his predecessor, Mayor Gregor Robertson, whose Vision Vancouver party enjoyed a majority on council for his three successive terms.
“(Vision) could just kind of slam-dunk a majority all the time, and this isn’t the case now,” Stewart said. “Without one party having a majority on council, we’re in a very different situation than it’s been on councils since, well, nobody can really remember the last time. I guess it was maybe with (Mike) Harcourt where there wasn’t a majority dominating on council.”
Indeed, when Harcourt was elected in 1980 to the first of his three terms as mayor of Vancouver, he presided over a council that was as mixed as the one that will be sworn in next week.
And as Stewart prepares to lead a diverse council with five councillors from the Non-Partisan Association (NPA), three Greens, and one each from OneCity and the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), Harcourt recalled that his first council in 1980 had a similar mosaic: Harcourt also had five NPA councillors, along with three COPE councillors, and two from The Electors’ Action Movement (TEAM).
Now, like many others, Harcourt looks forward to seeing how Stewart will work with his new mixed council.
“I think he’s got people there that he can work with,” Harcourt said. “My sense is, from looking over the platforms and talking to people, that there’s no huge differences on the key issues.”
Like Stewart, many of his new council colleagues campaigned on the need to focus on non-market, non-profit housing. That represents a bit of a throwback to Harcourt’s early days at city hall. Harcourt was first elected to council in 1973, when the federal and provincial governments were investing in housing.
But starting in the mid-1990s, senior levels of government began stepping out of housing. City records show that in the 20 years between 1994 and 2013, the number of non-profit homes built annually in the City of Vancouver dropped by more than 40 per cent compared to the 20-year period between 1974 and 1993.
Under Robertson, the Vision-majority councils attempted to build non-profit housing using the powers they had at the municipal level.
“Unfortunately, Gregor didn’t have a federal or provincial government that was willing to put broad-based funding into affordable housing,” said Harcourt. “He was fighting with one arm and leg tied up, and that’s pretty hard to do.”
Stewart, however, will benefit from an alignment of provincial and federal governments that have stated their commitments to fund housing, Harcourt said, adding that Stewart’s target of 60,000 new homes over 10 years through the private sector (including rental apartments, condos, coach houses and townhouses) is realistic, and his target of 25,000 non-profit homes is both “doable and necessary.”
Brian Clifford, policy manager for the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association, said the number of non-profit housing completions in Vancouver has “fluctuated significantly” during various provincial and federal governments in the past half-century.
“With new provincial and federal resources coming online, I think that Kennedy Stewart’s targets are certainly achievable,” Clifford said. “Now that they’re here (Ottawa and province), we can enter into a new era of building non-profit housing on a scale we haven’t seen in at least a generation.”
Stewart stressed the opportunity provided by the current alignment of federal and provincial governments.
“We have a magic moment right now,” Stewart said.
But he’ll need council’s support to seize that moment.
Harcourt remembers that when he presided over his mixed council three decades ago, he recommended appointing councillors from three different parties to key positions as the chairs of vital committees: TEAM’s May Brown, COPE’s Harry Rankin and George Puil of the NPA. It was a strategic decision, he said.
Similarly, Stewart wants his council’s key positions, including deputy mayor, finance chair and Metro Vancouver representatives, to be shared by representatives from the different civic parties. In a series of memos sent Thursday from the Mayor’s Office to council, Stewart’s recommendations for key roles are spread across party affiliations. In contrast, four years ago, Robertson’s recommendations for those positions were almost entirely from Vision.
On Monday, after the ceremonial swearing-in, the new council will vote on Stewart’s recommendations for appointments.
“All of that is really our first big test in terms of how we’re working together,” Stewart said.
Since his win Oct. 20, Stewart has been talking to all the councillors-elect and he’s confident they’ll be able to work collaboratively.
“It’s so far, so good,” he said. “But Monday will tell us a lot. It will tell us a lot about how we’re going to work as a council. … That will tell how quickly we can get through the housing plan.”
But if council can’t be on their most collaborative behaviour Monday and smoothly get through that inaugural meeting’s votes on appointments, it could foreshadow a long, rancorous four years of council gridlock.
In addition to building more non-profit homes, the incoming mayor and council have several other housing policies they’ll try to advance over the coming term. Here are four of them.
End the permitting backlog
There’s one thing everyone agrees on: Permit approvals in the City of Vancouver take too long. Delays drive up developers’ costs, which contribute to higher house prices. Builders large and small have complained for years, but the city has struggled to make headway.
Stewart said the permit backlog is an issue he wants to tackle early and he expects to have “almost universal agreement” on council about the need to improve the situation.
City staff have been investigating what can be done to reduce the backlog, both by hiring additional staff and making the process more efficient, Stewart said, “and we’ll be briefed on that and then write motions and bylaws stemming from that.”
In interviews this week, councillors from all four parties on council — NPA, Greens, COPE and OneCity — expressed support for tackling the permitting backlog, and particularly for expediting affordable rental projects.
One of only two returning councillors, the NPA’s Melissa De Genova introduced a motion earlier this year directing city staff to look at how they could expedite permits for projects that would deliver the most affordable rental housing. Her motion was referred to staff and the new council will receive a report soon.
Pete Fry of the Greens, one of eight new councillors, said he’s had conversations with builders and architects about how changes to bylaws could make the permitting process more efficient. In particular, Fry wants to streamline the process for creative in-fill developments that can gently add density to single-family neighbourhoods without tearing down houses to replace them with other kinds of housing that might produce more neighbourhood backlash.
Fry pointed to a property in his neighbourhood, Strathcona, as an example of creative in-fill development.
The homeowner, Mira Malatestinic, said the permitting process was slow and “frustrating.”
Fry wants city hall to help such projects flourish.
The century-old house is being split into two units, so the owner can live upstairs and a renter downstairs, while a unique in-fill construction behind the house will yield three rentals: a studio, a one-bedroom and a three-bedroom suite suitable for a family. What was one home will soon be five.
“I’m hoping to spark the conversation about how we can expedite gentler forms of density that can meet some of our affordability needs,” Fry said. “Hopefully, if we can make it easier for small-scale developers to do this kind of work, we can make it affordable as well.”
Empty homes tax
When Vancouver’s council voted in 2016 to impose an empty homes tax, the first of its kind in Canada, it was met with some backlash.
During this year’s election campaign, several mayoral candidates, including NPA candidate Ken Sim, criticized the empty homes tax, while others, including the eventually victorious Stewart, campaigned on a pledge to triple it. And pending a review of the tax, which is expected to bring in $30 million in its first year, it seems Stewart may have support from council for his plan.
The incoming councillors from COPE and OneCity, Jean Swanson and Christine Boyle, support boosting the empty homes tax, and the NPA and Green councillors said while they’re not opposed to increasing taxes on homes that are legitimately empty, they want to clarify and possibly change some of the exemptions.
The NPA’s De Genova said while she’s not opposed to taxing empty homes, she wants some exemptions, such as for empty parcels of land where developers are awaiting permits from city hall, or for people who work and own a home in Vancouver and maintain a second home while travelling back and forth from a nearby municipality.
In May, the B.C. government enacted legislation to give municipalities something that several of them had requested for decades: the power to zone properties for rental-only developments.
Two months later, Burnaby council passed a motion directing staff to implement a rental zoning bylaw, but Vancouver’s council made no such moves before its term ended this week.
That could change with the new council.
Stewart and many of his incoming council colleagues have indicated their support for rental-only zoning, particularly around rapid transit hubs such as the route of the planned Broadway subway extension of the Millennium SkyTrain line.
Rental zoning can help dampen land speculation, Stewart said, and help provide housing for lower- and medium-income workers.
There’s growing concern in many North American cities about service and retail employees being unable to afford to live anywhere near their workplaces. Census data has shown that Toronto is experiencing an increasing number of suburban-dwelling service workers having to make ever-longer commutes into downtown. One researcher, quoted in theToronto Star in September, said the city is turning into a kind of Downton Abbey, with the “lords and ladies living upstairs and then you have this cadre of people who support them.”
That phenomenon contributes to labour shortages, and Stewart pointed out that the stretch of Broadway where the subway will run is home to many retail and service businesses that have struggled recently to find workers. One of Stewart’s goals is to create “mixed-income neighbourhoods,” and increasing secure rental supply in those areas might help provide homes for employees, which could in turn help some of those small businesses.
While the mayor-elect has his own plans and ideas, so too do many of his new councillors.
Veteran anti-poverty activist Jean Swanson, recently elected as a COPE councillor, campaigned on a pledge to fight for what she calls a “mansion tax.” Swanson proposes an extra tax of one per cent of the assessed value of Vancouver homes over $5 million — on top of the provincial government’s new surtax, starting next year, on residential properties assessed at more than $3 million.
Swanson estimates the tax could raise $170 million in its first year, to be used to fund non-market housing with the aim of ending homelessness.
But it’s not something the city has the power to impose. Swanson has said she’ll try to get city council to vote on lobbying the provincial government to allow Vancouver to impose a mansion tax, as well as other measures aimed at protecting tenants, such as a rent freeze.
Christine Boyle, OneCity’s first elected councillor, has said that she also supports what she calls a “progressive property tax” on high-value residences.
“But we didn’t campaign on a rent freeze, and there were further-left folks who criticized us for that, ” said Boyle. “What OneCity was really trying to talk about was a long-term comprehensive housing strategy. … The way I understand it, a rent freeze is kind of a short-term solution. The rent freeze is not the hill I’m going to die on.”
The NPA’s De Genova said she would need to read Swanson’s motions before commenting on how she might vote on them, but added that Swanson “maybe needs to look at what the City of Vancouver can do under our charter versus what the province can do. It’s easy to ask for a charter change, but it’s probably not going to happen.”
Stewart, meanwhile, said, “That will be the challenge for Coun. Swanson for these less-mainstream ideas, to really make her case for it and then to bring it forward to council and have votes. … Coun. Swanson will have to try to assemble her six votes in order to pass some of these ideas, as will the others on their individual policies.”
Swanson acknowledged she faces an uphill battle.
“It’s going to be hard getting the things that I want (through council),” Swanson said. “But one of the reasons that people don’t vote is they say politicians never do anything to help them. Well, I want to be a politician that does something to try and help renters and low-income people.”
The new council’s first regular meeting is set for Nov. 13.