Nick Eagland, Vancouver Sun, May 2 (with quotes from BCNPHA CEO Jill Atkey)
Vancouver planning staff say the COVID-19 pandemic is laying bare problems with the city’s housing system, so they will be changing course with a plan they say will rapidly reduce homelessness, increase affordable rental stock and create jobs.
Gil Kelley and Dan Garrison, the general manager and assistant director for the city’s department of planning, urban design and sustainability, made a presentation to council this week stating how they must work to “pivot” the city’s housing strategy to keep it sustainable. What they described were permanent changes, not temporary fixes.
“If there’s a silver lining to the COVID crisis and the economic crisis, it’s that it has revealed the true weaknesses, the broken parts of our urban systems,” Kelley told council Wednesday. “We need to think about how we want to remake some of the basic underlying parts of the city’s fabric, and that includes normalizing a healthy housing market which has not been normal or healthy for the better part of the last decade.”
Kelley and Garrison said the changes started with the COVID-19 emergency response, which protects people who are homeless or at risk by housing them in emergency recovery centres, hotels and other places, and improving access to basic needs such as food, hygiene and income.
The next phase of the plan, lasting until the end of 2020, outlines immediate actions to address homelessness, support renters, create jobs and meet urgent housing needs.
Kelley and Garrison said there are 15,000 housing units in the application or inquiry stage, and the city needs to prioritize the “high-impact” affordable housing projects in that pipeline, including shelter-rate and low-income housing as well as affordable and market rentals, where construction is expected to start in the coming months.
The city will need to engage private and community housing sector partners to support market and non-market developments, and work with government partners to increase their affordability, Kelley and Garrison said. It will have to update policies to allow more non-profit and co-op housing, as well as market and below-market rental.
“We are hopeful there will be stimulus spending coming to help with the recovery and we want to make sure that we have as many projects ready to take advantage of that and contribute to that effort as possible,” Garrison said.
Lastly, the plan looks at changes over the next two years to “re-calibrate” work to provide permanent housing for people who need it most and create housing that is affordable on local incomes.
Garrison said the city needs to focus on providing stable housing for “the most marginalized folks,” particularly in the Downtown Eastside.
He said the pandemic has shown that private SROs aren’t an acceptable part of a sustainable housing system, and so the city has been talking with partners in recent weeks about acquiring and rapidly converting them into self-contained social housing.
“We need to significantly scale up the community and public housing sector to provide the non-market housing that we need, and continue to work with the private sector to shift toward the right supply so that we’re encouraging private investment in creating housing that better reflects local incomes but also supports our economic development needs, particularly as we move into the recovery,” Garrison said.
He said they will also need to embrace that Vancouver is a “city of renters” with more than half of households living in rentals.
Garrison said staff have heard calls for the elimination of the city’s empty homes tax and the province’s speculation tax to kickstart the economy, but said governments must stay the course to prevent speculation.
“This is going to be a fundamental part of moving forward into the new future, rather than trying to go back to the way things were, because we need to remember that the way things were wasn’t working for a lot of people,” Garrison said.
Jill Atkey, CEO of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association, said the plan has the right focus on non-market housing and affordability.
“They’re looking at maximizing affordability for households that are really struggling, very low-income, potentially impacted by recent events,” Atkey said.
“I don’t think any of us has a really good handle on what the rental market is going to look like post-COVID — and that includes city staff — so nobody’s got a crystal ball at this point, but their focus is absolutely in the right place.”
Atkey said the plan to further streamline approvals of projects already in the pipeline is key, given that it can take up to four years for that process, which drives up costs and, subsequently, rents.
She was also pleased to see the city discussing acquisitions of privately held SROs to turn them into social housing, as well as acquisitions of older purpose-built rental stock to be turned into non-market housing.
Despite the city’s concerns about its financial sustainability amid the pandemic, it is in a much better position than many other municipalities to address housing issues, Atkey said.
“They’ve got significant land holdings that they can deploy toward the purpose of affordable housing, and they’ve got some additional powers under the Vancouver Charter that other municipalities don’t have,” she said.
“We know the need in the City of Vancouver is significant. Hopefully, other municipalities will follow suit.”