Policy Updates
BCNPHA in the News

Vancouver Sun: ‘Every problem is a housing problem’ that shouldn’t be left to municipalities

Dan Fumano, Vancouver Sun, December 12 (with mention of BCNPHA)

Conor Dougherty doesn’t want decisions about what gets built in his Oakland neighbourhood to be made by Joe Biden from the White House, and he doubts Vancouverites want that from Justin Trudeau.

But if every apartment building required approval at the neighbourhood level, almost nothing would get built.

“So where is the middle between those two?” asks Dougherty, an economics reporter for the New York Times. “It’s this eternal question: What is the right level? State, federal, local? … How much should be controlled by the region? Or even neighbourhoods?”

Most big-city economies operate at a regional level, which is also how crucial decisions like transportation planning are handled. But the all-important question of land use — what gets built near multi-billion-dollar transit stations, for example — is up to municipalities. This disconnect, experts say, often produces tensions, obstacles and inefficiencies.

“That’s fundamentally what our problem is with housing: We have these regional economies that operate independent of individual cities, and there’s nobody at the local government who is empowered to make decisions in that way, so you have this conflict,” Dougherty said.

The issues Dougherty documents in his native San Francisco Bay Area he also sees in other burgeoning urban centres, including Vancouver, where he’s visited on past reporting trips. That’s why the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association and its partners invited Dougherty to participate in an online panel in the lead-up to last week’s Housing Central 2020, B.C.’s Affordable Housing Conference.

Dougherty told Postmedia about some of the old challenges and new approaches coming from the Bay, an area with a particularly severe housing crisis. Consider that San Francisco’s homeless population is almost three times Vancouver’s on a per capita basis.

Dougherty’s recent book “Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America” examines the housing crisis through a handful of Bay Area residents, including the homeowners of Lafayette, Calif., described as “a wealthy suburb in the San Francisco Bay Area that is notoriously antagonistic to development.”

Dougherty describes the saga of a parcel of Lafayette real estate, near a Bay Area Rapid Transit station, where a developer tried to build 315 apartments, and then 44 single-family houses. Both plans were eventually derailed by fierce opposition from local homeowners.

The Lafayette story was adapted into an essay published in February in the New York Times under the headline: “Every Problem In America Is a Housing Problem.” Dougherty uses the Lafayette example to illustrate a larger problem, arguing that if people are serious about tackling climate change, homelessness, generational wealth divides or racial inequality, all those conversations start with housing.

“There is, simply put, a dire shortage of housing in places where people and companies want to live — and reactionary local politics that fight every effort to add more homes,” he wrote.

Dougherty recalled speaking with a Lafayette resident who asked him: “‘Shouldn’t the people who live here be able to have a say in housing?’”

“I said: ‘Sure, in theory. But consider for a moment that train station you have there. That train station, which tons of people use, is useless unless it connects to other places.’”

Shared assets like train stations, bridges and roads “are there to make the whole place function as a region. And housing is the same way,” Dougherty said. “The point I’m trying to make is that it is just simply not OK for a bunch of people to conceive of themselves as these tiny, little cities, because they’re not. They’re tiny, little cities in the context of this much larger region, and the cities wouldn’t exist if they weren’t.”

When a municipality like Lafayette opposes building homes beside transit hubs, it inevitably puts pressure on neighbouring municipalities. And as with many of the Bay Area episodes and issues Dougherty writes about, It’s easy to imagine this debate in the Metro Vancouver context.

Metro Vancouver’s regional growth strategy, adopted in 2011, set out targets for adding homes in the region’s urban centres near rapid transit hubs.

For example, the plan aimed to increase the number of dwelling units in the region’s 19 “municipal town centres” (which include areas like Surrey’s Newton and Port Moody’s Inlet) by more than 65 per cent over 15 years, from a total of 49,000 homes in 2006 to 82,000 in 2021. The plan also looked to increase the total number of homes across the region’s eight “regional city centres” (bigger hubs like North Van’s Lonsdale and Burnaby’s Metrotown) by more than 50 per cent by 2021.

But as for which municipal centres are keeping pace with those 2021 targets, that information is not tracked by Metro Vancouver.

Metro monitors aggregated numbers at a higher level, and says they’re successfully directing “dwelling growth” towards denser centres. But they do not know, right now, which town and city centres are on track to meet the targets set out in 2011, and which are lagging behind.

Sean Galloway, Metro Vancouver’s director of regional planning and electoral area services, said the regional authority hopes to track that information in the future.

“Under the regional growth strategy, our policies are basically trying to direct a certain amount of growth towards these centres … to support transit and transit infrastructure investment,” Galloway said. “But it’s always a delicate balance because we’re not trying to tell munis what to do and how to do it.”

But Alex Boston, who heads Simon Fraser University’s Renewable Cities program, said it’s “frustrating” that Metro Vancouver set out 2021 targets nine years ago and, weeks away from 2021, doesn’t know where they stand.

Metro Vancouver’s land use planning is out of touch with its transportation planning, Boston said. “We’re building this gold-plated transportation infrastructure across the region, and we’re not getting value for it.”

The issue of senior governments wading into housing decisions is a major theme in “Golden Gates,” largely focusing around California state Sen. Scott Wiener, who Dougherty describes as a new kind of “unabashedly pro-housing” politician.

One controversial housing law Wiener drafted, implemented in 2018, required cities to fast-track residential projects that meet certain standards, including affordability. The bill was a boon for the state’s affordable-housing developers, The San Jose Mercury News reported, but “sparked an outcry from some local officials upset by the state’s usurping of their control.” Another senate bill from Wiener, which would have overrode local zoning rules to allow high-density housing near transit, was defeated in January for the third time, Dougherty reported in the Times, with opponents decrying “state overreach into local land-use rules.”

Boston said so far, B.C. “has not had very robust conversations” about decisions in California, where higher levels of government, in certain situations, take housing decisions out of local governments’ hands. There are obviously differences between B.C.’s situation and California’s — and California has certainly not solved its housing crisis — but Boston thinks B.C. should closely watch what Wiener and others in the Golden State are doing.

The idea of taking any powers away from mayors and councils in B.C. would be controversial. But, Boston said, if done right, it could actually serve the municipalities’ interests well.

“Our housing market is regional, our employment activity is regional, our transportation regime is regional, but we make these land use decisions at a municipal scale,” Boston said. “We need the regional government, Metro Vancouver, to have more authority and require things to happen.”


Back to News