David Ley is a thoughtful and well known urban geography professor emeritus at University of British Columbia who is just about to publish a book on “Housing Booms in Gateway Cities”. This week Dr. Ley wrote an editorial for the Vancouver Sun that hits at the heart of the Broadway Plan proposed by Vancouver’s City Planning Department.
It’s similar to what Michael Geller has stated: you just can’t densify yourself to affordability, despite what national newspaper writers based in Toronto say.
Acknowledging that upzoning around rapid transit stations makes sense, he cautions that allowing for the increased densities and broad brush upzoning of the Vancouver and Broadway Plans will “raise land values, and as developers pay more for a site, their cost is passed on to owners and tenants. The result is unaffordable housing.”
Calling the City Hall plans a “fixation” on huge density concentrations to conjure up pockets of affordable housing, Dr. Ley notes that increased density did not make housing more affordable in False Creek North or along the Cambie Corridor.
Dr. Ley talks about the fact that there is little acknowledgement of the “destruction of the existing built environment and the widespread displacement of businesses and city residents scarcely acknowledged.”
He also delves into what rents will be in those 20 percent of units designated for low income renters, and for those that don’t get a subsidized unit. With average rental prices now at $2,100 for a one bedroom and $3,000 for a two bedroom, those rental units assume that people are employed in high salary positions. Dr. Ley writes:
“Even now, with a rent in the Broadway corridor of say $2,400 for a new one-bedroom unit, an annual household income of $96,000 would be necessary if rental costs were at the standard of 30 per cent of gross income. For a new two-bedroom unit at $3,400, the equivalent necessary household income would be $136,000.
These incomes are well above Vancouver’s median household income, and beyond the reach of most workers in local businesses and health care services around Broadway.”
“Once up-zoning occurs, the genie is out of the bottle, and the housing stock faces inflationary pressures the city cannot control.”
Dr. Ley notes that all types of housing have become an investment asset, not just a place to live. While it appears that offshore speculation slowed with Provincial levies, prices still increased with Canadian investment.
The rezoning of the PCI tower at Granville and Broadway (which apparently is being shopped around for a new buyer now that the density has been decided) will ripple property values around it, making it tough for existing rental commercial and residential properties to remain. The flagship store of Chapman’s near the tower location at 2596 Granville has just folded after 134 years in business.
Dr. Ley also directly addresses the tenant displacement policy proposed for the Broadway corridor, where the City has touted that displaced tenants will be rehoused in a new building at the same rent. He notes that in London England developers were able to get rid of affordability promises by using “viability assessments”, saying that fluxing market conditions meant they could not go through with the agreements. It will be for future Mayors and Councils to make these decisions, but London offers the precedent.
Look for future developers in Vancouver that will argue that they want to build the Broadway density if they are allowed strata units, with a negotiated smaller percentage as affordable rental or with a buyout to the city.
Future City Councils will have to decide how to address this, and the discussion takes away from the supposed policy goal of this density being solely for rental housing.
Dr. Ley feels that that in a housing emergency sites should be found throughout the city, and innovative partnerships explored on vacant railway lands and near new job anchors, like the proposed St. Paul’s Hospital replacement. He points out that there are schools and institutions in neighbourhoods that have space that could house teachers, and opportunities in detached neighbourhoods to provide housing close to where people would also work. He feels the Federal government must also pony up to deal with the much needed “massive immigration plan”anticipated, and the need for more housing.
The last word goes to Dr. Ley:
“These suggestions are illustrative and schematic, and are intended to prompt imaginative policy-making that thinks beyond the current obsession with densification alone. Such policy-making would certainly embrace soft densification, but not the widespread and massive destruction/reconstruction envisaged in the Broadway and Vancouver plans.
It was the threat of massive destruction and displacement that brought an end to the freeway era. The freeway system advocated by the NPA council in 1967 was decisively rejected in subsequent civic elections. This fall’s civic election will provide a similar survival test for the policy of massive densification.”