I am a relatively rare creature: a Millennial who owns their own home in Vancouver. I am among the privileged few who has managed, by a combination of luck and work, to purchase a 447 square foot shoebox (plus a parking spot!) in Kitsilano for an amount that would buy a family home on a decent-sized plot of land in most of the rest of the country. Now, let me be very clear: I’m not complaining about the cost (and, in fact, the wild appreciation of Vancouver real estate is actually in my own self-interest) for myself and I certainly don’t think that the government ought to go out and take money from other people in order to support myself. My concern is that a toxic combination of bad government policies has created a situation that has made most of Vancouver wholly unaffordable for any middle-class family that doesn’t have the benefit of substantial family wealth. Poorly thought-out government policies are going to create a future Vancouver whose population consists of the rich, intermittently-resident wealthy foreigners, middle-class people with well-off and generous parents, old people desperately holding on to decaying rent-controlled rental apartments, people living in multi-person ad hoc rental living arrangements, people living in subsidized housing, and the homeless. I don’t believe that that mix is likely to produce healthy results for either British Columbia or for Vancouver. You will notice that all sorts of people, such as middle-class professionals, young families, and comfortable retirees, missing from that list. What can we do to fix this?
Well, first of all, we need to consider why housing is so expensive in Vancouver. The short and most basic answer is the obvious one: the supply of housing available in Vancouver exceeds the demand for it. Therefore, because demand is greater than supply the price of housing in Vancouver steadily increases to bring these two factors into equilibrium. However, without some slackening of demand, prices will increase forever.
Some of this demand is healthy. People want to come to Vancouver because it’s a great place to live. The weather is mild. The streets are safe. The country and the province (if not the city) are fairly well-governed. The city is proximate to both the rest of North America and is accessible from Asia. There are large and vibrant communities here who represent many cultures from all over the world. All of these factors suggest that we should expect much of the demand for housing in Vancouver to remain steady over the long-term. However, there are other less-healthy factors that are also driving prices up. These are ones that we can control.
What are these factors?
First and foremost: the focus of our city government, across successive generations, has been too much upon the top and bottom of our society without any real attention being paid to the middle. Consider the concerns of the city government over the last decade: drug injection sites (and the broader “Four Pillars” approach), bike lanes, homelessness, the greening of the city. The focus of successive Mayors and Councils – both of the NPA and Vision variety – has been either upon the plight of the very poor or the parochial worries of gentry liberals.
When was the last time that Vancouver’s middle class had a Mayor who represented them? For my entire adult life the focus of the government of Vancouver has been focused elsewhere. As a result of this successive city governments have implemented policies that have been very harmful to the interests of the middle class without intending to be so.
Consider, for a moment, the effect of so-called “affordable housing” policies upon the middle class. What happens when a developer is required to set aside 20% of the units in a new development to serve as non-market housing? Do you really expect – indeed, would it be fair to expect – the developer to swallow the cost of this mandate? Of course not. The result is that the market units in the building then are sold at a higher price than they would be otherwise be in order to offset the cost of the social housing mandated by the city.
Likewise, the rent controls that exist through the Residential Tenancy Act are actually harmful to the interests of the middle class, because they ensure that people who are paying particularly favourable rents will never leave. The result of this is that new renters – or buyers – pay much higher prices than they would if the market were allowed to rule the housing market in Vancouver.
To put it in a single sentence: the price of Vancouver housing is kept artificially high by government policies that lock a substantial part of the city’s housing stock away from the normal mechanisms of the market.
That, however, is only half of it.
Another dimension of our housing problem is actually transportation-based. Anyone who drives in this city knows what a nightmare traffic is. When I lived out in the suburbs – Coquitlam in my own case – it often took well over an hour to move thirty kilometres from my home to the Downtown Core. This was largely a function of the fact that traffic along Hastings Street is routinely nightmarish. Likewise, my present commute from Kitsilano to Downtown can take twenty-minutes or more to cover five kilometres. Some of this is a result of long-ago decisions that we can’t do much about now (such as the way in which Highway 1 was allowed to bypass the city core), but at the very least we can have a government that endeavours to not make things worse by creating new obstacles. My personal commute is made worse by the fact that it manages to intersect with three different major bike lanes. The removal of the Dunsmuir and Georgia Viaducts would haul an already-awful east-west commute down to a deeper circle of hell.
There is no inherent reason why the city government needs to be spending its time going about finding ways to make people’s commutes harder: it’s simply that we have, in our foolishness, elected to office people who are implacably hostile to the automobile and therefore are eager to grasp upon any excuse that they may find to make the lives of drivers harder. Our bike lane-loving Mayor and his friends appear to be engaged in a long war against the car. They know that the people would revolt if they tried to make their dream of banning the whole of the proletariat from driving (there must always, of course, be exceptions made for the exceptional), so instead they intend to take the same approach that the government has taken against smokers over the years: using the frog-in-the-pan-of-water trick to slowly extinguish private automobile ownership in favour of forcing us all onto buses, trains, and bikes.
These transportation headaches have broader implications: people who don’t want to spend significant portions of their lives in traffic jams are forced to either move closer to the Downtown core or to cluster around Skytrain stations at a far-greater rate than they would if the city weren’t actively working to make their commute hellish.
If we had a government in Vancouver that was actually dedicated to helping the middle class, we would have some very different policies.
Instead of spending each day looking for new ways to inflict pain upon commuters, one of the top priorities of the city government would be figuring out how our traffic and road arrangements might ease the speed of traffic throughout the city.
Instead of creating boutique developments that, by necessity, cater to the rich or the very poor, the city would be actively looking for ways to open up land to allow for the construction of market housing that could be reasonably purchased by the middle class.
Instead of arbitrarily deciding that anyone from anywhere in Canada who happens to float onto our streets is now the permanent responsibility of Vancouver taxpayers, the city would be looking for ways to create law and bylaw enforcement priorities that focus on the quality of life of the city’s taxpaying citizens.
Someone needs to talk about these issues. My hope remains that Kirk LaPointe and the NPA, as the long-standing representatives of the free market in this city, will recover enough of their courage to do it. They have the money and the campaign infrastructure to do so and win. If they won’t, then someone else is going to have to do it.