Final Report of Grandview Woodland Citizens’ Assembly: A Tepid Response to Vancouver’s Housing Crisis (commentary by Garth Mullins)

Commercial Drive GrandviewThe following analysis has been kindly contributed by Garth Mullins, a writer, award-winning broadcaster, sociologist and activist living in East Vancouver. The Grandview-Woodland Citizens’ Assembly report went to City Council on Wednesday, June 24, 2015. Vancouver Courier article here.

The Final Report of the Citizens’ Assembly: A Tepid Response to a City Housing Crisis

Analysis and commentary by Garth Mullins

Alarms should be sounding about the cost of housing in Grandview Woodland, a traditionally working class East Vancouver neighbourhood. But instead, the final report of the Citizens’ Assembly is a tepid response to this crisis. It provides big real estate developers with ample opportunity to make money, while giving non-wealthy residents little cause for optimism.

East Van activists have always been policy rebels. In the 1960s, residents stopped a freeway scheme that would have sliced through the heart of the community. In the 90s, we faced down an explosion in HIV and overdose death rates with innovations (at the time illegal) like safe injection sites. Now, with some of the most expensive housing anywhere, is East Van forgetting its fighting heritage? Or, has it already been gentrified?

Process Problems

Randomly chosen and unpaid, 48 Citizens’ Assembly (CA) members spent more than six months diving deep into community planning and policy. The members I know are largely passionate and committed community builders. But a shadow hung over their deliberations. The ever-present agenda of City Hall quietly shaped assumptions and framed debate.

CA Public Roundtable Grandview Woodland

Final CA “Public Roundtable” May 5, 2015

The CA was born two years ago, when the community angrily rejected a City plan for upscale condo towers across Grandview-Woodland. With the 2014 election looming, city politicians were looking for a way out. The CA was struck, punting the problem until well after ballots were cast. And much of that community anger has been patiently dissipated in byzantine City consultations and complex CA processes.

Supply & Demand

The housing crisis, Condo King Bob Rennie tells us, is a matter of supply and demand. Build more supply and the price will go down, he says. But that’s not how its been working out in Vancouver. Demand is unlimited. Supply can never, ever keep up. Rennie’s mistaken economics are just one of the assumptions that appears to have underpinned much of the CA’s work.

Vancouver skies are dotted with construction cranes, yet this remains the second-most unaffordable city on the planet.

Grandview-Woodland has always been welcoming to people from all over the world. It’s not density we fear, it’s displacement.

Numbers Game

The CA was charged with recommending options for housing thousands of new residents projected to move to the neighbourhood over the next 30 years – though the City has consistently refused to put a number on it. CA members were gently guided back again and again to the question: “Where will we put them?” The CA found itself searching for added density, to house an unquantified number of hypothetical residents, in part of the city that is already very densely populated.

But why build more if there’s already extra room? Estimates suggest that up to a quarter of all condos in Vancouver are empty – sheltering investments, not people. The CA’s recommendation 1.22 promotes “rent controls and the taxation of empty residences.” But there is no detail. Not like the detail that spells out where and how tall new projects can be, and what they should look like.

UBC Prof. Patrick Condon advises that infrastructure should be built ahead of housing. But that’s not what’s happening. Grandview-Woodland already has much less green space than the rest of the city. We are packed into over-subscribed buses and a glitchy computerized train system that runs on floppy disks. Closing neighbourhood schools is now being considered as a cost-cutting measure. Yet the CA did not make new development conditional on infrastructure upgrades, or filling Vancouver’s empty condos.

Recommendation 1.11 acknowledges that families need more than bachelor pads, suggesting a “significant portion of both two- and three-bedroom units in new developments.”

The CA report is preoccupied with finding density. But my neighbours’ preoccupation is whether they can afford to live here in three months, not where a hypothetical resident might lay their head in 2045.

The CA report offers no totals. It does not say how many new units would be created within current zoning. It does not say how many will be enabled by its many proposed relaxations of that zoning. Numbers of hoped-for social housing units are not quantified. Nor is that balanced against any projected number of evictions. It’s very hard to assess the tradeoffs. But some trends are clear. Across the city, rental stock is disappearing. Condo towers are sprouting up everywhere and housing is more expensive every year.

Rapidly disappearing cheap rents in East Van should have been a central preoccupation of the CA. There are some recommendations about their protection, but they are aspirational not conditional – not hard-wired into any new development. It is a license to build.

Regulatory Capture

Vancouver’s municipal government has been captured by big developers. And the constant presence of City planners may have infected CA deliberations.

Assumptions about population projections, revenue sources, markets, transit-oriented density, density along arterials, Community Amenity Contributions and tax policy are (for the most part) unchallenged in the CA Report. The Citizens’ Assembly was insufficiently bold in its recommendations, and failed to deconstruct the political assumptions that underpin its project.

Throughout the report, the CA frequently accepts the assumption that developers – not government – should pay for social services through the CAC scheme. Along Hastings Street, the CA recommends buildings of up to 20 storeys to fund “important community amenities, such as greener streets, supported housing, and spaces for cultures to come together and for youth to thrive” – public goods, formerly funded by the public.

Among the eight sub-areas of Grandview-Woodland there are areas where the CA clearly wants to protect affordable housing. There are also areas to be sacrificed to the will of developers. But there is little understanding that the latter will surely influence rents in the former.

Cedar Cove

The CA recommends the City “maintain and expand the existing affordable rental stock” in Cedar Cove. These three storey walk-up apartments are the most affordable in Grandview-Woodland. But in the next breath, the CA allows for a change in zoning; incentives to replace existing apartment buildings. The new ones will be much more expensive, even if they remain rentals.

Britannia Woodland

This is another part of the ‘hood with cheap rents. And recommendation 12.12 wants to keep it that way, by urging the City to maintain the existing stock of low-cost rental units, while allowing for some infill housing and lock-off suites. Recommendation 12.16 wants to regulate lot assembly, so developers cannot buy up land for big projects.

But then recommendation 12.18 allows for zoning of for up to 8 storeys of residential housing in what is now zoned for industrial use. The idea is that added height in the northern part of this area will make the 20 storey towers the CA recommends for Hastings seem less shocking.

Hastings Street

Hastings and ClarkCity policy is to build major towers along major streets. The CA is happy to endorse this approach on Hastings Street – up to 20 storeys.
But recommendation 11.12 hopes to ease the pain, by asking developers to stitch up the social safety net, enticing them to build non-market social housing and “much needed community services” in return for additional height on Hastings.

Such projects with their token social benefits actually drive up land values (that’s part of the business plan) and make housing less affordable. While providing a few subsidized units, these projects just increase the need for social housing. This vicious cycle is not challenged by the CA.

Grandview
The CA seeks to prevent land assembly in this sub area and zoning is kept to three storeys. But increased height and density is allowed on East 1st. The CA’s commitment to 30% rental would actually be a decrease from Grandview-Woodland’s average.

Nanaimo

The boundaries of the area considered here do not really correspond to those of the community. Again, development was permitted without hard-wiring other commitments.

Commercial Drive

The heart of the neighbourhood does not escape development. The CA recommends the corner of 1st and Commercial be developed up to four storeys of mixed-use buildings, giving the City much of what it was looking for in its original, hated plan. Toward the Grandview Cut, the CA allows for five storeys.

It will be expensive to live in these new developments and rent will be driven up everywhere else. Much is said of façades and storefronts, but little of the cheap apartments that line Commercial Drive. The whole report suffers from too much architecture and not enough sociology.

Venables and Commercial Drive

Recommendation 15.12 speaks to the Boffo / Kettle proposal to fund an expansion of mental health support services via a developer’s condo tower.

There is consensus in this neighbourhood that those with mental health challenges are a valued part of the community and that badly needed services should be fully funded. The method of funding these services via a condo tower is controversial.

Governments are slashing public services, leaving social service providers to turn to big business for funding. But such a model must be questioned.

While the CA does not take a position on this project, it recommends that federal and provincial governments provide funding.

The problem is not the Kettle / Boffo project. I have a great deal of respect for The Kettle Society. The problem is austerity – and it’s not the Kettle’s to solve. But the CA ought to step up.

Company Town?

The CA report seems convinced by the logic of big developers buying everything from our parks to our social housing. To be credible here, the CA needs to break entirely with the Community Amenity Contribution scheme. Social policy cannot be devolved to real estate developers. Particularly since access to affordable housing is the key social justice issue facing the city. Asking big developers to provide social housing is to ask the fox to guard the henhouse. Such social goods should be publicly funded, transparent and subject to democratic controls.

This privatized “social entrepreneurial” model harkens back to the 19th century, with an audacious millennial twist: social programs become PR opportunities for developers.

With a project-by-project approach, social housing and services are reduced to piecemeal one-offs, where individual social service agencies are forced to go cap in hand to major developers. This makes it impossible for government to develop strategies across jurisdictions. It reduces social programs to tokenistic marketing strategies of developers.

Worse still, this approach is corrosive to community solidarity. It pits opponents of major development projects against the proponents of social projects.

It pits affordable housing advocates against social service agencies. These groups should be united against austerity; against a company town that is more and more designed to exclude all but the richest. Funds for subsidized housing are sought from the very corporate bodies that are making housing so unaffordable.

While we fight among ourselves, the smiling CEO puts his feet up on a desk piled on one side with CAC calculations and on the other with eviction notices.

130521 Stage_set Commercial Bway 22-tower versionBroadway & Commercial

In 2013, residents revolted over the City plans to put upscale condo towers across Grandview-Woodland. Particularity hated was a 36-storey tower proposed at Broadway & Commercial.

Perhaps the City was engaging in Dr. Evil negotiating tactics. Officials knew 36 storeys would never fly. But the CA says OK to 12 storeys. Voila! Social license established for what would have been a controversial project. Maybe the City wanted something like this all along.

The CA details a significant increase in the density of the entire sub-area, allowing for rezoning, higher buildings and more people. At the heart of these recommendations is a failure to focus on the right problem.

The CA has taken up the City’s challenge of finding opportunities to squeeze in condos. And any protections for low-income residents have little force.

Broadway / Commercial is where the greatest density increase was proposed and the CA seems to accept the logic of gathering it around transit hubs. Patrick Condon’s notion of distributed density and the Streetcar City are rejected.

But why would residents put up with this? Why would we give license to build any further density without protecting low-income residents who have lived here for years? Grandview-Woodland is mostly renters. Rents are steadily increasing. Cheaper rentals are rapidly falling to the wrecker’s ball. And wages are stagnant or precarious. Residents are being priced out, forced to leave. To this, the CA recommends a “tenant relocation plan” to backstop the tidal wave of eviction notices that will be hitting existing apartments.

The CA Final Report does not rubber stamp building on the community-levelling scale originally proposed by the City. Statistical outliers and sub-orbital heights are rejected. But a staggering degree of development is permitted, particularly along arterial streets. It mirrors much of the logic set out in that plan originally rejected by the community.

City Hall Cherry Picking

The CA’s Final Report lacks the innovative spirit of previous struggles to defeat freeways and build safe injection sites. Even then, City Council is not bound to CA recommendations. It will likely cherry pick those that echo official, pro-developer policy. Buildings will go up quickly. Less well-defined social recommendations will be implemented too late, if at all. The record isn’t good here.

Until very recently, community amenities were funded by taxpayers and subject to transparent, democratic controls. But now even social housing is to be paid for by the sale of luxury condos – the very thing that is driving unaffordability, and increasing the need for non-market housing in the first place. East Van residents are the losers in this Faustian bargain.

In some places, the CA departs from the script. Recommendation 1.5, for example, urges the City to obtain land for non-market and supportive housing. And 1.6 asks the City to look at Winnipeg or Seattle for examples of incentivizing upgrades of rental stock without raising rents. We must take up these exceptions and fight for their realization.

But this could have been an opportunity to abandon the Condo King’s program, to reject the Community Amenity Contribution regime and highlight how this type of austerity and privatization is eroding democracy. The CA’s Final Report could have been a manifesto against the conquest of Vancouver by big developers.

In the rubble of post-war London, the British electorate found the will and resources to undertake a massive public housing building program. There is much more wealth in the world today, yet much less political will to spend it on social goods. That kind of will comes from citizens… particularly when they assemble.


Garth MullinsGarth Mullins is a writer, award-winning broadcaster, sociologist and activist living in East Vancouver, on the Salish Sea. He works in the labour movement, on harm reduction issues, anti-gentrification campaigns and for the rights of people with albinism. He makes radio documentaries for CBC. Check out his social justice podcast “East Van Calling.” He also plays guitar and vocals for “Legally Blind.” Garth has very low vision, so if you know him, and he doesn’t wave at you on the street, it’s no diss. www.garthmullins.com – twitter: @garthmullins

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