An update on Vancouver’s bizarre definition of ‘social housing’

1059-1075 Nelson Street

On June 2, 2020, City Council passed a motion by Councillor Pete Fry entitled “Defining Social Housing Consistently and Transparently in the City of Vancouver,” directing City staff to look into the bizarre definition of “social housing” being used by Vancouver’s planning department.

This wording was not the staff’s fault. It had been adopted by City Council in 2014 under the former Vision Vancouver regime (under former mayor Gregor Robertson).

However, the City’s definition persists and is being used in housing decisions to this day. It is a boon for developers, as it allows developers to benefit (added height and density, fee waivers, etc.) in a new building by being considered “social housing” even though 70% of the units are actually market-priced rentals (i.e., expensive).

More than one current sitting councillor has chosen other words to describe the city’s definition of “social housing”: Orwellian doublespeak – (language that deliberately obscures, disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words).

Clr Pete Fry made a valiant attempt to get this all cleared up and have the City use words that are more honest and would avoid misleading the public. On June 2, 2020, Council adopted the motion (see full text below) directing staff to look into this. This is the main gist of his motion:

  • The City of Vancouver definition of Social Housing is inconsistent with the standard definitions employed by the Province, Government of Canada Agencies and the English-speaking world;
  • When attempting to understand housing targets or determining the merits or public benefits of a rezoning or development application, Vancouverites may be confused or misled by the term Social Housing as defined by the City of Vancouver and applied to the entire project, not just the percent or portion of non-market affordable rental or co-op housing.

We checked with Clr Fry to follow-up and learned that a memo went to Mayor and Council from (now former) chief planner Gil Kelley date March 5, 2021. The response is very interesting as it compares the corresponding wording being used in various other jurisdictions.

But the conclusion of the ten page memo is that the chief planner preferred NOT to make any changes in the definition.

Clr Fry shared with us his observation, that “… for the public, the technical definition of social housing is a sort of Orwellian doublespeak when it references something other than the common definition of subsidized low-income housing,” and indicated he would prefer the City to use the term “non-market housing” and phase out the term “social housing” entirely.

Further below we provide some links to media coverage, plus text of the motion. Here is the March 5, 2021 memo by former planner Gil Kelley: “Response to Council’s “Defining Social Housing Consistently and Transparently in the City of Vancouver” Motion.”

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LINKS

‘Call it what it is’ — Most Vancouver ‘social housing’ geared to $50,000+ incomes: “It’s like putting lettuce in your cheeseburger and calling it health food.” (Dan Fumano, Vancouver Sun, 23-Apr-2019)
https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/dan-fumano-citys-definition-of-social-housing-includes-households-earning-80000-incomes

Councillors question City of Vancouver’s definition of social housing
by Carlito Pablo on March 11th, 2020
https://www.straight.com/news/1371006/councillors-question-city-vancouvers-definition-social-housing

Vancouver definition of social housing contrary to English language, Pete Fry says in council motion
by Carlito Pablo on May 28th, 2020
https://www.straight.com/news/vancouver-definition-of-social-housing-contrary-to-english-language-pete-fry-says-in-council

THE MOTION

Defining Social Housing Consistently and Transparently in the City of Vancouver – Motion by Clr Pete Fry
Note – this is the original text. The final text was modified with an addition in the THEREFORE section.
https://council.vancouver.ca/20200526/documents/motionb4.pdf

Standing committee on May 27, 2020 discussed it.
https://council.vancouver.ca/20200527/pspc20200527ag.htm

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BELOW IS THE TEXT OF THE MOTION AS ADOPTED ON JUNE 2, 2020.
THE PDF DOCUMENT REFERENCED ABOVE IS THE OFFICIAL RESPONSE FROM VANCOUVER’S THEN CHIEF PLANNER, ON MARCH 5, 2021.

Defining Social Housing Consistently and Transparently in the City of
Vancouver

At the Council meeting on May 26, 2020, Council referred the following motion to the
Standing Committee on Policy and Strategic Priorities meeting on May 27, 2020, in order
to hear from speakers.
Submitted by: Councillor Fry

WHEREAS

MOTION

  • Defining Social Housing Consistently and Transparently in the City of Vancouver

At the Council meeting on May 26, 2020, Council referred the following motion to the Standing Committee on Policy and Strategic Priorities meeting on May 27, 2020, in order to hear from speakers.

Submitted by: Councillor Fry WHEREAS

1. Social Housing is defined by the City of Vancouver Zoning and Development By-Law as rental housing in which at least 30 percent of the dwelling units are occupied by households with incomes below housing income limits, as set out in the current Housing Income Limits (HILs) table published by BC Housing; which is owned by a non-profit corporation, non-profit co-operative association, or by or on behalf of the City, the Province of British Columbia, or Canada; and which is secured by a housing agreement or other legal commitment; 1

2. On March 15, 2014, Social Housing in the Downtown Eastside and elsewhere was re-defined by amendment after but not subject to the public hearing process; 2

3. The Province of BC, through BC Housing, defines Social Housing as owned by a not-for-profit organization, a co-op or a government. Rents are subsidized (usually by the government) making it possible for people with lower incomes to find housing they can afford. Household income must be below certain limits in order to be eligible; 3

4. The Government of Canada and Province of British Columbia bilateral 10 year Social Housing Agreement (June 2018) defines Social Housing as housing that is owned and operated by non-profit housing corporations and housing co-operatives or housing owned directly or indirectly by provincial, territorial or municipal governments or district social services administration boards and further distinguishes Social Housing from Affordable Rental, Affordable Homeownership, Transitional Shelter or Other Supportive Housing, and specifically commits support to 34,491 Social Housing Units, of which 20,427 are low-income; 4

5. For purposes of census data, Statistics Canada defines Social Housing as “non-market rental housing” (for example, where housing allocation and rent-setting mechanisms are not entirely dictated by the law of supply and demand); 5

6. The English language and urban studies variously define Social Housing as any rental housing that may be owned and managed by the state, by non-profit organizations, or by a combination of the two, usually with the

aim of providing affordable housing. Social housing is generally rationed by some form of means testing or administrative measures of housing need; 6

7. The City of Vancouver definition of Social Housing is inconsistent with the standard definitions employed by the Province, Government of Canada Agencies and the English-speaking world; and

8. When attempting to understand housing targets or determining the merits or public benefits of a rezoning or development application, Vancouverites may be confused or misled by the term Social Housing as defined by the City of Vancouver and applied to the entire project, not just the percent or portion of non-market affordable rental or co-op housing.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED

A. THAT Council direct staff to review the definition of Social Housing across City regulations, and consider alternatives that refer specifically and only to non-market affordable rental or co-op housing.

B. THAT Council direct staff to report back with a proposed new definition of Social Housing and an inventory of current housing that meets this new definition of Social Housing.

C. THAT Council direct staff to report back on the process needed to implement any new definition of Social Housing in City regulations.

D. THAT Council direct staff to consult with B.C. Housing, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and non-profit organizations and stakeholders involved in the development, funding and operations of social housing in the City of Vancouver to consider definitions for different types of housing.

E. FURTHER THAT staff explore ways to work with the Provincial Government and Federal Government, including: Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) and Lower Mainland Local Government Association (LMLGA) in consideration for updating the definition of social housing.

  1. City of Vancouver – Housing Vancouver Strategy https://council.vancouver.ca/20171128/documents/rr1appendixa.pdf
  2. City of Vancouver – Standing Committee of Council on City Finance and Services, 2014 https://council.vancouver.ca/20140312/documents/cfsc20140312min.pdf
  3. Government of British Columbia Housing Glossary https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/housing-tenancy/affordable-and-social- housing/housing-glossary
  4. CMHC-BC Social Housing Agreement 2018 http://www.bchousing.org/publications/CMHC-BC-Bilateral-Agreement-April-2018.pdf
  5. Statistics Canada https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=4610002401
  6. Caves, R. W. (2004). Encyclopedia of the City. Routledge. p. 610. ISBN 9780415252256.

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