Comments from urban design professor Scot Hein on fixing Vancouver’s definition of ‘social housing’ and on city-wide planning processes

We have previously covered a motion by OneCity’s Councillor Christine Boyle that first went to Council on May 18 seeking to significantly increase building height and density on most of the land in Vancouver for so-called “social housing,” while also eliminating public hearings. The result she sought was to have decisions made by the 3-person internally-staffed Development Permit Board, or even just having development applications stamped on the desk of just one sole person, Vancouver’s chief planner.

After City Council spent more than a dozen hours to hear from over a hundred speakers, a Council majority rejected the motion. There were many problems with the motion, not the least being the fact that former mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver-dominated Council had adopted a misleading definition of “social housing” (see June 2 article in Georgia Straight). Even people who had written to Council in support of the motion later wrote to retract their support and switch to oppose, once they went beyond the motion’s glitzy title and realized the implications of the words “social housing” as defined by the City. (As quoted from Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program in 2019: “It’s like putting lettuce in your cheeseburger and calling it health food,” in Vancouver Sun article.)

Map: Blue indicates RM, RT, RS, CM zoning districts in Clr Boyle’s motion.
Scot Hein

The text of the motion had been made public on short notice, leaving Vancouver citizens just the weekend to consider what it really meant. In the rush, there was a lot of discussion going on. Over time, we’ll report more on the potential implications of what her was proposing. One of several persons CityHallWatch asked for comment about the motion at the time was Scot Hein (formerly the senior urban designer with the City of Vancouver). Below is his answer.


CityHallWatch: Scot, what specifically does Vancouver need at this point, instead of Councillor Boyle’s motion, and other “interjections” you allude to in your article about the five-minute city and the current flood of planning processes? (Reference: “How Much of Vancouver Is Even Left to Plan? (The city pledged to engage neighbourhoods on their futures. But it keeps interjecting new zoning,” The Tyee, )?

Scot Hein: Taxpayers own zoning. Full stop. We elect our officials to serve the greater good by protecting the social value of zoning, especially at this challenging moment. How can we be sure that the motion is a good deal?

Send it [the motion by Clr Boyle] back to:

  1. Change the definition of social housing back to better reflect true affordable housing for those in need (this must happen first).
  2. Instruct staff to report back on how the non profit sector approaches project viability vs the for profit sector (this will expose profiteering and demonstrate how socially based outcomes can pencil out vs what we now blindly accept as profit based outcomes. It will/should also expose the city’s institutionalized bias towards a for-profit paradigm in non-market housing delivery).
  3. Given greater insight under 2), instruct staff to look at regulatory strategies (policies and approval processing) to incent/compel more intelligent proformas towards non-market delivery including leveraging parking obligations and eliminating excessive soft costs (land assembly and marketing).
  4. Then, instruct staff to report back on contextually thoughtful strategies (based on current zoning is ok, but by neighbourhood even better) that optimise non-market delivery based on a no or minimal land assembly paradigm with each neighbourhood context requiring attentive building typologies (not one size, 12 storeys, fits all across the city as a crude form that the motion, as I understand it, grafts onto each hood). Note: 12 storeys might be just fine in RM-4 zones while delivering 50% non-market or more!).
  5. Instruct staff to report back on expedited DP and BP processing for true non market housing based on the work above.

Pretty simple really. We’ve become so confused. Hope this helps.

He later added:

I’m trying to remain hopeful about the prospects of a city-wide plan that must be borne from hyper local design engagement. It should be both a physical plan (to reduce/eliminate our re-zoning addiction to community amenity contributions from developers) but also a non-market housing plan, first and foremost.


Scot Hein is an adjunct professor in the master of urban design program at UBC. He was previously the senior urban designer with the City of Vancouver.


More by Scot Hein

How Much of Vancouver Is Even Left to Plan? (The city pledged to engage neighbourhoods on their futures. But it keeps interjecting new zoning.)

Book Talk: ‘Battleground: Grandview’ by Jak King – A conversation with Scot Hein 4-Mar-2021. On YouTube:

Tour Olympic Village with Scot Hein | CanU 2020 Vancouver Tours. Walk the Olympic Village with Scot Hein, the former senior urban designer at the City of Vancouver who played a pivotal role in the visioning, design and delivery of this unique neighbourhood. On YouTube:

Is This Really Us? Vancouver falls prey to the architecture of globalism. Do we deserve better? (Patrick Condon and Scot Hein) 18-Jun_2019

Housing, Like Beer, Is Better Done in Small Batches
Time to diversify our home choices and styles. Here are some winning examples.

Notes on Scot Hein’s Quitting Vancouver’s Planning Department. An urban design prof passes on Hein’s farewell memo, and reads it through a dark lens. By Patrick M. Condon 9 May 2014.



Vancouver councillor says many cannot afford non-market homes in “problematic” definition of social housing (Carlito Pablo, Georgia Straight, 1-Jun-2021)

6 FSR. What does it look like? A mini-briefing on visualizing density

An update on Vancouver’s bizarre definition of ‘social housing’ (with link to crucial report by former chief planner Gil Kelley, March 2021)

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