The City of Vancouver Housing and Homelessness Strategy, approved Thursday July 28th, is a bold move in the context of Canada’s increasingly unaffordable housing markets. The comprehensive, ten-year plan calls for the creation of 38,900 affordable homes in the city: 7,900 supportive and social housing units, 11,000 rental units, and 20,000 condos and “ownership” units. To help finance construction, the city intends to offer $42 million in land and capital grants to developers. 3650 of the supportive and social housing units will be built in the next three years. 1,700 of these were previously announced, but 1,950 are new developments which the city will build and run with BC Housing and non-profit associations, a model that has worked for decades in Vancouver. BC Housing will contribute 276 of the units, developers will build 205 (mostly due to density bonusing) and the city will seek funding for the remaining 319.

Until now, the city has remained in limbo in terms of building affordable housing, despite millions of dollars in contributions to its Affordable Housing Fund through density bonusing and a 20% social housing requirement for major rezonings of lands to multiunit residential use. Leaving construction of affordable homes to private developers hasn’t worked, so the city will partner with developers by providing grants and land in exchange for social and supportive units. The city will also lever its land resources and capital projects against funding from provincial and federal governments. The plan also calls for the city to approve more laneway housing and secondary suites. New affordable rental units have been achieved recently through the City’s Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing (STIR) initiative.

Like many municipalities tired of playing chicken with upper levels of government, Vancouver now has its foot firmly on the accelerator. The housing affordability crisis in Canada has reached ridiculous proportions, but we’re still working on the national affordable housing strategy (Bill-C-400), which replaced Bill C-304 from the previous session. Industry warnings of a housing market collapse have been circulated. And yet, the price of renting has increased much slower than the price of ownership over the past twenty years, as Canadian Business illustrated recently (“Rental Complex”, July 14, 2011). This article, the latest in a series of pieces in the popular press exploring the follies of ownership in today’s market, exposes the increasingly doomed love affair Canadians seem to have with homeownership:

“With widespread warnings that we’re approaching the peak of the housing boom, with Canadians more indebted than ever…why aren’t more of us re-examining the math? The reasons are cultural and emotional, backed by ill-conceived public policy. This Canadian Dream is an expensive delusion. There’s never been a better time to rent.” Joanna Pachner, Canadian Business

Along with increased acceptance of renting, the fallout from the US mortgage crisis includes recognition that the suburban, single-family home is no longer in huge demand: households without kids will increase by 90% from 2010 to 2020, according to Arthur Nelson, professor of planning at the University of Utah. This means far fewer buyers than sellers for single-family housing and an increased demand for multi-family and rental housing. As demographics and attitudes towards housing shift, the City of Vancouver is once again on the leading edge of policy innovation, though the plan is not without its critics. Hopefully elements of the plan will be evaluated throughout implementation, and discussed in other municipalities, which could help accelerate Bill C-400–the absence of a national affordable housing strategy has been holding up programs and funding between all three levels of government.

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