In experiential learning, students work on a real-world project, building the skills they will need after graduation and contributing their knowledge to a community organization, municipal department or other client. Experiential learning is a natural fit for the urban planning discipline, but has been used in fields as diverse as social work, biology, and computer engineering. At some universities, like the University of Oregon, the university partners with a different municipality each year, the municipality provides a list of projects they need help with, and different departments commit to developing workable solutions. It’s a win-win situation: students get the experience they need and often small municipalities or organizations without sufficient human resources are able to get projects completed.

As some of you know, last fall I taught my first urban design studio here in the Dalhousie University School of Planning. We focused on Mulgrave Park, a public housing community built in the north end of Halifax using federal-provincial funds in 1960. The students each  developed a small-scale proposal to improve the open and social spaces in Mulgrave Park. They included information for the client, the Mulgrave Park Caring and Learning Centre, on how such a proposal could be implemented and funded. One student, Justin Gosse, conducted an analysis of the retaining walls and their conditions on the steep site, suggesting ways in which they could be modified in the future. His project, in addition to other student work surveying the retaining walls, is informing Housing Nova Scotia as they proceed with detailed design and repair of the walls and infrastructure badly in need of repairs. As part of an effort to preserve social housing in Canada, the federal and provincial governments announced today that they will fund repairs to Mulgrave Park. The funding will pay for badly needed exterior building repairs, the restoration of crumbling retaining walls, and burying services. Construction will run from July 2017 until spring 2019.

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MP Andy Fillmore announces the $5 million in improvements in front of the students’ posters

MP Andy Fillmore (second from left) and Elaine Williams (second from left), a lifelong Mulgrave Park resident, at the announcement

MP Andy Fillmore (second from left) and Elaine Williams (second from right), a lifelong Mulgrave Park resident and President of the Mulgrave Park Tenants’ Association, at the announcement

The work of other students, including Amy Greenberg (window boxes with flowering plants for residents), Mona Al-Sharari (second community garden and greenhouse), Leen Romaneh (perception of safety), and Yuedi (Martin) Zhan (lighting) is also being integrated into future improvements at Mulgrave Park.

Congratulations to these fourth-year Bachelor of Community Design students, and to the often-overlooked residents of Mulgrave Park, who will benefit from these improvements for years to come. Our client Crystal John, Director of the Caring and Learning Centre, is very excited to think about the improvements coming soon! Crystal grew up in the neighbourhood and like many others living there, is truly invested in improving the community; her sister Elaine Williams, pictured with Andy Fillmore at the announcement, has also done a lot of work to improve conditions in the neighbourhood. Metro News reported that Elaine was in tears at the announcement, having campaigned for improvements for many years.

 

Public housing developments across Canada have been targeted for redevelopment for a complex set of reasons: designed in the 1950s and 1960s through federal-provincial urban renewal funding, their management has been a sore spot for the municipalities in which they are located. Many actually tore apart existing street networks and concentrated the poor in small areas, resulting in more isolated communities that were inward-looking. Most were designed without critical social infrastructure like community centres, schools, shops, and playgrounds so that young people had nothing to do. And most critically, most were sited in inner city neighbourhoods that, in the 1960s, were considered undesirable by the middle and upper class households that were fleeing the city for the suburbs.

Now of course, things have changed: most of these communities, like Regent Park in Toronto and Uniacke Square in Halifax, are in central neighbourhoods now considered to be highly desirable. Regent Park is in the middle of a twenty-year multimillion dollar redevelopment that, like many others of its kind, aims to replace only some of its public housing for very low income families. The main thrust of this type of redevelopment is better design (e.g. reinstalling the pre-existing street network, introducing mixed uses such as shops and services) fuelled by income mix: integrating market rate housing with some lower priced units.

A couple of months back, I introduced my readers to Mulgrave Park, a public housing community in Halifax which was the basis for my fourth year urban design studio this term. Beginning in September, students have been working with the Caring and Learning Centre and the Phoenix Youth Centre to redesign and reprogram some of the social and open spaces in the neighbourhood. I’d like to summarize the work they did as well as my own success in imparting some key policy and planning lessons.screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-6-12-47-pm

Students began individually, working on a historic analysis of the site, then proceeding to an individual design or programming element where they were encouraged to coordinate with each other towards a cohesive set of solutions. For the last four weeks of the term they put their ideas together into a comprehensive set of design/programming recommendations for the community. For their final presentation, they used posters to present their ideas to Crystal John from the Caring and Learning Centre and Maurice James from the Phoenix Youth Centre, and two of their staff members. They answered questions about feasibility, budget, and funding opportunities for their projects, which for the most part the clients really liked. The posters were also left in the Centre so that residents could see them and make comments on them with Post-it notes, with the intent to incorporate comments into their work. At the end of the term, the students submitted a final report to our clients which introduces the site characteristics, the rationale and criteria they used to develop their ideas, and a summary of all the concepts with maps and drawings.

One of the most interesting challenges the students had while working on this site was the way its original design, typical of urban renewal projects of the 1960s, eliminated interior streets so that the community ended up becoming quite insular. This, combined with the reputation of public housing residents among the rest of the city, has contributed to both social isolation from the city and a tight-knit community where everyone knows each other. Attempts to reduce this isolation can be detrimental to the community (as has happened in the redesign of many urban renewal projects including Regent Park in Toronto), however planners may feel about correcting the wrongs of the past. Another challenge was the physical characteristic of the site as having a steep slope, rendering much of its plentiful open space unusable. These two aspects in particular were constraints that impacted many of the students’ projects.

For the design elements, the students decided to pursue the following options:

  • Redesigning a gravelly, uneven field in the center of the community as a level playing field for kidsscreen-shot-2016-12-18-at-6-08-54-pm
  • Removing some unnecessary retaining walls and using plants to improve the appearance of others
  • Adding a second community garden and greenhouse
  • Building a skate/scooter park with lighting for evening use by removing five parking spots
  • Redesigning the existing basketball court so that it has a level playing surface and can accommodate younger kids as well as older
  • Redesigning two of the main staircases into the neighbourhood by making them wider and shallower to accommodate the socializing that happens in these locations
  • Better universal access into and around the site through introducing ramps and level pavement where possible
  • Introducing a boulevard with planting and seating, which can be used for activities like a farmer’s market

The programming elements included:

  • A Paint the Planters program to allow residents to paint window boxes and seed them with annualsscreen-shot-2016-12-18-at-6-09-25-pm
  • A program to install seating, garbage bins, bike racks, and an outdoor community events board
  • Elements to increase the perception of safety on the site (glow in the dark paint for the existing murals, a Brighter Nights program, and CCTV cameras)
  • A farmer’s market on the new boulevard, which could also be used for education about nutrition and winter events such as a holiday market
  • Better wayfinding and signage, since many buildings have street numbers that don’t correspond with the residents’ knowledge of the layout, and the internal streets are incomplete
  • Better and different types of lighting, including some solar-powered and LED fixtures, implemented over time
  • Building on the strong social networks and expanding these to allow residents to take advantage of cultural, sports, and entertainment activities around the city
  • Developing a community van that can be used to improve access to grocery stores, medical centres and other amenities

 

You can read the full report here.

Students seemed very keen to learn about aspects of housing policy, see the types of redevelopment that are happening in other public housing neighbourhoods like Regent Park, and figure out how their projects could actually be implemented through different types of funding. screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-6-08-34-pmThey struggled with the larger concepts such as social justice and how this is manifested through things like redesign, redevelopment and even simple maintenance of the site. In part this is part of the Millennial trend towards skimming the surface of a topic, without diving in deeply. But another part of this is the conflict between redevelopment and preservation of social networks and social capital. While the design of many public housing neighbourhoods was problematic, in many cases it contributed to tight-knit communities with members who look out for each other, improve their neighbourhoods together, and help generate a strong sense of community pride. City living is in again, and that means rising land costs in inner cities are threatening to displace renters, low-income households, and longtime neighbours who cannot afford the high-end luxury condominiums that are usually the markers of redevelopment projects.

When students were asked how they think the course could have been altered, they suggested using a more iterative process to develop their design/programming elements, and beginning to work together on the final report at the same time as their individual designs. These changes would have helped them to create a cohesive whole rather than a package of separate ideas. They felt that their first assignment, the historical analysis, could also have been shortened to allow more time for the design/programming component.

We are hoping that the Caring and Learning Centre will be able to slowly implement the small-scale projects, particularly those dealing with children and youth, through grants. Students were able to find many grants, both local and national, for projects supporting health communities and active lifestyles for children and youth. For larger-scale and longer-term projects, we will continue to consult with Housing Nova Scotia, largely due to the fact that one of the students will be doing his internship with the urban design team there. Crystal will also continue to advocate for the longer-term projects to Metro Housing, who report to Housing Nova Scotia. Hopefully this collaboration results in some real change for Mulgrave Park.

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Some of the units in Mulgrave Park have private yards

At the Dalhousie School of Planning, students in our Bachelor of Community Design have two chances to work on a project with a client in their final year. In fall, they choose either urban design or environmental planning studio, and in winter they work as a group on another planning project. This fall, I’m teaching the studio in urban design. As my expertise is in housing and transportation planning, I sought a client that would be interested in a project in one of these areas.

Like many cities, Halifax is facing some serious housing affordability issues. Three years ago the Halifax Regional Municipality partnered with CMHC, United Way, and several public health authorities on a Housing and Homelessness Partnership which has already released a Housing Needs Assessment outlining some key areas the region needs to focus on: more rental housing, housing for smaller households, and a focus on those with incomes in the bottom five deciles.

Our client, the Mulgrave Park Caring and Learning Centre, illustrates some of these challenges. As a non-profit organization developed by community members, they are filling in the gaps of service provision in a neighbourhood developed in a complicated era. Mulgrave Park is one of Canada’s first public housing communities. Built through the now-controversial urban renewal process in the 1950s and 1960s which involved demolishing existing “slum” housing and rehousing tenants elsewhere, Mulgrave Park was designed by CMHC architects in 1959 to take in those displaced in other downtown neighbourhoods through the Central Area Redevelopment Plan.

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Crystal (in white) shows the students around the site

The community is tight-knit, with the average household living there between 5-10 years and several returning residents. Two of those who grew up in the community and returned to help improve it are Crystal John, Director of the Caring and Learning Centre, and Maurice James, Coordinator of the Phoenix Youth and Community Centre. Another initiative in the community is Progress in the Park. Jurisdictional issues aside, municipal councillor Jennifer Watts has also been a critical advocate for the community, helping them build a community garden and hold a community-building event involving street painting.

In the quintessential Modernist style, the community has huge concrete retaining walls to deal with the steep slopes down to the waterfront, very little private space for tenants, no community services, and minimal space for social activities or playground spaces. As in other public housing communities, the maintenance of the community (open spaces and the buildings themselves) has been left to an often cash-strapped Provincial government, who oversees the Metropolitan Regional Housing Authority. Like many areas of the city (e.g. parts of the waterfront owned by the federal government), jurisdictional issues have complicated the maintenance of the community, any proposed changes, and daily issues such as how tenants’ concerns are addressed.

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Most of the open spaces on the site are too steep to be used as gathering places or for children playing

Due to operating agreements between CMHC and the Province, Mulgrave Park residents are left without many of the basic services that other Halifax residents take for granted–for example, until recently there was no playground for children, or a spot for residents to garden. The Housing Authority allowed the Caring and Learning Centre and Phoenix  to take over former housing units for their operations , since there was no community centre to base activities like employment programs for youth, cooking classes for kids or tenant association meetings.

Our class spent a couple of weeks learning about the history of Mulgrave Park, including the working class Richmond community established in the late 1800s that was destroyed by the 1917 Halifax explosion. After lying vacant during the interwar era and hosting temporary Wartime Housing for military personnel during the Second World War, the decision to use the land for public housing was facilitated in the 1950s by amendments to the National Housing Act allowing the provincial and federal governments to collaborate on building public housing, and to build new commercial development in central neighbourhoods provided that new housing was built for the displaced residents. The City of Halifax had previously expressed interest in slum clearance of valuable central neighbourhood lands in the Depression and wartime years, but it was Gordon Stephenson’s 1957 report that sealed the deal.

We visited the site on September 21st, with a walking tour by Crystal and Maurice, who answered many of the students questions about issues such as: what spaces in the community are used by children, youth, and the entire community; private versus public space; landscape elements; and maintenance issues. We’ll be visiting again at night to see things like lighting, pedestrian safety and other issues in the neighbourhood. Students will be presenting a historical analysis next week, and then will decide on a design approach for the social and open spaces in the neighbourhood. By the end of October they will each have focused on a particular design or programming element that reinforces the overall design approach. Then they will develop a report that evaluates and prioritizes the different elements, which we will present to the community.

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Clotheslines used to allow the residents to socialize informally, but they have been discouraged and mostly removed by the housing authority

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Councillor Jennifer Watts was instrumental in creating a community garden with individual plots for residents

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Street painting linking Phoenix Youth Centre with the Caring and Learning Centre was enabled through the HRM Community Grants program

 

 

 

 

As most of you know, Canadians will soon have a National Housing Strategy. At this point, the federal government in conducting consultations on the strategy, and there are many ways that citizens, housing organizations, community groups, and others can get involved.

There is a survey on the site www.letstalkhousing.ca if you haven’t already taken it. There’s also a spot that you can use to upload comments or ideas in the form of a document. You can do both of these before October 19. Since students in my fourth-year Bachelors course are currently working on a project in a public housing community, I’m having them upload their ideas on affordable housing to the National Housing Strategy website next week.

Housing, public health, and community organizations have been involved through a national stakeholder roundtable and expert roundtable. A huge variety of issues discussed including:

  • options for allowing seniors to stay in their homes as long as possible through accessibility modifications
  • rehabilitation of on-reserve housing and involvement of Indigenous communities on CMHC boards on the development of new housing
  • better access to financing options for individuals, including assistance for new homebuyers who want to move out of rental housing
  • better communications strategies between agencies to ensure better maintenance of public housing
  • removing barriers such as lengthy development permit processes
  • tax incentives for rental housing such as deferring taxes if a rental building is sold and the proceeds reinvested in a new rental building
  • allowing the federal government to support municipalities in deferring development charges for rental housing
  • immediate rehabilitation of existing social units
  • a more sustainable operating model for social housing
  • portable housing benefits, paid up to the cost of actual rent, leaving the tenant with choice

A major emphasis on Indigenous housing (quality, financing, roles and responsibilities of institutions) was a common thread, and I doubt anyone would argue that this is severely needed. Another main theme was providing options across the housing continuum. As we know, all three levels of government and the private sector are necessary for more stable, long-term initiatives in affordable housing but the federal government and CMHC were repeatedly singled out for leadership in developing strategies and partnerships. You can view videos of the closing sessions here, and transcripts will soon be available: https://www.letstalkhousing.ca/media/video/index.cfm

I encourage everyone to participate through the website, and stay in touch for updates on this exciting new federal policy by subscribing to updates (there’s an option to include your email address at the end of the survey). The government is planning to release a summary of this first consultation phase on November 22.

For students in my Housing Policy class, this experience was different from their usual lectures and quizzes. The two teams, each made up of two grad students and three or four undergraduates, gained real-world experience throughout the Winter term and made recommendations to planners at the City of Redmond last week.

Earlier in the term I wrote about my experience teaching an experiential learning, project-based course through the University of Oregon’s Sustainable City Year Program, which allows instructors to build courses around the needs of a municipal partner. This year’s partner, the City of Redmond, identified their Affordable Housing Plan as one of the projects where they needed some help. Students in my class worked on two questions: the first group conducted a policy review of the Affordable Housing Plan, Comprehensive Plan and local policies on affordable housing in order to recommend strategies that the City could implement. The second group conducted interviews with local planners, non-profit housing providers and developers in order to determine the key issues in the provision of affordable housing in Redmond. Today, I will explain how the projects progressed throughout the Winter term (January-March).

We visited Redmond during the first week of January,IMG_0885 hearing from city planners about the current Affordable Housing Plan (2007) and some challenges the city is facing in terms of lower than average median incomes, an increasing number of young families, and higher than average unemployment. With Heather Richards, Community Development Director at the City of Redmond, we toured several projects in the city that had been funded through housing tax credits for low-income housing, secondary units, and clustered units.

Students worked on their projects each week–they had a lecture on Tuesdays, but on Thursdays they had time to work on their group projects, exploring key questions related to that week’s lecture. For example, during the week on housing for specific demographic groups, they explored whether an employer housing program developed in the UK might be applicable to the Redmond setting. Each group had two graduate students who served as the project managers, organizing meetings and ensuring that things stayed on track throughout the term.

For their interim deadline in Week 5 of the term, Group 1, who was conducting the policy analysis, prepared a framework showing the structure of the policies/plans, how they reinforced each other, and what affordable housing tools they wanted to investigate further. Group 2 wrote their interview guide and developed their list of participants based on some contacts the City had given them. They aimed to conduct 10-12 interviews, but in the end they completed fourteen.

Group 1 chose to investigate a number of affordable housing tools through the use of case studies, which they appended to their final report. They then determined whether the tool would be suitable for Redmond given its current policy framework, culture, and legal considerations. When the City planners, Chelsea Dickens and Katie McDonald, attended class presentations in Week 8, Group 1 used the feedback to help narrow down the tools to focus on. In the short term, they recommended gap financing, the development of an affordable housing trust (created through linkage fees, condominium conversion fee, and construction excise tax), waiving system development charges for affordable housing projects (funded through the trust), and changing the definition of dwelling units to include those with shared facilities and smaller sizes. Long-term suggestions included a housing dispersal policy, ensuring the use of clear standards for permit approval, adopting inclusionary zoning, and introducing employer assisted housing.

Group 2, in their first set of interviews, found that thereIMG_0982 was an increasing gap between the average housing prices and average income in Redmond. Some of the barriers to affordable housing identified by participants included NIMBYism and social stigma from the public and within the city government, the development code, and the low return on investment. Tools such as gap financing, decreasing the service development charges, and rent subsidies were discussed. Surprisingly, homelessness was an issue affecting Redmond, which does not currently have a homeless shelter. Hidden homelessness, with couch surfing or sleeping in cars, is becoming more common, although the City planners did not necessarily want to acknowledge or address this issue in the Affordable Housing Plan. Group 2 recommended the use of the housing continuum model to understand how different types of housing are needed, and pressure on one type of housing puts pressure on other types. In this case, the lack of affordable rental housing forces people into ownership before they are ready (Redmond had a much higher than average rate of foreclosures post-2008) and into precarious housing situations like couch-surfing.

In both groups, the need for a regional approach to affordable housing was raised, since Redmond is located near other small cities in Central Oregon: Bend, Sisters, Prineville, and Madras. Group 1 recommended that Redmond and Bend collaborate on a Consolidated Plan to help them access funding from Housing and Urban Development, while Group 2 recommended that the city foster partnerships between the non-profit housing providers, developers, and the city. Lack of public participation was also a significant issue, with both groups recommending more extensive public participation and involvement in a new Affordable Housing Plan. An Affordable Housing Advisory Committee would be a good idea to bring together stakeholders with different perspectives. Better communication, such as explanations of the various tools available to developers to build affordable housing, could be encouraged on the city’s website–developers and other stakeholders need to understand the different types of housing that could be built and the need for them in Redmond. During this term, Oregon’s state legislature approved inclusionary zoning, which will allow cities and counties to require developers to include low-income housing in new developments. The students made use of this exciting new policy development in their recommendations.

Students presented their final reports to the City via teleconference during Week 10 of the term, and submitted their final reports (download the Group 1 Report here, and Group 2 here). As is their usual practice, the Sustainable Cities Initiative office has hired two of the students compile the reports into a single document for future reference.

One of the issues students struggled with was the social stigma associated with affordable housing, particularly the issue of temporary housing and homelessness, among City staff. It was also apparent that communication and collaboration were at very low levels in Redmond compared to Eugene and Springfield, where recent efforts have led to a regional consolidated plan and HUD funding to address affordable housing. From an instructor standpoint, the course had to be front-loaded somewhat, so that students started with research methods (content analysis of the Affordable Housing Plan in Week 2 and developing their research tools by Week 5), with the theoretical material delivered later in the term. This worked fine for the Masters students, but not as well for the undergrads for whom the housing issues and theories were new. And of course, the ten-week term is extremely challenging for project scoping and completion. Overall, though, the students adapted to these conditions and were able to produce excellent work, gain an understanding of the constraints of policy development and implementation, and make some contacts in the planning field.

As most of you know, I’m currently a Visiting Professor at the University of Oregon at the Department of Planning, Public Policy, and Management. One of the reasons I took the position was the university’s amazing Sustainable City Year Program, which has been running for six years now. This year’s partner is the City of Redmond, a rapidly growing city of about 20,000 on the east side of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon’s High Desert. The City identified a list of projects in the spring of 2015 that they needed help with, and the result is 22 courses at the university focused on Redmond.

I’ve been working hard at designing one of my winter term courses, Housing Policy, around one of Redmond’s identified interests. They adopted an Affordable Housing Strategy in 2007, which was unfortunate timing with the mortgage crisis striking the US the following year. Now that it’s time to review the strategy, Redmond is looking for ideas on the AHS.

I typically design my courses with a lecture on one day and an application and reflection activity on the next–Oregon courses are always on two separate days (Tues/Thurs or Mon/Wed). For this course, the students will be divided into groups, with one focusing on the policy side and the other on the implementation side.

  • On the policy project, students will review the AHS and Comprehensive Plan, as well as other relevant policy documents. They will be looking for areas of overlap and points of implementation for key AHS strategies.
  • On the implementation side, students will be designing an interview guide that they will use in interviewing key informants (planners, housing associations, community groups) to determine barriers to implementation of current and proposed AHS strategies.

Students will be able to work on the group project during the weekly application and reflection sessions. This is a mixed undergraduate/graduate course, with eight undergrads and three grads. It’s similar in makeup to a course I taught last term, Seminar in Sustainable Transportation. This does require some extra thought in terms of assignments, in this case getting the Masters students to be responsible for managing the projects and making sure everyone is following the schedule, for a separate grade.

Tomorrow we start off with a bang, and Friday we have our field trip to Redmond where we’ll meet with Grant Program Manager Chelsea Dickens and Assistant Program Administrator Ginny McPherson. I’ll be updating you from time to time on the course.

By now we’ve all heard about the Syrian refugee crisis and listened to the arguments for and against welcoming high numbers of refugees into our countries. Municipal and regional governments must also consider how they will adapt to hundreds or thousands of new residents in their cities.

By the end of this year, Germany will welcome over a million refugees from Syria and at least thirty percent of them will be formally accepted as refugees. For a variety of reasons, German mayors have been overjoyed to add these new residents to their population base–to rebuild their labour and tax base, repurpose abandoned housing or other surplus buildings, or take advantage of new funding for housing designated by the national government. Germany has an aging population and one of the lowest birth rates in the world.

Short-term housing needs are at the top of the list of considerations for municipalities and regions–in cities like Berlin, sports arenas and even airports have been used for emergency housing. German ministers recently met to rewrite the country’s rigorous building code to allow hundreds of thousands of prefab public housing units can be built in mere months–up to 35,000 this year and another 35,000 next year. Housing Minister Barbara Hendricks pledged $270 million for this rapid construction and also doubled municipalities’ existing $770 million budget for public housing.

Refugees are allotted into cities by quota, depending on cities’ size, labour market, and demographics: for example, the less diverse a city, the more likely it will receive a higher number of refugees. Berlin is obliged to take 5% of all refugees. There are 16 German regions, and special trains from Munich allow refugees to travel to their new homes.

Shrinking cities, like Leipzig, see the incoming refugees as both a responsibility and and an opportunity for renewed growth–with labour market shortages and BMW and Porsche factories, there are ample opportunities for newcomers. Other cities, which may have surplus housing leftover from booming economic times but no real industries to offer jobs, are in weaker positions. Cities such as Neukolln, where half of the population does not speak German as a first language, have not been assigned any quotas because they are already diverse, and likely to attract refugees and immigrants in the second wave of migration because they have a variety of economic opportunities and ethnic communities.

While there are obvious problems with trying to resettle refugees in areas that may not offer them the cultural, language, and other support they need to thrive, these issues could be partially addressed through targeted service provision in addition to the new housing. For example, providing resettlement and counselling support to those who have fled intolerable political persecution, employment support, language classes, and opportunities for children and youth to socialize and learn about their new country. Offering micro-loans to accepted refugees who would like to start their own businesses may help in the establishment of ethnic grocery stores, credit unions, and other services for the Syrian community. While these efforts may not be enough to keep refugees in German cities cities that do not offer long-term economic or social inclusion opportunities, they would be critical in preventing isolation, frustration, and the development of income-enforced enclaves (where people live because they feel have no other economic or socio-cultural ability to move out). While it’s natural for ethnic communities to form around social, religious, or language needs, people should be able to work, go to school, or do everyday activities with members of other ethnocultural groups. Extraordinary efforts also need to be made in cities/regions that had previously been shrinking: they would have to supply more teachers, more health care workers, more public transit service to serve the increased population.

This is assuming that the German public accepts the long-term integration of refugees, which could be a problem. Like many countries, short-term economic integration (like their “guest” worker category for Turkish men from the 1960s and 1970s) has been accepted, but long-term is another story. It was just this year that the German Parliament passed legislation to allow children of migrants who were raised or educated in the country to adopt German citizenship, while keeping their own. It remains to be seen whether Germans will accept the influx of Syrians in the long run.

Last week the US Federal Transit Administration Transit-Oriented Planning Pilot Program awarded 21 grants for comprehensive planning work in 17 municipalities across the country. A total of $19.5 million was granted to cities that are in the process of developing transit projects that help integrate housing, jobs, and services. They include:

  • Developing a TOD Overlay District in the Phoenix’s zoning code that encourages pedestrian-oriented infill development, rehabilitation and redevelopment at appropriate densities, and affordable housing (City of Phoenix Public Transit Department)
  • Developing a toolkit of policy and regulatory changes to encourage TOD in the areas surrounding the planned Downtown Riverfront Streetcar, including updated plans and guidelines for areas along the streetcar route, development standards, updated zoning codes that encourage TOD, an infrastructure assessment and an analysis of affordable housing (Sacramento Area Council of Governments)
  • Analyzing housing and employment opportunity along the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield Commuter Rail Line corridor, examining state and local policies that inhibit TOD, identifying strategies and financing mechanisms to encourage TOD, and conducting outreach to residents and developers (Connecticut Department of Transportation)
  • Preparing a TOD plan for stations along the Gateway Corridor Bus Rapid Transit project, a 12-mile BRT line between Saint Paul and Woodbury, including public engagement plans, an analysis of housing and employment in the corridor, and plans for infrastructure, circulation and land use (Twin Cities Metropolitan Council)

For a full list of the projects, click here.

The interesting thing about these pilot grants is that they support planning process, and not transportation infrastructure. Since one of the major barriers to implementation of TOD is existing policy, a number of these projects aim to change existing policies or develop new regulations to encourage TOD (e.g. Phoenix, Sacramento, Albuquerque). Another emphasis is on public participation, with many municipalities seeking funds to carry out extensive public processes (e.g. Durham, Buffalo, New Haven). Several projects aim to develop station-area specific land use plans, some strategic plans, and others implementation plans. A few even address local economic development, jobs, and affordable housing.

 

Real estate speculation happens across the country, but is particularly popular in our largest cities. Some say foreign ownership and speculation is driving housing prices up for local residents: wealthy investors living in far-off countries buy housing with no intention of living in it. But should the government step in and regulate the practice of flipping houses?

Just a month ago, the Simon Fraser University Urban Studies program held a symposium on housing affordability. Their data-packed brochure indicated that Vancouver has been second to last in housing affordability for the past six years, and 40% of residents consider the high cost of housing to be the most important issue in the city. The city’s annual homeless count has identified an increasing number of homeless people in the city–some 2,700 people in 2014 compared to about 1,100 in 2002. While 35% of homes in Vancouver are rented, only 17% of new construction was purpose built rental housing. Urban Futures has done a number of studies on foreign ownership: in one, they found that the 2011 Census (National Household Survey) showed that Vancouver didn’t have an excessive level of foreign occupancy–that is, about 1.4% of the apartment units in the city were occupied by foreign or temporary residents, but there are no Census data that specify their citizenship, length of stay, or that support a thesis on foreign investment. In another, they found that only 0.4% of purchases in the region in 2010 were made by people living outside of Canada. But an article in the New Yorker last year quoted a report from Sotheby’s International Realty Canada: in the first half of 2013, foreign buyers accounted for nearly half of luxury home sales in Vancouver.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson announced on Friday that he has proposed that the BC government develop a speculation tax who “buy a home just to make a quick buck” by selling it 6 months later. He’s asking Vision voters to support the call for a new tax on investors, and other tools like an increased property tax on the most expensive residential properties with proceeds invested in new affordable housing.

“Together, we can send a message that housing shouldn’t just be an investment commodity – it should be for living in.” –Mayor Gregor Robertson

Less than two days after Robertson’s announcement, a petition started circulating in Toronto calling on Brad Duguid, Minister of Economic Development, Employment, and Infrastructure, to restrict foreign investment in residential real estate in the Toronto region. As of 5 pm today Shaan Brach’s petition had 10,491 supporters.

I’m sure that the Liberal governments of both Ontario and BC will shy away from regulating real estate speculation and taxing the rich, but nevertheless the petition and call for a new tax do raise several troubling questions: who should be allowed to buy housing in Canada? Should the government (either provincial or federal) intervene when housing prices climb too high for the average person or household to afford? And if so, how should this be done?

Canadian governments have a history of intervening when market conditions create affordability issues for local residents or when housing conditions are poor. Forty years ago, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation was busy supporting the development of co-operative and non-profit housing with the ample funding of the federal government. The federal government helped develop co-operative housing from 1973-1991, establishing long-term operating agreements coinciding with the length of the mortgage. They also had programs to help first time homebuyers, supplement rents, and rehabilitate housing in historic and central neighbourhoods. But over the years, their balanced approach to housing affordability changed. The two ends of the spectrum (households with very low incomes and homeowners with enough equity to buy) continued to benefit, but programs that helped renters and low- to middle-income households were gradually dropped.

Municipalities and developers have also introduced innovative solutions to housing affordability:

  • Equity loans–Toronto’s Option for Homes and the City of Saskatoon/Affinity Credit Union Equity Building Program help people move into affordable ownership by loaning purchasers a small percentage of the downpayment
  • Shared equity–at SFU, units in the Verdant building are reserved for university faculty and staff and resale prices are restricted to 20% below market value), and community land trusts.
  • Affordable Housing Trusts–municipalities such as Vancouver, Surrey, Richmond, Coquitlam, and Whistler have developed housing trusts through legislation and with the cooperation of the BC government

The issue of foreign investors driving up housing prices is critical in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, but there’s no quick fix for the affordability problems that took decades to create. In cities like Calgary, Fort McMurray, and Kelowna, affordability is still a major issue even without high levels of foreign investment. In Edmonton, 33.5% of all condominium units are rented. Researchers and policymakers across the country have been trying to find and implement the solutions for at least two decades. A speculation tax would only be part of the solution, but combined with better rent controls and a higher high-end property tax whose revenues would be used to build and maintain housing of different types for different income levels, it could be a good start. We definitely need an increased role for the provincial and federal governments in affordable housing, but that’s not news.

Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) are one of the contributions developers are required to make in Vancouver to support affordable housing, community resources such as schools and libraries, and parks. Developers, in return, are often allowed to build at higher densities. Vancouver’s unique legislation, the Vancouver Charter, gives it the ability to levy a negotiable tax such as the CACs. In the rest of the province, municipalities can only charge Development Cost Charges (DCCs), non-negotiable fees based solely on the number of units or square feet of the development. Similarly, Ontario municipalities may use Section 37 of the Planning Act to obtain community benefits in exchange for higher densities.

Penny Gurstein, Director of the School of Community and Regional Planning at UBC, leads a project on housing justice in BC. She has just released an analysis of the use of CACs between 2010 and 2012, which produced just 170 affordable housing units. By contrast, BC Housing’s waitlist for affordable units averaged 3,425 over this period.

Developers also have the option of making cash contributions in lieu of building units—a total of $61.07 million was raised just from 2010-2012. This is the preferred option, as most developers want to build luxury condos to maximize their profits and get their investment back immediately–rather than invest in market-rate rental or mix in affordable units with their fancy condo owners. Unfortunately, cash contributions just go into a reserve fund, and the City is not very open about how much of it goes towards the housing budget or how it’s used. But it says it has approved over 1,000 affordable units since 2010. Gurstein’s analysis was based on staff reports, which are unclear on the use of cash contributions for affordable units. Read the article in the Vancouver Sun here.

Rental housing is also an issue in many Canadian cities, since incentives to build them (at least at the federal and provincial levels) disappeared long ago and changes to the Income Tax Act have made rental housing much less profitable to develop since the 1970s. Some analysts believe that a shortage of market rate rental units and the loss of units to condo conversion have contributed to very low vacancy rates across the country, pushing people into homeownership before they may be financially ready. Since 2010, Vancouver has also run the STIR (Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing) program and Secure Market Housing Policy, which have added 3,000 rental units at market rates.