In Vancouver, social housing probably doesn’t mean what you think it does

As the city defines it, a building is considered 100 per cent social housing if it’s rental housing that includes a minimum of 30 per cent low-market rents.

A fanciful promise to “make it easier to build social housing than mansions” failed to win support at Vancouver council last week.

The campaign by Coun. Christine Boyle with support from the mayor suggested a simple solution to housing unaffordability, but instead resulted in misinformation and anxiety.

On a superficial level, the slogan is compelling, but the proposal to skip rezoning and fast-track new developments of up to 12 storeys was for neighbourhoods populated not by mansions, but almost exclusively by older, affordable walk-up apartments — Kitsilano, Marpole, Mount Pleasant and Grandview-Woodland.

It had the potential to do the opposite of the purported goals, leading to displacement and loss of affordable rental homes.

In Vancouver, social housing probably doesn’t mean what you think it means.

As the City of Vancouver defines it, a building is considered 100-per-cent social housing if it is rental housing that includes a minimum of 30-per-cent low-market rents (or HILs).

According to B.C. Housing, HILs set out “the minimum income required to afford appropriate accommodation in the private market.”

In Vancouver, the requirement for a studio apartment is $55,500 — almost $5,000 above the median income in the city. The rest of the units can be rented at market rates if the building is owned by a non-profit organization (or government, or co-op).

Notwithstanding the definition, some non-profit organizations will strive for deeper affordability, but policy doesn’t obligate them to do so.

In fact, there is no obligation that a non-profit organization include affordable housing as its mandate. We heard agreement from non-profit housing providers that this definition is problematic, and warnings that less-scrupulous developers could exploit the opportunity to game legitimate construction profits and asset management fees.

Last month, council voted unanimously to support a similar staff recommendation to pre-zone and fast-track social housing up to six storeys. The leap to 12 storeys, however, posed barriers to delivering affordability, despite improved market performance.

The 12-storey up-zoning implications on land economics were so substantial that one council colleague was advised to recuse from the vote as his property would see “significant” value increase were the motion to pass.

Quoting from city staff and their concerns with the proposal, economic testing has shown that the viability of mid-rise forms (for example, over six storeys and under 12 storeys) was challenged due to the high cost of building in concrete.

Staff further warned that implications around utilities, neighbourhood amenities and traffic would need to be considered, and it would be very difficult to secure infrastructure and servicing requirements without a rezoning.

These are real concerns, further underscored by the definition, and the fact that “social housing” doesn’t pay development charges or amenity fees — for instance, the city forgoes millions of dollars per building that pay for critical infrastructure and services needed to accommodate growth such as community centres, daycare, and utilities.

Critically, eliminating the oversight otherwise afforded by rezoning limits the discretion to ensure public benefit trade-offs are commensurate to the level of affordability — not just the policy minimums.

Other considerations: We don’t have tenant protection policies robust enough to defend all the tenants at risk of “demoviction” in this scenario, and the biggest barriers to affordable housing are senior government funding timelines and our development permit process — not rezonings.

The motion made for a great campaign slogan, but not a practical solution.

Attempts to amend the motion to be more reflective of some of the legitimate concerns I outline above lost on procedure, and the motion was defeated.

Readers can take some comfort, however, in knowing that city staff are bringing new and thoughtful policies in coming months to improve and fast-track the delivery of affordable housing.

I would be remiss not to acknowledge that there was a lot of misinformation around this issue, in particular from many opponents who conflated “social housing” with “supportive housing” — the latter (low-income housing with support services) is what most people think of when they hear “social housing.”

To be clear, this motion was defeated by a council majority as an inadequate policy, not because council doesn’t support social or supportive housing.