The density debate: time for the citizens to say their piece on growth, affordable housing and amenities

Bob Ransford, Vancouver Sun columnist and development consultant, makes an unarguable point in his column yesterday on Vancouver’s density debate: it’s time for citizens to get involved, especially on the issue of affordable housing.

Like Ransford, I agree the city must focus on homelessness as a top priority, but a commitment to provide affordable housing — what I think of as “modest market housing” — is equally critical if working families are to have any future in Vancouver.

With housing prices still soaring in Vancouver, it takes a family income of at least $100,000 to buy a very modest home. The median income in the city is about $64,000 and the vast majority of working families — as well as students, new immigrants and many others — can just forget about home ownership.

That’s why more than half are renters, and many of them are spending more than one-third of their income on rent. That’s not sustainable.

Ransford and I may have a different take on the issue of community amenity charges, the “offerings” negotiated by the city with developers when rezonings put density above the line set out in city plans.

What Ransford describes as a hidden tax of up to 75 percent  seems to me more like the city taking a share of windfall profits generated by a rezoning. Basic infrastructure costs are supposed to be covered by development cost levies. The CACs generate extra benefits when rezonings are allowed.

Increasingly, however, everyone wants a piece of CACs. On Cambie, along the Canada Line, landowners have set land prices so high there’s no room for CACs on any reasonable density the city may consider. In this case, the failure to plan before the line was built is leading to windfall profits for the existing landowners. This may thwart development because the cost of land assembly is heading out of sight.

(Some developers argue that the city should take the hit by allowing the density but foregoing the CACs.)

Ransford touches on another important point when he suggests the “hidden tax” may be distorting city priorities. I believe this may already have happened.

In the recent VAG debate, for example, the public learned that the city paid for Orpheum and Queen Elizabeth Theatre renovations, totalling $40 million, with an internal loan that is to be repaid by density on the Larwill Park site sought by the VAG. This was an in camera decision of the last council.

Would taxpayers have rejected these expenditures if they were transparently listed in a capital plan referendum? I don’t think so. But city leaders thought they might get something for nothing.

Another example is the Northeast False Creek High Level Review, which contemplates CAC revenues as a source of funds to renew the Aquatic Centre. There’s no doubt the Aquatic Centre needs an update, but should CACs pay to fix the roof on existing amenities?

This council’s Short Term Incentives for Rental program goes to the heart of the issue by allowing density increases where the developer commits to create rental housing. Is this a “loss” for a community hankering for daycare or public art? Or a win for a city desperate for more affordable housing?

Ransford is right. We’re long overdue for a wide open debate on this critical issue.