Will Vancouver’s ambitious new housing strategy make the city healthier and happier?

by Charles Montgomery on

Vancouver, like so many cities, is experiencing a painful housing crisis. The city is the least affordable in North America. Hundreds of people are living on the streets or in tent camps. Working people are forced into punishingly long commutes. Families are leaving in search of appropriate, affordable homes. Businesses are having trouble hiring talent. Many people feel that the city simply does not value them, or have room for them.

Against this backdrop, the City of Vancouver engaged in a year of consultation with residents, promising to address the affordability crisis. This week, the City passed a 10-year housing strategy. It’s already been called one of the most comprehensive municipal housing strategies in Canada by some housing activists.

How does the strategy succeed at fostering social wellbeing in Vancouver? We analysed the strategy using our evidence-based urban wellbeing framework. The 250-page strategy is seeing pointed analysis from many angles, so ours is not an exhaustive analysis. But we do want to note the strategy’s most powerful measures, and areas where it can be strengthened.

What’s big?

This is an ambitious, comprehensive strategy. It will be helpful in addressing issues of affordability and livability over the long term. It should mark a turning point in our affordability ordeal.

The strategy acknowledges that creating more housing is no longer enough. Supply alone can’t curb the devastating effect of speculation and the influx of global capital. So we applaud the city’s consideration of tax and other measures to curb speculation, including slapping luxury homes with higher property tax. These kinds of measures are controlled by higher levels of government. So we call on the provincial and federal governments to act quickly to enable the city to act.

But way we design, build and locate homes does matter. There is a strong relationship between housing design, delivery, tenure and social wellbeing. As we demonstrate in the Happy Homes Toolkit, multi-family housing can either nurture or corrode the kinds of social bonds that keep people healthy and communities strong. The City’s new strategy gets a lot of things right. But it could be an even stronger contributor to social wellbeing with a few refinements.

Addressing the missing middle

The strategy calls for upzoning many single family neighbourhoods to allow for more missing middle housing (such as townhouses, rowhouses, courtyard apartments up to four stories, cohousing and co-living). Our research shows that missing middle housing offers density at a scale that nurtures local social relationships and does not overwhelm people. This is a great way to give more people a chance to live near transit and services. It could revive West Side neighbourhoods that are pricy but losing population, and enable a wider range of people to enjoy the benefits of our city.

Improving this element: This measure needs to be accompanied by an affordability mechanism. The city has an abundance of high-end market housing coming down the pike already. So the city must ensure real community benefit when we upzone neighbourhoods for missing middle housing, and that benefit could be an affordability tool. One scheme that has worked in Amsterdam: For every four new market-priced homes created on a piece of property, a fifth home goes into an affordability pool. Property owner maintains ownership, but unit is rented at an affordable rate determined by a city agency. This is a way to weave housing for people of various income levels right into the fabric of the city.

District zoning for rentals

The strategy calls for the rezoning of certain districts to ensure that new density comes in the form of rental housing. We applaud this experiment. It should suppress speculation on land and provide more certainty for future rental housing development. We implore the Province to enable such changes by altering the Vancouver Charter.

Affordable density

Vancouver’s strategy calls for “affordable density” near transit hubs such as the Broadway Corridor, Nanaimo Station, and 29th Ave Station. To achieve this, it will use a pilot program to reward developers for producing rental buildings with 20% affordable units. By fast-tracking the approval of non-profit and affordable rental housing near transit and amenities, the city will ensure that public investments benefit the broadest range of people. This will contribute to a fairer, healthier and more resilient city.

Improving this element: The city’s income range for this affordable segment (people earning $30,000 to $80,000) is too wide. Targets should contain more specificity around income levels.

Small units need more amenities

The plan calls for the city to look into building smaller affordable homes, such as micro-suites. This typology, along with a price-per-square-metre cap, is worth investigating. But crowding in multi-family housing is correlated with depression, anxiety, feelings of crowding and social withdrawal when it does not include other social spaces. According to the 2017 Vancouver Foundation Connections and Engagement Report, 50% of people living in an apartment or condominium in Metro Vancouver do not have a common area to socialize with neighbours.

Improving this element: Very small units should never be delivered without accompanying social amenities such as lounges, shared kitchens, activity rooms and gardens, both in their building and nearby. More density means greater need for social spaces at all scales. The City must offer clearer amenity design guidelines for developers and staff.

The Indigenous Housing Strategy component of Vancouver’s strategy calls for ‘culturally flexible’ amenity spaces that reflect traditional lifestyle practices. We applaud this approach. But such a strategy should be applied to all housing, especially where dwelling units are small.

Soft infrastructure for boosting social cohesion in high-density neighbourhoods

Surveys show that tower housing tends to be corrosive to social trust and wellbeing. Vancouver’s social planners have been experimenting with programs such as Hey Neighbour, a pilot project testing a “social retrofit” of existing higher density rental buildings. This can include empowering or even paying “social concierges” to help connect residents in towers through activities and culture. Given that a third of 18 to 24 year olds and nearly 40% people earning less than $20,000 a year “often” or “almost always” experience loneliness, this is an important investment in healthy city infrastructure. We encourage more investigation of ‘soft’ ways to build supportive connections in our tower environments.

Fast tracking of affordable housing permits and processes

Bureaucratic delays and lengthy processes can add thousands of dollars to the cost of new housing units. It’s great that the City plans to fast-track permits for new affordable and non-profit housing projects. While all development would benefit from faster processes, affordable projects should be given priority.

Improving this element: For maximum social effect, such fast tracking should be extended to include co-housing and co-living projects which provide significant shared social space for residents and neighbours.

Social purpose real estate

The strategy calls for inclusionary housing policies with expanded opportunities for social purpose real estate. In theory, the city can help non-profits and other social purpose landholders to create affordable housing.

Improving this element: First, we need to see more detail on how this will be executed. Second, we encourage a special focus on community land trusts, which involve community-driven and controlled development to provide societal benefits. For example, when removing the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, the City has an opportunity to contribute a block of land to a community land trust led by organizations under the Hogan’s Alley umbrella. Doing so would be part of a fair response to historic injustice, and an investment in a robust, community-led innovation with affordable housing at its core.

Legalizing collective housing for six or more unrelated roommates

More and more people are living in non-traditional housing arrangements. Right now, it’s illegal for more than five unrelated adults to live together. So legalizing such collective living is both an affordability measure and a means of nurturing the kinds of supportive social relationships among small groups that are crucial for health and happiness.

Design a new “Vancouver special”

Back in the 1960s, developers produced thousands of what we now call Vancouver Specials: affordable homes for single-family lots. It’s time to create a new Vancouver Special: one that makes space for more than three families on a single-family lot. We applaud the inclusion of a competition to challenge designers to find a new multi-housing typology for the city.

Improving this element: It’s not enough to merely find new ways to wedge more housing into our neighbourhoods. People need more than a roof over their heads. They need to feel safe, comfortable and connected at home. They need places that nurture the social support and trust that keeps them strong over the long term. To this end, we encourage the City to use Happy City’s Happy Homes Toolkit as a framework to inform the design challenge, and assess the social wellbeing benefits of contest entries.

This may be the most comprehensive and ambitious strategy for affordability produced by any city government in North America. For it to succeed, Vancouver needs action by senior levels of government. And it needs to tweak its programs to ensure that new housing boosts, rather than breaks, social wellbeing.