The 105 Keefer dispute is an excellent opportunity to talk about
First, why does Vancouver keep building luxury housing instead of
the ordinary housing that is needed? And second, what business
does the provincial government have in city decisions?
That the provincial government has a role in city decisions was
illustrated by NDP Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon when he
recently intervened in a Kitsilano shelter-housing dispute to force
the development through over resident objections. The reality is
that, under the Canadian constitution, only the federal and
provincial governments have inherent jurisdiction. City
governments are an administrative creation of provincial
As such, the provincial government does have power to intervene
if city governments are not properly managing their jurisdictions in
the public interest. Let’s say, for example, if city councillors are
allowing city staff to use city planning and development permits as
a cash cow.
And that is exactly what has been going on. Under successive
Vancouver city councils, the cost of the building permit process for
multi-unit housing has become so onerous that developers cannot
make a business case for building anything below luxury grade for
an international market. They have to ensure that the sale price of
the condo units is high enough to cover what are sometimes
hundreds of thousands of dollars in the cost of getting a permit.
Under successive city councils, Vancouver has also become
addicted to using developments as a way to build public
Infrastructure, by way of Community Amenity Contributions and
Development Cost Levies. Not only does this ramp up the costs of
building housing, but also, the process of negotiating community
amenity contributions excludes residents from participating in the
decisions of what gets built, and where. CACs and DCLs damage
both developers’ ability to build affordable housing, and also
neighbourhood-based participatory democracy.
I believe strongly, as does the Conservative Party of BC, in
building citizen capacity through decentralized decision-making. If
a neighbourhood needs an amenity, its residents should be able to
consult with each other, through formal or informal means, about
what they want and make a proposal to the city, negotiate a budget,
and make it an election issue if needed.
The more we allow staff to take care of amenities planning in
backroom deals with developers, the less able we are to advocate
for and meet the needs we have as residents - and the less
meaningful the elections process becomes. If staff are in charge, it
matters less and less who the city councillors are.
I pause here to clarify that the existing public consultation process
is not participatory democracy. The current system of public
presentations is an act of supplication by residents to the staff who
actually make the decisions, which are then invariably rubber-
stamped by at least a majority of elected officials.
Elected officials do not dare anger the bureaucrats, because they
rely on their staff to get anything done.
The plethora of luxury proposals is emblematic of the city’s
excessive reliance on developer money to fund infrastructure that
may or may not be what residents actually want, and to fund a
bureaucracy that often doesn’t meet resident needs at all.
Speaking of bureaucracy, it is important that the public be aware of
what the drive for “green” building practices has created: a
massive, labyrinthine process of regulatory approvals for low
emissions buildings that not only requires a huge cohort of
bureaucrats, but also a concomitant demand for developers to
document and report to the bureaucrats how they are complying
with low emissions design. This process encompasses countless
driving to meetings and printing of reports, and probably causes
more emissions than it prevents.
Presented by opponents to the luxury proposal at 105 Keefer is a
call for more social housing. Social housing, however, also drives
the overall price of housing up. The reasons for this are complex,
and to discuss them, it must be made clear that there are different
populations that need social housing: mainly, one cohort with
lifetime needs (ie, turning over on a long cycle), and another
cohort with short term housing assistance needs.
For social housing to function on a short term cycle, it is essential
that there be a sufficient supply of market housing that offers the
same value as government housing, so that people have places of
similar size and convenience to move to in the same price range. If
people with temporary needs can occupy social housing
permanently, then there is a constant need to build more such
housing, which escalates the tax burden and puts more people into
a crisis situation where they need social housing.
What all of this means is that neither the current 105 Keefer
proposal, nor the opposing pressure to build social housing, will
meet the needs of Chinatown’s long term social scene.
What is needed here is ordinary housing - think arborite
countertops, not granite. Think local buyers or tenants - nearby
residents aging out of single family homes; young people leaving
the parental home and moving into their first apartment, and
couples starting families. Not international buyers who may not
live here full time, won’t patronize local businesses or start them,
and whose income is out of scale with local wages.
The city needs to radically overhaul its planning and permit
process, in more ways than one, but with the overarching goal of
making it affordable for developers to build housing that ordinary
local people can afford on local incomes. 105 Keefer is a perfect
opportunity to kickstart that process.
The 105 Keefer proposal should be rejected by the Development
Board, with the proviso that the developer be asked to put forward
a proposal that does not also have to fund and an extravagant and
overreaching bureaucratic planning and permitting regime.
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