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Is The "Supply, Supply" Narrative About To Change?

Updated: Jul 31, 2023


March 27, 2022

By Carol Volkart

Author and architect Brian Palmquist has looked into his crystal ball and seen hope in a new report that upends the current narrative about housing supply in Vancouver.

The Union of B.C. Municipalities’ report says that while a shortage of supply is commonly blamed for unaffordability, its data shows that housing supply has kept pace with population growth in BC over the past five years. Even in Vancouver, housing growth slightly outpaced the population increase between 2016 and 2021.

Meanwhile, prices soared. The report says many factors are involved, but affordability is not simply a matter of keeping the construction cranes going. “Effectively tackling affordability requires more than a singular focus on supply. It also requires incentivizing the right supply such as affordable rental housing and co-ops and addressing the still-significant influence of speculative demand.”

Palmquist, who is writing a series of fiction-based-on-fact articles projecting what Vancouver could look like in 2030 if a new, more neighbourhood-focused City Council is elected this fall, suggests in this one that the UBCM report could be an important turning point.

He notes that the massive rezonings that have occurred – and are about to occur – under the current City Council, have produced minimal affordable units or alternative housing like co-ops.

The March 23 UBCM report comes just at the right time to buttress the arguments against the "build it and they will come" supply-side proponents, he writes. This group has been “leading the charge for pre-approval of a 40-year supply of largely unaffordable housing in addition to the 20-year supply that City Council had already approved between 2018 and 2022, mostly not yet built.”

The report, released after Housing Minister David Eby threatened to override municipal zoning powers to ensure more housing is built, emphasizes that data shows municipalities have been doing their share. The report thanks senior governments for their “significant investments” in housing and homelessness, but adds it’s obvious “the best efforts of all orders of government and industry have not been effective, and that it is necessary to redouble our efforts collectively to strengthen housing policy with a focus on housing affordability and attainability.”

Palmquist describes Eby’s move as an attempt “to overrule local governments in the name of unaffordable affordability,” and calls out the province for downloading its responsibilities onto municipal governments while insisting “that more of the wrong kinds of housing should be imposed on BC communities.”

Palmquist and the UBCM are not the only ones raising concerns about senior governments failing to fulfill their responsibilities to provide funding for housing while pressuring municipalities to dramatically increase supply.

Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley says in a March 25 Globe & Mail story that his city has provided shovel-ready land for affordable housing, but it’s still sitting vacant because senior governments haven’t stepped up with the money to develop it. “Maybe they should focus on what they need to do because we aren’t the problem here,” he told The Globe.

The constant narrative that a glut of market-rate supply will eventually create trickle-down housing that is affordable isn’t what he sees playing out, Ed Kozak, general manager for planning and development, told the newspaper’s Kerry Gold. “We know those units don’t always go to the people that need them, and that ‘trickle down’ doesn’t always work as intended.”

Housing advocacy group spokesman Murray Martin, a member of the mayor’s housing task force, told The Globe the problem is that the government continues to look to the private sector to solve the affordability crisis. “They are still pursuing the same policies, thinking it’s going to work when it’s obvious that this market-oriented approach – depending on developers to build these buildings for profit – isn’t going to get you out of it.”

Back in Vancouver, where he’s gazing ahead to a more affordable city in 2030, Palmquist suggests a scenario that lines up with the policies of TEAM for a Livable Vancouver, which will be seeking a majority on Council, School and Park Boards this fall. Palmquist is a member of TEAM, but writes independently from his own research and from expertise gained in 40 years of urban planning.

In Palmquist’s view, a TEAM majority on council might lead to something like this: All rezonings would be paused and re-evaluated. Those that did not proceed would reduce pressure on labour and materials, reducing construction costs “for the first time in a decade.” Housing costs also would go down as the city cuts permit times and fees. The focus would shift to neighbourhoods, with City staff deployed to Neighbourhood Planning Offices, smaller builders stepping up to develop more neighbourly projects, and neglected neighbourhood centres starting to revive. And Vancouver, along with other UBCM members, would push senior governments to help with the many costly responsibilities they have downloaded on municipalities, especially around housing.

Brian Palmquist’s complete series of city-related articles are available at https://brianpalmquist.substack.com/

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