Last weekend Larry Beasley gave the keynote speech at the Dream Vancouver conference hosted by Think City. Beasley the former head city planner has been credited with transforming Vancouver into the success story that it is.
(As a brief aside, Dream Vancouver was a great exercise. Big kudos to the organizers. Any event that brings together and connects citizens who share a passion for Vancouver is a success in my mind.)
Affordable housing has become a significant issue in Calgary and Toronto, but in no city is the issue more problematic – or long running – than Vancouver. Beasley blamed this on a commonly understood fact – Vancouver has been blessed and cursed by its international stature. The property market in Vancouver is simply not restricted to the city’s population. For reasons of investment, political security, and sometimes just for a pad to crash, the whole world wishes to own a part of the city and it is driving up real estate costs. To fully grasp the magnitude of the problem, one developer informed me that up a 1/3 of some residential towers in downtown Vancouver sit empty. I’ve been unable to confirm this figure, but it is a startling number if true.
How can the city address this challenge?
Beasley offered three possibilities. First, he noted that the False Creek Flats – a large piece of industrial land to the east of downtown – is ripe for development. This is an area of land larger than downtown Vancouver and which, if developed appropriately, could provide a variety of housing to meet the demand of the market. A carefully thought through plan combining market housing, social housing, and a third hybrid model (outlined below) could turn the False Creek Flats into an vibrant urban centre – a neighborhood Beasley suggested be called Crosstown.
Second, he suggested Vancouverites from all political stripes re-examine Eco-Density. Beasley argued that Eco-Density is a tremendous piece of marketing that has captured the imagination of many people. He concedes, the term remains fairly vacuous (my word, not his) – but believes this is an opportunity, not a liability. What Vancouverites need to do is give the term substance and form. Obviously this means greater density – Beasley appears to favour row houses – but it could also mean much more. The question is: what more?
Finally, Beasley talked about aMadrid model for urban development. Madrid is probably even more of an international city than Vancouver, and consequently faces many of the same pressures around affordable housing. Spain in general is the recipient of many European snow-birds (although I presume mainly in the south) so the pressures created by foreign owned housing receives national attention. Beasley outlined how, in Madrid, the government builds and sells off apartments to owners that agree to live in them themselves. In addition, the owners must sell the property back to the government at a pre-agreed price. The re-sale amount ensures that the owners receive a modest return on their investment (Beasley didn’t share what the rate of return is) and that the government can resell the house to a new owner at a controlled price. This ensures property values increase at a controlled pace and keeps the costs of running such a program exceedingly low. Consequently, this hybrid of social and market housing is intriguing. Under the right circumstances it would attract buyers looking for housing and discriminate against those seeking only an investment. However, it remains unclear to me how one would allocate these properties (perhaps through a bidding process?). In addition, I’ve been unable to find any literature on this hybrid model… I hope to have more on it at some point.
All in all, an intriguing set of ideas. I’d never seen Beasley speak before – I can see why he’s got such a loyal following in the city.