The potential overhaul of Vancouver’s housing rules has met with guarded optimism in one east Vancouver neighbourhood.
The dust is settling following city council’s decision in early October to open Vancouver up to denser forms of housing in streets on either side of the city’s arterials.
While people in west-side Vancouver were vociferously opposed, some residents in Mount Pleasant are expressing restrained approval of this broad-stroke policy to expand housing affordability in their community.
“For all the ambiguity around specifics, I think that the general thrust of this policy is a positive thing,” said Chris Brayshaw, who owns a popular book store in Mount Pleasant.
In order to address the affordability issue, the city’s experimental policy will make way for structures such as duplexes and stacked townhouses where currently only single-family homes exist, and buildings of up to six storeys along arterials, like Main Street, currently only zoned for four.
This is all part of a larger set of recommendations “to provide immediate and on-going opportunities for affordable housing” made by the mayor’s task force on housing affordability which council adopted three weeks ago.
Although Mount Pleasant residents and business operators weren’t necessarily opposed to the ideas, they said they were sometimes vague.
According to Brayshaw, “the goal posts for how the task force defines success seem… to be a little bit of an open question.”
Brayshaw has worked in Mount Pleasant since 2000, when he opened the first Pulpfiction Books, which has since become a fixture in the neighbourhood. But a lot has changed in the area since then, and Brayshaw’s not surprised at the direction the city seems to be taking with regard to development.
“It’s not so much a change for the neighbourhood,” Brayshaw reflects, “but just kind of a continuation of forces that are already at work.”
Protecting moderate earners
When it was formed in December 2011, the task force had a mandate to “focus on affordability solutions for those households with moderate incomes,” which council defines between $21,500 and $86,500.
This is the income range of Vancouverites who are most threatened by overdevelopment in the area, and whom Libby Davies, NDP MP for Vancouver East, has spent part of her career campaigning for.
Many of those who have lived in the area service the downtown core and have traditionally relied on neighbourhoods like Mount Pleasant for housing which is affordable yet close enough to the city’s commercial centre, said Davies, describing the problem as she sat in her office on Main and 8th, in the historic heart of the neighbourhood.
As this housing supply continues to shrink, Davies insists that, given the circumstances, “the city is being as creative as [it] can to find affordable housing solutions.” She believes that Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson “has worked in good faith… to make it a priority.”
Is it enough?
For all the mayor’s good intentions, one Mount Pleasant resident maintains that the rezoning policy might actually have the opposite effect by increasing land prices.
Stephen Bohus, director of the Residents Association of Mount Pleasant, suggests all people need to do is look at what happened on the Cambie corridor nearby, where prices “skyrocketed once [council] even gave wind of the idea that Cambie… will accommodate higher densities and heights.”
Council adopted the Cambie Corridor plan in 2011, which allowed for far more density in what had always been a single-family neighbourhood. The community plan now allows four- and six-storey apartments along most stretches, with higher towers at high-volume traffic nodes.
However, the Cambie plan didn’t put any restrictions on developers for affordable housing, whereas the current policy will allow townhouses and similar projects only if they meet certain affordability criteria.
Nevertheless, Bohus suggests that council’s new offer for developers to rezone land off the city’s arterials could “signal to the market and the speculators that all the land in these zones will potentially be worth a lot more.”
According to him, that could lead to speculative buying.
“I think every single neighbourhood supported extra density, and they specified how they want that extra density,” Bohus said in referring to aspects of the Mount Pleasant Community Plan, which council passed in 2010 with broad community support
Bohus said the success of the policy depends on whether “the city plans and the neighourhood are respected.” Once this is done, “then we can accommodate growth in a way that has way more support.”
One problem with the city’s new housing policy is that it took so long to arrive. Brayshaw compares the city’s response to a dinosaur “that gets killed but takes like 30 seconds to figure out [it’s] dead, because the signals have to make their way up to the brain.”
The problem of rising housing costs started years ago.
“Vancouver’s civic government has woken up and realized that they’ve got some issues related to affordability,” said Brayshaw.
In spite of this belatedness, Brayshaw expresses hope that the policy may begin to address affordability in Mount Pleasant.
“It’s a step toward rectifying those problems,” he said. “I guess you could put me down as… guardedly optimistic.”