Affordable housing protests reach crisis point

Description

The rallies and media attention marked a turning point in the public conversation on housing unaffordability. Federal, provincial and municipal politicians subsequently came under pressure to consider changes in housing, tax and land-development policies.

#Donthave1Million rally. (Twitter/Farrah Merali)

Potential Significance

The #donthave1million social-media campaign drew attention to the rising cost of a single-family home in Vancouver. Protest rallies organized by Vancouverites for Affordable Housing focused more broadly on the unaffordability of all housing for younger residents. Several City Councilors raised the issue and the City undertook some initiatives on affordable ownership housing.

Responding to increased alarm over affordability, discussions at City Council over the year shifted from issues related to homelessness and low-income housing to affordability for all residents. Mayor Robertson urged the provincial government to curb housing speculation.

Regardless, housing costs continued to climb to unprecdented heights throughout the year. Demographer Andy Yan published data maps in January 2016 showing that only nine per cent of homes in Vancouver were assessed at under $1-million, compared to 35% in March, 2015. Main Street was no longer a dividing line between properties assessed at above and below $1 million.

By the end of the year, housing affordability was at the top of the public agenda.

Background

In 2011, City Council was confronted with the issues related to homelessness and insufficient low-income housing. Also, single-family homes in Vancouver were rapidly disappearing as single-family homes were demolished. Vancouver’s stock of single-detached dwellings fell to 47,530 in 2011 from 66,460 homes in 2001, a drop of 28 percent.

In December 2011, Council passed a resolution to create the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability to examine barriers to creation of affordable housing, to determine steps to protect affordable housing and to identify opportunities for increasing supply.

The City subsequently focused on social and rental housing, and did not grapple with policies for affordable home ownership. By 2015, affordability was a prime concern. In the first six months of 2015, only 12.6 percent of single-family detached houses sold in Vancouver were under $1-million, compared to 28-percent in the comparable period of 2014.

Housing prices became disconnected from average income in Vancouver. In August, Royal Bank of Canada reported that 91 per cent of the average pretax household income was required to afford a two-storey house in Vancouver, nearly 4 percent more than at the start of the year and roughly 40 percent above the city’s long-term average.

Some felt that foreign investment was responsible for the unprecedented increases in prices. In August, Dan Scarrow, vice-president of Macdonald Realty, said people from Mainland China in 2014 bought 70-percent of homes sold by the company in Vancouver for $3-million or more, 21-percent of homes priced from $1-million to $3-million and 11-percent priced under $1-million.

However B.C. Premier Christy Clark, developers and real estate company representatives pointed to low interest rates, high fees and charges on permits for new housing, the city and region’s constrained land supply, the limited capacity within the City’s existing zoning, Vancouver’ strong economy and labour market, and the city’s desirability. They argued that an increased supply of housing needed to be a big part of the solution, and that municipal zoning, fees and charges were a significant obstacle.

A group of UBC and SFU professors proposed a luxury tax on the sale of the most expensive homes.

More than 100 people rallied at the Vancouver Art Gallery on May 24, 2015 to protest the high cost of Vancouver housing. Paul Kershaw, founder of Generation Squeeze, and Eveline Xia, who started an online conversation on affordability with hashtag #donthave1million, spoke at the rally. Over the following days, many people vented their anger on Twitter over Vancouver housing costs.

A month later, 300 people showed up at a rally to put pressure on the provincial and federal governments to take actions to make housing affordable, Responding to politicians who maintained they lacked sufficient information about the housing market to do anything, speakers at the rally pressed for data collection on speculation, foreign ownership and international capital.

In the fall, Wesgroup Properties initiated hashtag #dontneed1million to highlight that people can own a home for less than a million dollars. A 483 square-foot condo by Wesgroup could be bought for $289,900. Wesgroup vice-president Beau Jarvis commented that people in New York, London and Singapore raised families in small spaces and the obsession with single-family homes as the only option was both entitled and unfounded.

In November, a new report by Andy Yan showed that 66 per cent of the 172 single-detached homes sold in a six-month period on Vancouver’s west side went to Mainland Chinese buyers.

Responding to the growing anxiety about affordability, City Council on April 20, 2016 approved consultation and exploration of an affordable home ownership pilot program for first-time buyers who have lived and worked in Vancouver for the last five years.

A year after the rally of May 24, it seemed that almost every week a new study was being released. One of these was a Vancity survey, No Funds City, which confirmed that Vancouver millennials have the lowest discretionary income in Canada after buying property.

It was followed a week later by a study, Code Red: Rethinking Canadian Housing Policy, authored by Paul Kershaw of the UBC School of Population and Public Health and researcher Anita Minh. Kershaw, who was a featured speaker at the May 24, 2015 rally, wrote “A young person today will have to work for 23 years to save for a down payment on an average Metro Vancouver home.”

Sources

Websites of advocacy groups: