Last week I attended a panel discussion on housing affordability here in Vancouver. It’s a big complex problem, with lots of different solutions.
Jim O’Dea talked about social housing.
Yuri Artibise talked about coop housing.
And Lyndsey Poaps talked about the problems of finding rental housing in a city with a vacancy rate of about 1%.
Because the people who are having problems finding housing are not just those at the bottom (and the edges) of the economic strata — they are middle class people, too.
In this article in the Vancouver Courier about the panel, Lyndsey Poaps is quoted as saying
“If we want to change the culture so that this becomes a city where people have expectations that they’ll rent for life — bring it on,” said panelist Lyndsay Poaps, a former park board commissioner who rents part of a duplex with her family on the East Side. “But the gap between that culture and our reality is like the Grand Canyon.”
Over and over, when talking about rentals in Vancouver, you bump up against that cultural problem — the concept that people in Metro Vancouver don’t rent their homes. They buy. The idea that you’ll rent one home for twenty years or more — that’s European! Back in Montreal you’ll find that — but not here! Vancouver isn’t a city of renters.
Except it is.
I’m not just talking about the fact that every house on our street has some form of rental housing — whether it’s a laneway, a basement suite, or a house subdivided into two or more suites. Nope. That’s just anecdote.
Vancouver is a city of renters.
Let’s look at the percentage of people renting in the Metro Vancouver area:
It’s not just in the west end of the city, either, where you find a high percentage of renters. Throughout the central area (including Kitsilano and Shaughnessy) nearly 70% of the housing is rental. (Thanks, CMHC for the info.)
How does that compare to Montreal? You know, where “everybody” rents rather than buys?
Sure, in the inner city it’s higher — but not much — but in the central area it’s less.
In central London, England, the rental rate is about 73%. High, as was expected, but about that of Vancouver. Even in Vienna, the city of government-owned and subsidized housing rental, the rental rate is about 75%.
So the question is not “Will Vancouver be a city of renters?”. The question is “How can we best serve the high proportion of people in Vancouver who rent their homes?”.
Let’s just think about how Vienna has handled their rental housing. As Harvard professor Eva Blau puts it, in the 1920s the city decided to really get involved in the rental situation in their city
There was also an economic reason to push for the public housing expansion. By subsidizing housing costs, rent would be kept low. That, in turn, meant wages could be kept low too — without negatively impacting living standards. Low wages allowed Vienna’s industrial sector to be more competitive internationally. There was a political aspect to the effort as well: The new government expected improved living conditions would engender loyalty from citizens. The push for housing was so expansive that today, nearly 100,000 of the city’s 220,000 city-owned apartment units were built in the 1920s and 1930s.
The idea that everyday citizens should have access to not just affordable apartments but also attractive ones — and that it’s the city’s responsibility to provide them — continues to this day. There’s a mindset that housing is a way to link residents to their communities and the larger city through design. “It was never just about housing,” Blau says. “It was always about the city. It was about not just providing private living space but also public living space to people for whom they were also providing housing.”
We don’t have to re-invent the wheel. It’s time for Civic, Provincial, and Federal governments to get together and work out how people will have access to safe, reliable rental housing in this city.
Because right now we’re just renting trouble.