The Vancouver Dream, The Vancouver Nightmare

Despite its reputation as a planner's dream, the city of Vancouver has incredibly high housing prices, which is part of the reason New Geography's Steve Lafleur calls it a middle class nightmare.

Lafleur looks at the demand for housing and real estate in Vancouver, and how the city's urban planning policies have ushered in an era of compact urbanism. But with what some might see as gains, the city's housing stock has become increasingly unaffordable for most middle class workers.

"In addition to smart growth policies, Vancouver also has very stringent inclusionary zoning laws. Inclusionary zoning requires developers to provide a certain number of affordable housing units in any given development. This policy might seem to make the city more affordable, but it functions exactly like rent control. Those fortunate enough to find spaces in the affordable housing units pay less, but the subsidized rent is made up for by higher rent in adjacent units. In a study of inclusionary zoning in California cities, Benjamin Powell and Edward Stringham from the Department of Economics at San Jose State University found that inclusionary zoning imposes an additional $33,000-$66,000 cost on adjacent market rate units.

There have been some recent policy initiatives that may reduce the cost of housing marginally. In 2004, the city amended its zoning code to permit secondary suites throughout the city. Secondary suites are subdivided units of owner occupied homes that are used as rental units. This zoning change brought tens of thousands of relatively low cost units into the market. There are currently 120,000 secondary suites in the province."

Thanks to The Overhead Wire

Full Story: Vancouver: Planner’s Dream, Middle Class Nightmare



Fuzzy logic?

I don't claim to understand the nuances of zoning and land use regulations, but I'm not sold on the author's logic. It seems to me that any place becomes expensive when a lot of people (particularly wealthy people) want to live there, meaning that cost of living in one place is determined (perhaps primarily) by relative perceived quality of life in other places. Whether a city rises or sprawls, housing stock is ultimately finite, so isn't supply and demand always the determining factor?

If housing in Vancouver is expensive, isn't the root cause the willingness of enough people to pay high prices rather than live somewhere else? If every other city was as appealing as Vancouver, wouldn't Vancouver cease to be so relatively expensive?

Ideologue logic.

Josh, what you said was all true. New Geography is a sort of start-up blog that wishes to pretend that everyone loves suburbia and that everything suburbia is the greatest thing ev-arrr.



Gotcha. So I'm not missing

Gotcha. So I'm not missing anything here? There isn't some essential truth in this article that defies common sense?

You're Reading in Too Much

I am not a fan of suburbia. Stringent land use regulations don't always just stop low density development. In the case of Vancouver, they're actually preventing further high density development. If the city were to eliminate many of the building height restrictions, and open up more land to development on the fringes of the city, they could increase the stock of high density condo units. This would put downwards pressure on the housing market, and increase the percentage of Canadians living in high density neighborhoods. I don't like the idea of forcing people to live in high density neighborhoods, but I am even more opposed to preventing them from doing so.

Some issues

As a Vancouverite and a graduate of the Urban Studies program at SFU I think there are several errors in this paper.

The first issue is the land factor. Vancouver is highly restricted in terms of outward growth regardless of the "green zone" (which by the way I've never heard of, we call it the Agricultural Land Reserve). We are restricted by mountains, the ocean, the Fraser river, the US border, marsh and estuaries, environmentally sensitive land, and some of the best agricultural land in the province. All of this combined helps to explain the high cost of land in Vancouver. We simply can't expanded like Houston, Toronto, or Calgary without hitting up against one of these restrictions.

The second issue I have is with the map of the "green zone'. I think it's slightly misleading from a cartographic perspective and from the perspective of a Vancouverite. A lot of the land that appears green on the map is either mountainous, or in the agricultural land reserve, or is environmentally sensitive (estuaries, bogs, wetlands, etc.). The map doesn't show this. As a result you get this sense from looking at the map that vast parts of Metro Vancouver are protected from development when it's entirely questionable whether they can, let alone should, be developed.

My final issue (I actually have about ten but I don't want to go on to long) is with the political landscape of planning in Vancouver. Despite the image of Vancouver as very dense this is slightly misleading. The centre of Vancouver, the metrotown area, and a handful of city centres around the Metro Vancouver are dense the vast majority of the developed landscape of Vancouver is low density single family housing. When people talk about why housing costs a lot in Vancouver the claim is "oh that stupid Agricultural land reserve (or green zone)is making housing price go up" . People never mention the vast low density sprawl that we have built for years,and continue to build. Why not change the zoning regulations to allow for densification within single family areas?

Anyways, it's an interesting article but take it with a grain of salt.

What a disappointing

What a disappointing article; it sounds like an argument taken from the Randal O'Toole playbook. Sure, land-use controls contribute to more inelastic demand and, thus, higher prices. (Though clearly this is but one of many of the reason's behind Vancouver's housing prices, not the least of which being sheer desirability and the fact that real estate, particularly high-end condos, are global commodities.) But we now know far too much about the "true" costs of suburbanization--ie, the externalities--to just blindly think that building new suburbs is the answer. Far more nuanced solutions will have to be found.

Heavy land use regulations

"...there is an strong correlation between heavy land use regulations and housing costs"

This blog misses what I think is a very important point, and it sort of echoes what some have said here already. So-called "heavy" land use regulations are almost always created in response to urban pressure on precious land resources, such as farmland, river valleys or important ecosystems. However, environmental causes are only part of the reason heavy land use regulations are implemented. In places where developers are not eager to bring new subdivisions into the pipeline, such as slow-growth cities in the Rustbelt, land use regulations are almost unnecessary, because, in fact, they wouldn't be regulating much of anything. High-growth cities, especially those with a limited amount of buildable land (like Vancouver), cry out for land regulation.

Consider for a moment if Vancouver didn't have "heavy" land use regulations. Conceivably, housing would have been equally in demand, and developers would have responded accordingly. My guess is that in this alternate scenario, Vancouver would have the same amount of housing units, but they would be spread out across the region, resulting in long and congested commutes, not to mention the likelihood of a highway to downtown Vancouver. One could even argue that housing costs would be lower, but that would come at the expense of longer (distance and time) and costlier commutes, and other lifestyle costs.

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