A Letter to the Editorial Board of the Globe and Mail
City Conversation #98: The Editorial Board’s January 23rd “Opinion” about Housing in Vancouver is wrong in so many ways
January 23rd 2022—On this date the Globe and Mail published an Editorial Board Opinion. This is my polite rebuttal, submitted two days later to their Op-Ed editor. After 5 days of no reply or acknowledgment, here it is as a City Conversation. Synopsis: the real housing data is in plain sight and tells a different story.
A summary of planned housing in the City of Vancouver—a 60+ year supply without breaking a sweat
Your editorial, “Vancouver is ready to build new housing in old no-grow zones. But the plan is too timid” cannot go unchallenged.
First, the obvious errors in your editorial:
There is no single family zoning in Vancouver—the entire city has been zoned for a minimum of 30 homes per net acre for several years. That’s at least 3 homes on even the smallest 10m x 30m lots;
City hall’s “50% of the land has 15% of the homes” is a fantasy that ignores the thousands of laneway homes and secondary suites already built on formerly single family lots, not to mention the construction of duplexes where before stood single family. Many more laneways, suites and duplexes would have been built already if the permitting process for these simple homes was not at least 6-12 months, which is a major part of the housing supply problem.
There is no “flat-out refusal by citizens to consider apartment buildings with homes of two or three bedrooms for families in neighbourhoods of detached homes,” as you state. The city’s Streamlining Rental policy that you allude to was divisive because it addressed that fictitious refusal or reluctance by supporting proposals that could only elicit opposition. Since the last municipal election, half of all proposed Streamlining Rental rezonings are formless—they are cookie cutter apartment building illustrations from an uninspired book of neighbourhood-destroying sketches. And none of those formless rezoning proposals says anything about family-sized homes.
As to what will actually be delivered to a neighbourhood, such formless rezoning proposals say “The specific form of development (building design) will be reviewed through a future development Permit process.” Yet, of the 23 formless apartment buildings approved so far by this and the previous Council, which is almost 10% of the total of their 250 spot rezonings, all approved, only two have applied for a Development Permit, and one of those two still has no form. Forgive us for asking, “When if not now?”
Data about housing in Vancouver is not easily available from City of Vancouver web pages or staff. It required searching out and analyzing more than 400 different city web pages to identify what housing has been initiated in the past four years—city staff offer no accurate summaries. Housing data I have searched out is summarized by the accompanying illustration from my Homes for Whom database. In summary:
In the past four years the city has approved or encouraged through area planning a 66-year supply of housing for the city at historic absorption rates, not including the Vancouver Plan, which is Vancouver’s Official Community Plan-in-waiting that will likely double (at least) all of the numbers discovered so far;
That 66-year supply does not include housing contemplated in existing zoning, what planners call existing zoned capacity. City staff say they cannot do that calculation, so ignore it, although private citizens and professionals have done estimates;
Nor does the 66-year supply include other proposals that will emerge—in the past four years there has been an average of five rezoning proposals approved each month.
The Editorial Board’s conclusion about the need for ambition is inarguable. Gentle density comprising duplexing, secondary suites and laneways has been underway in Vancouver for some time, hampered only by excessive fees, byzantine approval processes and glacial approval time frames—that’s the real place to focus criticisms and suggestions. More housing may be required, even though these “gentler” forms of development already make up about a quarter of the new housing Vancouver’s population growth requires. Gentle density would provide much more housing, and more of it more affordable and livable than high density high-rise if it was not kneecapped from the start.
The ambition you champion must be accompanied by transparency, which seems in short supply at Vancouver city hall. My accurate data is available for the asking and paints a very different story. My and other analyst’s offers to compare data have been stiff armed and derided. Draw your own conclusions, Globe and Mail Editorial Board, but first do the research or at least listen to those who have.
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Brian Palmquist is a Vancouver-based architect, building envelope and building code consultant and LEED Accredited Professional (the first green building system). His writing is based on research and observations from a 40+ year career including the planning, design and construction of almost every type and scale of project. He is the author of the Amazon best seller “An Architect’s Guide to Construction.” and is working on a book about how we can accommodate a growing population while saving the Vancouver we love.
Wow, terrific reply. Good luck though about publishing, although you never know.
Great letter and thanks for digging to discover the current housing capacity. We have a land as investment problem, not a housing shortage.