Dennis Carr

27 October 27 2014

Creating social assets in Vancouver: Lessons for Ottawa

image: Photo's of Vancouver and Ottawa, via Wikipedia.

A comprehensive social housing analysis of two major cities

27 October 27 2014
By Dennis Carr
True North Perspective

Dennis Carr, founder of DCarr Community Solutions has recently returned from Vancouver where he spent five years as the City’s Assistant Director of Social Infrastructure. Before that he spent 19 years as the Development and Construction Manager for Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation, one of Canada’s largest non-profit housing corporations.

Over the last several years, the City of Vancouver has created thousands of affordable housing units, hundreds of daycare spaces and has many more community amenities in the development pipeline. How does Vancouver, a city with a population 25% smaller than Ottawa, achieve this? In part, it is by leveraging these assets through the property development process. Behind it all however is a solid political commitment at the municipal level to create and act upon policies that enable a livable, sustainable city.  What can the City of Ottawa learn from Vancouver’s policies and practices?

Municipal Governance; Vancouver versus Ottawa

Vancouver has a population of over 603,000, an area of 114 km² and is one of 23 municipal entities within Metro Vancouver which has a population of 2.3 million. It has 10 municipal councilors elected through an ‘at-large’ system; there are no wards.  Vancouver is incorporated under a unique provincial statute, the Vancouver Charter. Unlike Ottawa, and most other municipalities in Canada, Vancouver's has a system of local political parties, rather than unaligned independent Councilors.

Contrast this to Ottawa that, while having an area approximately the size of Metro Vancouver, has a population of 883,000, 23 ward Councilors and no municipal parties. Also unlike British Columbia, municipalities in Ontario have jurisdictional responsibility for affordable housing, something to keep in mind as we look at how Vancouver has responded to its critical need for affordable housing.    

Achieving Social Assets in Vancouver

The City of Vancouver has a number of planning tools that enable it to create affordable housing and social amenities. It can put housing operating agreements on title for affordable housing, enact zoning by-laws to enable higher density when a social amenity is being proposed and insist that affordable housing be created as part of a large site rezoning. Equally important when it comes to achieving social assets, the Vancouver Charter allows the City to negotiate a package of Community Amenity Contributions (known as ‘public benefits’) when a developer applies for a rezoning which includes a significant increase in density.

When a municipality approves an increase in site density it is often creating significant additional value for the applicant. The greater the density increase, the greater the potential additional value.   This seems obvious but what may not be obvious, at least to the citizens and politicians in Ottawa, is that in Vancouver every effort is made to ensure the public shares in the wealth created by increased density. 

The public benefits achieved through rezoning are numerous and diverse. They include affordable housing, recreational facilities, libraries, neighbourhood houses, community centres, adult day care, child care, public art, cultural facilities, greenways and bike paths.

Decisions about what amenities should be achieved and where they should be located are informed by policies on financing growth, childcare, affordable housing, families in high density buildings etc. Negotiation of the public benefits is done by City staff with experience in real estate development, pro forma analysis and social policy.

The numbers are impressive.  Between 2010 and 2012, Vancouver’s rezonings created public amenities valued at $275 million back to the public. Next month, Vancouverites elect a new Council. This new Council will vote on a four-year capital plan with a proposed total budget of $1.085 billion. The anticipated public benefit contribution to that budget is $308 million or 28%. Imagine the opportunities for improving the quality of life in Ottawa if 28% of its capital budget was financed through the development process rather than through development charges or the tax base.    

Creating Affordable Housing

Vision, the party in power in Vancouver, was first elected in 2008, reelected in 2011 and is leading the polls in the run up to next month’s election.  Affordable housing and environmental sustainability are its top two priorities. Vision has been criticized for its promise to end street homelessness by 2015 and it remains to be seen whether this goal can be achieved. What’s not in doubt is that the current Council has done more than any recent Council to create affordable housing since the federal government terminated housing programs in 1993.  

Like Ottawa, Vancouver has a serious affordable housing and homelessness problem and like Ottawa, it has aggressive housing targets. Unlike Ottawa, Vancouver has dedicated significant resources to alleviating the problems. In its 2011-2014 Capital Plan, Vancouver set an affordable housing target of 1,950 units or 650 units per year. There are currently 2,050 units either completed or in the development/construction pipeline. About one-third of these units will be created through Vancouver’s public benefits process.  The remaining units are being achieved by partnering with local not-for-profit agencies, Foundations (such as the StreetoHome Foundation which was established to alleviate homelessness), other levels of government and by using the City’s own land, zoning tools and financial resources. Contrast this achievement to Ottawa which has only managed to create about 100 units per year past few years.

Here are some of the ways affordable housing has been created:

Co-Location of Municipal Facilities and Affordable Housing

In 2011, the Vancouver Public Library Board presented a plan to Council for the creation of a new library on City land on East Hastings Street in the Downtown East Side, a neighbourhood with a significant number of marginalized residents. The area activists (very numerous and very vocal) advocated for affordable housing to be created atop the new facility and Council directed City staff to look for a housing partner. The YWCA stepped forward with a proposal to provide funds to build a residence for single mothers and their children. This project with 22 supportive family units, amenities and community space is currently under construction.

Housing atop a library is a wonderful collaboration. What about affordable housing on top of a fire hall? When the Vancouver Fire Department needed to rebuild an outdated facility in southeast Vancouver (on a site close to parks, churches, schools, a community centre and a shopping mall) there was no need for activists to wave the flag. The decision was made at the highest levels of the bureaucracy that the project would include affordable housing.

Reuse of Existing Buildings

An important heritage building that had been unoccupied for many years is being converted into supportive housing for people with mental health challenges. This project is being assisted by operational and support funding from a private donor. A former jail is being converted to affordable housing. 25% of the units will be available for residents on welfare. 

New Neighbourhood Policy

When large new neighbourhoods are being created the City of Vancouver tries to achieve, at a minimum, land options that will accommodate 20% of the total number of residences as affordable housing. One example is the East Fraserlands district along the north shore of the Fraser River. Over the 20-year build out period of this large new neighbourhood, about 1300 affordable housing units will be created. Additionally, the project will deliver childcare, parks and a community centre

Another example that may be familiar to readers is the Olympic Village, which hosted the athletes and associated personal for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Despite the onerous financial burden that was the result of the down turn of the economy in 2008 and 2009, the City maintained its commitment to ensure that 20% of the units were affordable housing under not-for-profit management.

Leveraging City-Owned Land

Vancouver maintains a substantial land bank of sites set aside for affordable housing and other City priorities. In 2012, the City issued a Request for Proposal for some of these sites. The successful proponent, a partnership of three not-for-profit agencies will create 358 rental units, 75% of which will be affordable to tenants needing a housing subsidy. Other City-owned sites have been used to create an immigrant service centre, transitional housing and shelter.  

Community Planning

Vancouver has recently adopted three community plans.  Embedded in each of them are expectations for affordable housing and social amenities over the 20-30 years of the plan. For example, the West End Community Plan which allows additional density and taller height limits within certain parts of the neighbourhood will create approximately 1,600 social housing units and 1,900 market rental housing units. Another example is the Downtown East Side Plan which mandates specific rental housing targets in most sub-areas and includes a rental-only sub-zone, probably the only one in the country. 

Challenges and Opportunities for Ottawa

So what does all this mean for Ottawa? Municipalities have only a limited set of powers. They don’t have great taxation powers or control over markets. Fifteen years of provincial downloading has strained the budgets. Without a party system in place it’s hard to for Councilors to articulate and then achieve broader public policy objectives. Who cares if one Councilor wants to create more daycares or build more bike paths if the other 22 are indifferent or opposed. The ward system and the ever present threat of NIMBY makes it difficult for Councilors to act upon broader public policy objectives, even when he or she has consistently voted in favour of such policy.  And looming over all Council decisions about zoning and planning is the time consuming, expensive and regressive Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). The OMB often infantilizes Council, absolving Councillors of their decision-making responsibility and allowing them to ignore recommendations of their own Planning Department and pander to local interests with full knowledge that their decision will be appealed; often successfully.

Municipalities in Ontario don’t have the regulatory authority to negotiate the kind of robust public benefits that Vancouver achieves.  But they do have some limited ability under Section 37 of the Ontario Planning Act to achieve something.  It needs to make better use of this potential asset.  The wealth created by the approval of upzonings is a valuable public resource and the decisions about the benefits, however limited, should be made on the basis of comprehensive policies about City priorities.  It hard to think of two entities worst placed for negotiating public benefits with developers than local Councillors  and neighbourhood groups and yet that is what often happens  On what basis are these decisions being made?  To whom are they accountable?  

Connect the Dots

Let’s not forget that Ottawa, unlike Vancouver, has jurisdictional responsibility for affordable housing.  So what should it do?

To start, the City of Ottawa needs to make full use of the tools they have.  Ottawa has decent policy on affordable housing and other social amenities but it needs to connect the dots between its policy and its actions.  It has many of the same planning, regulatory and resource tools that Vancouver has but it often fails to use them.  

The city has the ability to acquire and provide land for important public objectives, it can co-locate municipal facilities with social amenities, it can ensure full relief of development charges and permit fees, set aside parcels of land for affordable housing in large new neighbourhood projects, provide extra density on a site when affordable housing is being proposed.

It seems hard to believe that affordable housing could not have been created as part of the new Lansdowne Park development.  Instead, Council lacked the collective will (and moral courage) to create anything other than a residential community for the upper middle class. There are lots of other examples; Lebreton Flats Phases one and two, any number of new subdivisions, Rockliffe Air Base. Policies ignored and opportunities lost and abandoned.

This is not just a question of social justice although that is an important consideration. A mix of incomes and tenures is an integral part of any successful community and vital to the City’s economy, the health of its citizens and educational outcomes.