Municipal Tools to Create Social Assets

Part Two: Vancouver

Written by Dennis Carr

January 22, 2016

Achieving Social Assets in Vancouver

In my first post about municipal tools to create social assets, I compared Vancouver’s municipal governance structure to Ottawa’s and reviewed Vancouver’s substantial achievements in creating social assets. This post will outline some of the tools Vancouver uses to achieve these facilities and provide some project examples.

Planning Tools

Vancouver has a number of planning tools that enable it to create affordable housing and social amenities. They include:

  • A municipal charter that allows it to negotiate public benefits when a developer applies for a rezoning which includes a significant increase in density,
  • the ability to ensure long term use of the asset by putting housing Operating Agreements on title or terms of affordability in the case of rental housing,
  • the authority to enact zoning by-laws that enable higher density when a social amenity is being proposed, 
  • and area plans that require affordable housing be created as part of a large site rezoning.

Public Benefits Policy

When a municipality approves an increase in site density it often creates significant additional value for the applicant. The greater the density increase, the greater the potential additional value. Through its public benefits policies, Vancouver makes every effort to ensure its citizens share in the wealth created by this increased density. In many cases, the public benefits are used to offset the local impacts of the increased density.

In Vancouver, decisions about what amenities should be provided and where they should be located are informed by Council policy 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.

Creating Affordable Housing

Vision, the party currently in power in Vancouver, was first elected in 2008 and subsequently re-elected in 2011 and 2014. Affordable housing and environmental sustainability are its top two priorities.

Like Ottawa, Vancouver has a serious affordable housing and homelessness problem, and like Ottawa, it has responded with a plan that sets aggressive targets for new affordable housing. However unlike Ottawa, Vancouver has dedicated more significant resources towards achieving the targets. In its 2011-2014 Capital Plan, Vancouver set an affordable housing target of 1,950 units or 650 units per year. This target was met (at the end of 2014 2,050 units were either completed or in the development/construction pipeline) and renewed in Vancouver’s 2015-2019 Capital Plan. About one-third of these units will be created through the public benefits process. The remaining units are being achieved by partnering with local not-for-profit agencies, foundations, other levels of government (primality BC Housing) and by using the City’s own land, zoning tools, and financial resources.

In addition to the public benefits system, here are some other ways Vancouver has facilitated affordable housing:

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, a neighbourhood with a significant number of marginalized residents. The numerous and vocal area activists advocated for affordable housing to be created atop the new facility and Council directed City staff to look for opportunities to achieve this. The YWCA stepped forward with a proposal to create a 22-unit supportive housing residence for single mothers and their children.

Vancouver Public Library and YMCA

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 shopping, there was no need for activists to wave the flag. The decision was made at the highest levels of the City administration that the project should include affordable housing.

Reuse of Existing Buildings

Taylor Manor: This City-owned heritage building which had been vacant for many years has been converted into supportive housing for people with mental health challenges. The project was assisted by a commitment from a private donor to long-term operational and support funding.

New Neighbourhood Policy

When large new neighbourhoods are being created the City of Vancouver makes every effort to obtain land options to ensure 20% of the total number of residences are non-market housing. One recent example is the East Fraserlands district which lies along the north shore of the Fraser River. Over the 20 year build-out period of this site, about 1300 affordable housing units will be created in addition to childcares, parks and a community centre

Another example that may be familiar to readers is the Olympic Village, which hosted the athletes and associated personnel for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Despite the onerous financial burden caused the economic recession in 2008 and 2009, the City maintained its commitment and ensured that 20% of the units were under not-for-profit management.

Land Banking

Through its Property Endowment Fund, Vancouver maintains a substantial land bank for City priorities including affordable housing. 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 is currently constructing 358 rental units, 75% of which will be affordable to tenants needing a housing subsidy. Another City-owned site has been used to create an immigrant service centre welcome house with transitional and supportive housing.  

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 plans. For example, the West End Community Plan which allows additional density and taller height limits within certain parts of that 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.

In the third installment of this blog I’ll look at how Ottawa creates its affordable housing and other social facilities and offer some modest suggestions for improvement.

Dennis Carr

Senior Advisor

January 22, 2016