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Census data should inform Vancouver planning

The 2021 Census confirms Vancouver is building more new units than required for population growth
Downtown Vancouver is now the densest in Canada according to the 2021 Census | Photo: Submitted

The recently released 2021 Census data confirms that there is more housing supply being built than required by population growth in Vancouver.  This needs to inform the major planning initiatives currently underway across the city.

Population growth continues at about one percent per year, at 4.9 percent over the last five years 2016 to 2021, increased to 660,000 people, consistent with the pace over the last 40 years. Yet dwelling growth over the last five years has increased 6.1 percent.  Vancouver continues to have over 23,000 empty dwellings unoccupied by usual residents.

The built housing supply is 20 percent higher than the rate of population growth. However, the cost of housing over that same period has continued to escalate, demonstrating that just adding more supply will not make housing more affordable. 

In fact, if growth is not done carefully, it has the unintended consequences of inflating land values and making the situation worse, as we are currently experiencing.  Development in the approval pipeline is already decades ahead of population growth, contrary to the supply deficit narrative.

Downtown Vancouver is now the most densely populated in Canada with 18,837 inhabitants per square kilometre in the 2021 Census. For comparison, Manhattan, New York, is 28,668 in 2020. Other top place Canadian cities are Toronto, 16,608; Montréal, 8,367; Calgary, 7,778; and Hamilton, 6,939. 

The densest cities also tend to have more extremes in poverty and wealth and gaps in infrastructure. 

Vancouver neighbourhoods are already having amenity deficits. Many local schools are at full capacity, such as downtown. Competition for entrance by lottery, often forces unlucky students to commute across town. 

The city has not kept up with promised amenities for rezoned areas such as Norquay, Fraser Lands, and Marpole. The Cambie Corridor doesn't have enough servicing , such as sewers, for the rezoned capacity. There are billions of dollars of infrastructure and amenities required for even what has already been rezoned, plus what is proposed.

The Broadway Plan and Jericho Lands are well beyond what is required for population growth without consideration of impacts on local context. 

Other rampant spot rezoning policies also have no local area planning attached to them as they are broad and random. This includes the recently approved rental rezoning policies for on and off arterials citywide. Same with the mayor's recently proposed 6 strata units on all RS lots pilot for 2000 projects of 10,000 units.

Development only covers a small percentage of the actual costs of related infrastructure. And in the case of rental housing, most development fees are reduced or exempted. So most of these costs must be carried by property taxes and capital debt financing. Taxes contribute to the costs of living.

Increasingly, the city is also having to cover responsibilities of the provincial and federal governments for underfunded housing and social programs, with policing and emergency services filling the gaps. 

These impacts will increase the denser the city becomes, with more people being displaced,  as we are experiencing downtown and other upzoned neighbourhoods.

While growth is inevitable, there is a choice as to how this is done. The challenge is to do it in a way that provides the needed housing, without overwhelming  existing infrastructure. This requires incremental growth at a scale that new needed infrastructure can be affordably provided without inflating land values.

These are the fundamentals of planning for a livable, affordable and sustainable city, not just unlimited growth promotion. Shifting from the Livable Region Strategic Plan to the Regional Growth Strategy in 2011, was a mistake as things have deteriorated exponentially since then.  

There are limits to growth and this needs to be discussed. Not the polarized all-or-nothing labeling of NiMBY vs. YIMBY narrative that shuts down rational thinking.

Instead, we can have more multiplexes in a form that suites each neighbourhood, ensuring that the needed amenities and services are provided with it. 

For example, zoning should be incentivizing more multiple secondary suites, duplexes, multiplex strata units and infill with character house retention like the RT zones. But it needs to consider each neighbourhood's existing lot sizes, building types and related local context for conversions and new multifamily.  

The census data confirms that population growth is consistently about one percent per year. That can easily be provided for at a livable scale that fits in every neighbourhood, including options for co-ops and social housing.

But there are no quick fixes. It requires doing the neighbourhood-based planning work with meaningful local community involvement, for a livable, affordable and sustainable future for all.

Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and was formerly a property development officer for the City of Vancouver's Housing & Properties Department and for BC Housing. 

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