In many ways, the Vancouver housing environment shares common elements of housing supply and affordability issues that are increasingly observed here in the Bay Area and California. Over the last fifteen years, Vancouver market demands have skyrocketed while housing supply has trailed further and further behind. ULI SF sat down with Vancouver City Council Member Andrea Reimer to talk about her work to increase affordability, enhance the quality of community engagement, and to discuss what lessons the Bay Area can learn from Vancouver’s 10+ years of work combatting housing affordability issues in the face of ever-increasing market and societal pressures.
Councilor Reimer will be a speaker at ULI San Francisco’s March 23rd Housing the Bay Summit.
You’ve been a leading voice in Vancouver’s pro-housing movement; what precipitated this work?
It is impossible to be elected at the local level in this city without being involved in housing. I’m the only precarious renter on council, which means that I don’t have tenure in housing. I’ve been evicted more than ten times in the last twenty years and I pay my rent! This is not at all uncommon in Vancouver. It has been a struggle to ensure that the voices of average residents, most of whom are renters, are heard in the public process, which has generally been dominated by landowners.
I also lived on the streets for a number of years in my earlier life. I bring a background and empathy to understanding these issues. One of the biggest ‘ah-ha’ moments for me was when I really started to notice that the city and neighborhoods had a lot of discussion about rental buildings, but never a discussion around the people actually living inside of the buildings.
How would you characterize the housing market and overall level of affordability in Vancouver today?
When I started ten years ago, the market was catastrophic. I was evicted and had to sleep on friends’ couches for months. The last time I was evicted, it only took me a few days to find a new place. This is because supply is finally coming online. I also make the average household income. The considerable number of residents who are living below this income line still need advocacy, and we as a city have a long way to go.
Can you describe the community process component of this work?
The thing that held the process together was a lot of innovation around the ways in which we engaged with the community. If you are asking people to engage in a process that might result in outcomes that they don’t want [perceived negative externalities related to building housing], we need to be deeply engaged with them throughout the process.
We delegated the authority for planning to a low-income, democratically organized organization and a group of architecture professionals. We put the residents in charge along with professionals, with the city providing technical support. It was a long, difficult process, but, it turns out that when you get people around a table, you begin to start to see people realize that they should hear people out and they begin to combine interests. As people begin listening to each other and start to understand how one another understand solutions, you get closer to a consensus-based resolution. When we got to city council, 95% of the plan appealed to 100% of residents.
What are some “lessons learned” from work to address the housing crisis over the last few years in Vancouver?
Some lessons learned: data, data, data. In the absence of data, you get narratives that don’t make sense in the current climate. We see this difference in views and experiences between people who purchased housing decades ago and someone who is looking for housing the in the current market. It is as if they live in different worlds. The data allows for an objective way to help ground these viewpoints.
Getting people eyeball to eyeball from different experiences and backgrounds is also very important. This is economic, but also demographic: female and male, ethnic and racial. I’m dying for people to know that it is OK for us to talk about eviction as well.
Finally, patience. You are not going to solve a housing collapse that has been 50-60 years in the making in just one term in office. This is a long game.
How did your work around housing as a city councilor help to address overall housing supply?
When [my political party coalition] came to power in 2008, we thought that we had to approach [planning issues] differently. That is to say that, if we’re talking about housing, we need to talk about it in the context of neighborhood areas. This has led to very difficult discussions in some neighborhoods. Generally, areas that are predominately composed of single family homes don’t want new construction of dense developments to occur in their particular neighborhood. It is encouraging that we are now starting to see groups that are working hard to push for higher density in single family areas, as well as increased participation in the system by renter advocacy groups.
The result is that [from a policy perspective] we are now looking at the whole picture of housing in a much more holistic way.
Consider that less than 1,000 rental housing units were built in the decade preceding my election. More than half of Vancouver’s residents rent. And tie this to the fact that we have a rapidly growing population.
In crisis, there is opportunity. Where housing was avoided for a decade, the pressure had been built.
By Nate Hanson