Mayor Robertson's Keynote Address to the Urban Land Institute

It’s always a treat to sit down with a group of people who care so passionately, and think with such depth, about Vancouver’s built environment.

I want to recognize ULI’s leadership in helping Metro Vancouver have a more informed public dialogue on issues of land use and livability

All of us want Vancouver to be a place where people can afford to live and work.

And today I want to focus my remarks on the one issue that I know we’re all focused on: the city’s new logo

Just kidding. That topic, of course, is housing, and the issue of affordability.

We’re facing crisis levels of unaffordability for people across the spectrum in Vancouver

A lot of the media attention focuses on home ownership. But I know I don’t have to tell you that renters, if anything, face prospects that are dire. And it’s important to remember that while you wouldn’t know it from the media attention, it’s renters who make up more than half of our city

I hear all the time from renters like the one young professional couple who wrote me not long ago. They both have good jobs and a lovely two-year-old. It took months for them to find an apartment they could afford, only to discover it was infested with mice and silverfish. Now they’re starting their search from scratch.

I hear from renters like the 59-year-old who sent me an anguished email the other week. They’re facing a renoviction from a community they’ve lived in for 30 years. They’re feeling betrayed and let down by every level of government, including mine. And they asked, “Where do I go, where do we all go, all of us all over the Lower Mainland, all over the country, who are having our homes destroyed because it is a great market to make money in, but not, apparently, a great market to provide low-income housing?”

How do we help them and thousands like them — tenants and prospective homeowners alike — to keep living and contributing to Vancouver?

How do we address a challenge that’s facing nearly every city in North America, and hitting Vancouver especially hard?

How do we keep a great city, a liveable city?

Those questions have serious implications for everybody who lives here, who owns a business here, who cares about the future of our community.

And that’s what I want to talk about today.

Because thanks in part to your help, and the ideas that people across Vancouver have shared with us, and thanks to some stellar work from city staff… we’re closing in on some new answers to those questions.

And we have a lot of experience to build on. There isn’t a city in North America that has taken on the challenge of housing affordability the way Vancouver has.

This has been a story of innovation… determination… and sometimes just sheer dogged stubbornness in finding solutions.

We’ve put 20 sites of city-owned land on the table for affordable housing, challenging the BC and Federal governments to step up and partner with us on getting new housing built. To their credit, BC Housing has agreed to invest in 2 of those 20 sites so far, deepening affordability while we will deliver hundreds of new affordable rental homes.

Our own capital plan includes an $80 million investment this year for affordable housing - the most ever.

2016 was a year of firsts. The first Community Land Trust breaking ground. Vancouver’s first Modular Housing project. First co-housing opening. And Canada’s first Empty Homes Tax.

That tax takes on a new urgency with census data showing we may have many more underutilized homes in Vancouver than we knew.

At a time when we have near-zero vacancy rates, we refuse to sit on the sidelines while more than 25,000 homes are either empty or under-occupied. There are too many families struggling to find an affordable place to live.

And when new condos sit empty, surrounded by schools, parks and businesses, it undercuts those who say supply is the only solution.

Supply is no doubt part of the solution. But supply for whom? that needs to drive our housing conversation.

And it speaks to a basic principle: that housing and housing markets have to be about homes first, and investments second.

Those markets, by the way, are responding positively. 2016 saw a record year for housing starts in Vancouver, and a lot of that was rental. Permit values hit $2.5 billion.

You can trace a healthy chunk of that to planning decisions that are densifying transit corridors, and sparking sales — and pouring money into the Province’s bank accounts through the property transfer tax.

Two big questions come to mind. First, are we seeing results?

Well, in the past year, we generated more housing supply than Surrey and Burnaby… combined.

So I’m going to say yes: we’re seeing results.

Second — are those results enough?

And there, I say absolutely not.

Despite everything we’ve done, far too many people just can’t find an affordable place to live in Vancouver. Far too much of our market is commodification, not accommodation.

I hear from employers all the time about the challenge of attracting and keeping talent here. Hootsuite’s Ryan Holmes says “Unaffordability is emptying Vancouver of one of its most valuable assets — young people who grew up in the city and who are invested in it.”

I know that first-hand. My own kids are challenged to keep living here.

It comes down to a question of what we want our city to be. A gated community — where sticker shock serves the gate-keeping function? Or something more vibrant, more dynamic, more liveable?

Last year was the halfway mark of our 10-year housing strategy. It was halfway into my third term as Mayor, and we had a number of new staffing moves at the City. So we said let’s take a step back to re-evaluate… and reset.

And I want to tell you that everything, every aspect of our strategy to date is on the table.

We’re starting with recognizing just how much has changed in recent years.

10 years ago, if you were in your late 20s/early 30s,, you needed an income of $35,000 to afford a one-bedroom apartment. Now you need an income of $51,000.

10 years ago, a household with an income of $97,000 could afford to own an Eastside townhouse.  Today, that same household will need an income of $175,000.

As a city, we absolutely have to recognize the issue of age in the housing conversation. the spikes in housing prices, the plummeting vacancy rates - those hit our youngest residents the hardest. And I want to recognize the work that Generation Squeeze has done to raise this issue and outline how people under 40 are at a disadvantage in our housing market.

5 years ago, Airbnb was still a quirky startup, barely on anyone’s radar. Today it’s a growing challenge to our secondary rental stock while at the same time providing top-up income to a lot of people struggling to make rent.

And let me just say while AirBNB gets the bulk of the media attention, they were the only homesharing company to sit down and work with the city on our upcoming regulations...as opposed to the 10-12 other start-ups who refused to even talk to our staff.

The latest census data shows our population is dropping in predominantly single-family neighbourhoods.

Dunbar - lost 300 residents since 2011.

Arbutus Ridge: down 700 residents.

Kerrisdale: 800 fewer residents.

The warning bells are ringing.

Our staff analysis shows the trajectory we’re on. In terms of development proposals in the pipeline, 70% is condos. 16% will be rental apartments. Less than 10% will be social or supportive housing.

As proud as we might be over what we’ve achieved to date - trying new policies, leveraging resources in a way no other City in Canada is doing, building more than half of the rental housing in Metro Van -  it just won’t get us to where we need to be.

Hence the housing reset. We need some big moves, and we need them now.

There are several coming in the next few months that I want to touch on.

The first is the analysis that will underpin our housing strategy. Instead of just talking about units - which by the way, does anyone actually think of their home as “a unit”? - we’re going to talk about people

The City hired Ernst and Young to do a comprehensive analysis of how much housing we’ll need over the next ten years, by income. So rather than just pumping out supply and hoping for the best, we’ll be tracking the types of homes we need - and for whom - and tailoring our strategies accordingly

You can expect those numbers in the coming weeks

And I want to mention the five main places we’re assessing to create those new units, or as people in the real world call them, “homes:

First, a major supply of new homes can happen on public land - City Hall is the biggest land owner in the city. We can put the next set of city-owned sites onto the market, and issue a challenge to the private sector: who can build the most affordable housing on site?

An estimate by our staff of 6 key sites owned by the City could generate 3,000+ new homes. We can’t justify holding them as parking lots and vacant lots when we’re in a affordability crunch.

In 2012, the City offered up 4 pieces of City land, which formed the basis of our first Community Land Trust. So why not do 2 more Land Trusts? 5 more? 10 more?

The second big new supply should come at transit stations. We’ve just delivered big new plans for Grandview Woodland, and Joyce Street Station.Aand we’re doing it in a way that builds in inclusionary zoning, delivering affordable housing on site. The Cambie corridor and Canada Line stations are generating significant supply of new homes as well, but they’re costly.

Given the rapid rise in condo prices, we’re looking at how we can deliver big volumes of rental with the next set of our rapid transit nodes.

The third place we need to see many more homes created in the years ahead is along Vancouver’s arterial streets. These are areas where demand from the market for densification is high - and in some ways, is entering into unhealthy speculation. So we’re closely evaluating how we can add homes along transit routes, but making sure affordability is baked into what gets produced.

The fourth big source of supply needs to be in multi-family neighbourhoods where we can increase density. We have hundreds of blocks of aging apartment buildings that desperately need reinvestment, at a time when our vacancy rate is near-zero. So why aren’t we adding a fourth floor to a three story walkup, or allowing duplexes to convert to quads? We need to pursue those opportunities.

And the fifth realm for significant new housing is in our single-family neighbourhoods. The time is right to advance a conversation about how we bring in more affordability, and still preserve the essence of those neighbourhoods.

We’ve undertaken a review on Character Homes over the past year and a half, and in the coming weeks our head planner Gil Kelly will update Council on the next steps.

The choice isn’t between change and no change: our single family neighbourhoods are changing now. We’re seeing character homes being razed and replaced with much larger single-family homes.

And in places like Kerrisdale and Dunbar, as we see from the census, they’re changing simply because less and less people live there at a time when prices are going higher and higher.

So the question isn’t if our neighbourhoods will change. It’s who they change for. And it’s how we guide that change.

And we need to stop fixating on density, because that’s not what this is about. Density for density’s sake might just give us more empty homes. What we’re talking about is people.

Schools filled with students, neighbourhood high streets filled with shoppers, parks filled with kids. A neighbourhood made up of perfect $5M heritage homes with no children in them is not healthy. That’s the sign of a failing city.

There are design solutions out there that allow density without assembly. Simple things like how we allow duplexes, more infill, townhouses, rowhouses. We’ve lagged in that area for decades - but we can turn it around.

And staff will be outlining some next steps on that front in the weeks to come

I should stress, too, that the Reset isn’t all about housing. We’ll also be looking at job space — which will figure prominently in initiatives like the City Core 2050 and the False Creek Flats planning process. We’ve been hugely successful in expanding our office space downtown, and it’s filling up as fast as we can build it. We need to plan ahead as our economy continues to lead the country and booming job creation in tech and innovation drive our growth.

The Flats plan will be coming to Council in the coming months, with a goal of adding 22,000 new jobs as we build new communities around Emily Carr University and the new St Paul’s Hospital.

We’re at the point where we need to think about mixed-use space and complete communities — communities that are varied and distinctive. So False Creek will have different solutions and approaches from Mount Pleasant, and Marpole’s will differ from Hastings–Sunrise.

You’ll see an emphasis on improving the public realm, and again we’ll be looking to Gil Kelly, our head of planning. You’ve seen the transformation of public space around the art gallery at 800 Robson, Jim Deva Plaza off of Davie, even the pocket park at 17th and Yukon.

There’ve been some great activations like the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association’s partnership with HCMA to revitalize laneways in the downtown.

To date, that’s been at the level of demonstrations and pilot projects. Now it’s time to scale and amplify that success. Let’s take what we’ve learned about great public spaces, and apply it city wide.

And I know there’s still more that we can do at City Hall to get our own house in order. We can overhaul the permit process and regulations. We can streamline response times, and adopt a more customer-oriented approach. And recognize that sometimes, the best thing the City can do to support affordability is get out of the way.

Kaye Krishna, our GM of development services, will be taking a series of steps in collaboration with the development industry to address those issues. And you’ll be hearing more from her about that in the coming weeks.

One last piece of the puzzle: we can’t do this alone. No city can. We need strong leadership from both the federal and provincial governments, to make sure that low- and middle-income families have the housing choices they need. They both need to be back in the game with rental housing incentives and deep support for social and supportive housing.

Just two days ago I stood with other Metro Mayors as we released a report on just how devastating the housing market has been on our most vulnerable residents. This winter we’re seeing 85 homeless camps throughout Metro Van. 5 people are becoming homeless in Metro every week. That is an absolute embarrassment in a province as wealthy as BC.

So whether it’s a direct investment in the housing supply, or indirect support like a GST waiver on new rental housing construction, we need Ottawa and Victoria at the table too. And hopefully with a new National Housing Strategy from Ottawa and a provincial election where housing will be a top issue, we’ll see some new ideas and investments on the table

The Housing Reset that we’ll be revealing in the coming months will combine immediate actions for affordable housing with a long-term plan to guide our housing strategy. But more than that, it will be an initiative of intentional city-building.

Because as concerned as I am for our future, the truth is we have a phenomenal city. There’s opportunity to be had here that rivals or beats anything you’ll find in the world.

And one of the biggest opportunities is to learn from other cities, like San Francisco, Singapore, New York, Hong Kong. All are cities with limited land bases, bounded by the sea, with booming tech, tourism and trade economies — we have a lot in common.

So let’s understand where they went right and wrong, to avoid the pitfalls in their housing markets while embracing what they have to teach us about opportunity.

We must take action to build an inclusive, resilient city. And work relentlessly to make Vancouver more affordable for the years to come.

We can take Vancouver to the next level, we are closer than ever before to our city’s enormous potential.

I know we can do that, because we have the skill and wisdom of the people in the room and many more. We have the talent, knowledge and determination of the people of Vancouver — and their profound sense of community.

One of the best things about Vancouver is our refusal to settle for what we have now, our willingness to keep striving.

And I’m looking forward to striving to build that great city with all of you. Stay tuned, and please stay engaged!

Thank you.