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With a fresh mandate and another majority on council, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is laying out new priorities.

During his first three years in office, Mr. Robertson's goal was finding shelter for the homeless. This time around, he wants to find places for the middle class to live.

To that end, he has struck a task force to look into what options exist to create more affordable housing stock. Whatever comes out of it is sure to be contentious, since the issue is now one of the most vexing public policy questions of our time.

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Most of the world's major cities are trying to solve this problem – in the most politically palatable way possible. In Canada, the issue is particularly acute in markets such as Toronto and Vancouver, where real-estate prices long ago made home ownership a dream for everyone except the wealthy.

An architectural firm that recently mapped virtually all properties in Vancouver could find just 191 valued at less than $500,000. About 40 per cent were worth more than $1-million. The benchmark price for a home on the city's west side is now more than $2-million. On the east, it's $863,183, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver.

None of this is new, of course. But it's against this backdrop that Mr. Robertson is trying to grapple with his affordable housing dilemma.

Developers, academics and retired politicians, among others, have waded into the debate. Proposed solutions vary depending on a person's ideological bent. All I've been able to determine is there's no silver bullet but plenty of potential for fireworks.

Many would like to see the city use land it owns to build housing, of varying types, at below market value. (Take your pick of what percentage below that should be, but 20 per cent is a figure you see a lot.) It's an idea that leads to a particularly thorny question: Just who should be getting their housing subsidized?

Among those you often see mentioned as worthy recipients are police officers, firefighters, teachers and nurses – the "core service workers." They were given first dibs on affordable housing units at the Olympic Village that the city controls. There's no arguing that they fill critical positions. But they also have some of the best, most secure jobs around, with enviable benefits and pension plans. What about others in the private sector in the same salary range but who live without the same perks and advantages? Why not them?

Others suggest the city rezone areas of the city to allow for stacked townhouses and row houses that would be less costly to build and would ultimately accommodate more people. But cheaper for whom? I've seen lots of townhouses go up in Vancouver in the past few years with units starting at more than $800,000.

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There are calls for more co-op housing. It was all the rage in the 1970s and still exists in pockets of Vancouver. Co-op housing is a great deal for those lucky enough to get into it, and has included members of the professional class. (I lived in a co-op ever so briefly decades ago.) I know lawyers and academics living in co-op housing today.

I'm just not sure that taxpayers in Vancouver (or any big city, for that matter) are ready to embrace the idea of subsidizing housing for a fortunate few, while their kids are forced out to the boonies to find places they can manage financially. There are some, in fact, who wonder whether this should be a concern at all. So what if a couple living in the suburbs wants to move into the city but can't afford it? Should that be the mayor's problem?

In the end, the task force is likely to issue a range of recommendations, from rezoning land to accommodating more density to affordable housing property tax surcharges. Whatever the final report says, it should include a sobering reminder that living in one of the most desirable places in the world comes at a price.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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