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Vancouver’s mayor is ready to fight for affordable homes

It was the plaintive voices of young middle-class dreamers, including a couple of his own children, that finally got Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson to say enough.

Mr. Robertson's recent speech to a group of planners, developers and architects may go down as the most important of his time in office, which is closing in on eight years. For in it, he laid out a bold vision for creating thousands of homes affordable enough for young people to buy – and he made it clear he's prepared to take on some sacred cows to do it.

Toronto Mayor John Tory, if you're listening, you may want to take notes. These are problems you'll soon be dealing with yourself, if you're not already.

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It's been clear for some time now that Vancouver's beauty masks some serious problems beneath the surface, most of which have been created by a real estate market that has made the city a sanctuary for the wealthy. Young people with good jobs have been effectively shut out, forcing them to relocate elsewhere or endure soul-destroying commutes.

Politicians, realtors and developers have continued to insist it's simply a lack of supply. But that's not entirely true. The thousands of new condo units built in the past few years have not been the answer to Vancouver's affordability issue and the mayor had the guts to admit it. Most of the new ones are sold at luxury rates, which don't serve the purposes of young, first- or second-time home buyers.

Meantime, neighbourhoods of single-detached homes on the expensive west side, in particular, have been hollowing out of young people and people generally. (Many of the homes are held as investments by offshore buyers). The latest census showed fewer and fewer people living there. Hundreds of properties sit vacant.

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

"Schools filled with students, neighbourhood streets filled with shoppers, parks filled with kids. A neighbourhood made of perfect $5-million homes with no children is not healthy. That's the sign of a failing city."

That is a remarkable thing for a mayor to admit, but it's true. A lot of Vancouver's neighbourhoods have lost their soul, have lost their pulse of life. There are no young adults anywhere to be seen in a lot of them. How can that be a good thing?

Consider this stat: Ten years ago, if you had a household income of $97,000 you could afford to own a townhouse on the less expensive east side of Vancouver. Today, that household income would need to be $175,000.

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Vancouver has undertaken a lot of initiatives to tackle the affordability problem but continues to lose the race. Mr. Robertson believes – and he's right – the time to take daring action is now, and he's ready for the howls of protest with which those actions will be met.

He wants to start building housing that is within the grasp of middle-class families on the west side of the city, for starters, an area that has been resistant to this type of change in the past. The city owns multiple plots of land that Mr. Robertson intends to look at building on, including six that are ready to go and could accommodate 3,000 new homes. The mayor's plan calls for affordable housing to also be added to arterial streets, another area where development will likely be met with strong opposition.

Now, this could all be brave talk and Mr. Robertson could back down the first time a group of well-heeled residents shows up at a council meeting to register their objections over the new townhouse complex planned for their street. But I doubt it. As the mayor said, he's less worried about criticism he may receive from older folks, than he is the backlash he is already suffering from young people who can't afford to live in his city.

Their mournful voices are growing louder and more desperate. And they are not just in Vancouver, they are in Toronto too. They are frustrated about being forgotten, left out, not registering in any discussion about what is happening to our cities.

It sounds like one politician has finally heard them and wants to help.

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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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