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Vancouver housing forum agrees on need for action amid scalding market

Participants at the forum spoke about the urgent need for a solution for the sizzling market.

Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Vancouver Police Department no longer has a standing requirement that potential new recruits must have lived outside their parents' home for a year before they can be considered for the force.

The rule is simply not practical now in a city with housing prices so stratospheric, fewer than one in five officers actually live in the city they serve, police Superintendent Michelle Davey told a housing forum in Vancouver on Tuesday.

"It creates a disconnect with the city," she said. "It's actually making it a challenge to recruit."

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New recruits have an average age of 26 – precisely in the cohort of 25- to 34-year-olds who are leaving the region, priced out of a market that earned the city a D grade on housing affordability by a Greater Vancouver Board of Trade study. The city was ranked above only Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Participants at the forum, who grappled with the fallout from the housing boom and debated the messy solutions needed from politicians and residents alike, provided cities such as Toronto with a preview of the future, although not yet a road map for the route there.

But they all talked about the urgent need to find some kind of solution.

"If we can't do this, that sends a bad signal to the rest of the world," said Kishone Roy, chief executive of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association.

Demographics analyst Andrew Ramlo reminded the crowd of 350, brought together by the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, that although the housing heat has now shifted to Toronto, "They're looking to us. We are being looked at with a microscope."

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The housing forum comes on a day when the latest report from Royal LePage says the median housing price in the region is back up to $1.18-million and any reduction hoped for with the foreign-buyers tax introduced last August seems to have evaporated. Condo prices, once stable, have started to climb in the past year. The vacancy rate in the region hovers stubbornly near zero.

And Mr. Roy reminded everyone this year's number of homeless showed a 30-per-cent increase from the count three years ago.

The recommendations at the board of trade were familiar: Build lots of supply, flood the market. But now there's a twist. Don't just build any old kind of housing supply. Instead, build more of what's called the "missing middle" housing.

That's housing intended for residents who aren't living in poverty but don't have a million in equity accumulated – places that are big enough for families, but don't require owning an acreage next to the house, such as duplexes, row houses, stacked townhouses, infill, bungalow courts and multiplexes.

The board beat some familiar drums, urging municipalities to streamline their processes and to boldly rezone some of the region's vast tracts of single-family housing for more density.

But the board also endorsed ideas less often touted by the business community.

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Its report recommended looking at alternative housing tenures, such as community land trusts, shared-equity models for home ownership and co-housing.

Everyone also sang the praises of purpose-built rental, which gives people the kind of security and professional management that investor condos don't.

But they say it needs help.

"One of the issues in rental is zoning, when you're buying land in a speculative market," said Anne McMullin, CEO of the Urban Development Institute. She said municipalities need to create zoning that provides a special protection for rental.

Besides housing-policy changes, many panellists also said people who want to live in Vancouver are just going to have to change their expectations – a view certain to enrage those who think governments could do a lot more to get the housing market under control.

"We're really grappling right now whether home ownership is the right option," said Kira Gerwing, the manager of community investment at Vancity Credit Union.

Video: Reality Check: Is an Ontario foreign-buyers tax the solution to Toronto’s hot housing market?
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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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