COUNTERPOINT | Gary Mason’s “Living in Vancouver comes at a price”

This Tuesday, the Vision-controlled City Council struck a developer-run “affordable housing” task force. The public debate surrounding the affordability crisis has begun in earnest – and that is a great thing. Unfortunately, the discussion has been largely limited to pundits in the corporate media and rich people who work in the development industry — none of whom have direct experience dealing with the affordability crisis. The vast majority of their professional and friendship networks are totally disconnected from the front lines of eviction and tenure insecurity.

As a result, much public commentary has been out-of-touch and condescending. The quality of recommendations has been substandard, the argumentation lazy, all of which is grounded in a position of apathy. For example, Gary Mason published a piece in the Globe and Mail this morning entitled “Living in Vancouver comes at a price,” which begins by recognizing that we are in the midst of an affordability crisis:

“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.”

First we should note that Mason’s main, though concealed, argument here is that Vancouver’s housing problem is no different from that of any other major city. This is decidedly false. The disparity between median income and median market housing price is larger in Vancouver than every other city on the planet except for Hong Kong. But then Hong Kong has 1.2 million units of public housing, which house 40% of the population. Just this week, a report came out showing that Vancouver has the highest rent in Canada. While most readers will know all this intuitively — many of us adapt to the crisis by multiple-subletting and by sleeping in attics, basements, on couches, floors – it’s necessary to cite these figures to remind out-of-touch elites that the crisis is systemic. The situation in Vancouver is not healthy and normal. It is pathological and exploitative.

Mason then addresses some policy approaches he has heard circulating in elite circles: 1) “subsidized” housing on city land, 2) rezone certain areas for more townhouses, and 3) co-op housing.

1) “Subsidized” housing on city land

Mason dismisses the idea of building “subsidized” housing on city land because “It’s an idea that leads to a particularly thorny question: Just who should be getting their housing subsidized?” Mason is misleading here. First, we know exactly who needs subsidized housing: BC Housing has an official wait-list of 7,000, although the real number is probably several times that.

More importantly, Mason is concealing the nature of our housing crisis: prices are kept artificially high, and the way to counter-act this is not through subsidization, but by removing profit from the equation and ending the private developer monopoly system.

The development industry holds a monopoly on housing production, and has all but choked-off supply of affordable housing. This has pushed the “market” price for all forms of housing (detached, attached, condos, etc) far above soft and hard construction costs. This extra monopoly cost is hidden in the inflated land-value. These artificial costs would mostly evaporate in the presence of a public option that would hold the private development industry honest. A public option, unencumbered by land-value inflation or by profit motives could deliver affordable housing at a fraction of the cost of the private sector monopoly. The development industry will fight tooth-and-nail against a public option that creates affordable housing in large enough volume to bring down prices and profits across-the-board.

In addition to this, of course, there is a dire need for fully- and partially-subsidized public housing – the evidence for which can be found throughout the pages of the Mainlander.

2) Town-homes

The second idea that Mason raises, then dismisses, is rezoning areas with single-family homes to accommodate town homes. This idea has been actively promoted by Michael Geller, a developer and past-president of the Urban Development Institute who ran for the NPA in 2008. Mason says:

“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.”

Again, for ideas like this to work, they have to be on a large enough scale to bring down prices across-the-board, a concept that Mason prefers not to contemplate.

3) Co-op housing

The third idea that Mason dismisses is co-op housing. He writes:

“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.”

This is the same kind of right-wing spin hurled at Jack Layton in the 1990s for living in co-op housing. The vast majority of people who live in coop housing are lower-income, and the few with more disposable income often subsidize the other tenants. It’s a good thing when people of all incomes support the co-op movement. The main problem with the co-operative housing movement is that it is too small. There are only about 5,000 units of co-op housing in Vancouver, not nearly enough to counter-act the corporate developer monopoly.

Fundamentally Mason’s argument against co-op housing is the same as his argument against “subsidized” housing on city land: he can’t figure out what criteria we use to decide who gets in. Luckily, many others can figure it out. In most other cities, such as Toronto, people are selected from a well-managed waiting list, and pay based on the rent-geared-to-income (RGI) system. Everywhere, “affordable” is defined as 30% of household income. It is not nearly as complicated as Mason pretends.

Conclusion: apathy

Upon dismissing these three weak policy solutions, Mason does not present new bold ideas in their place, but rather descends into inexcusable, incoherent apathy:

“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?”

It is hard to know where to begin. Every sentence, every clause, is wrong – factually and ethically. The crisis does not only affect the kids of rich people. On the contrary, it is these fortunate rich kids who will inherit their parents’ property, while the majority of us barely scrape by. And the crisis doesn’t only affect couples in the suburbs who want to move downtown. The crisis is acute downtown, but is also regional. As mentioned, this is not only a question of “subsidization,” but of ending price-gouging by the corporate development oligopoly. Finally, there is not a person in the world more responsible for tackling Vancouver’s housing crisis than the mayor of the city. And if the mayor can’t do it – task force or no task force — then his party will be rendered illegitimate in good time.

Photo by Jackie Wong at OpenFile