Some topics are just too big to be covered in one column. That’s why, over the next two weeks, Max Fawcett will tackle the housing crisis and the ways we could address it in a series of them.
In a city where new architectural marvels seem to sprout up on an almost monthly basis, it’s easy to forget the significance of the red-roofed low-rises in Vancouver’s False Creek South neighbourhood.
The two complexes, built in the early 1970s and designed by famed local architect Richard Henriquez, are among its most important buildings. They serve as the standard-bearer for a co-operative housing movement that had a brief but shining moment in the political sun more than four decades ago — and the impact is still felt today by the people lucky enough to live in the buildings that resulted.
For a brief moment in time, public-minded values like community engagement and communal decision-making were allowed to eclipse private interests. Governments from all levels collaborated in the construction of housing forms that emphasized security of tenure above wealth creation and exemplified the kind of design urbanists like Jane Jacobs held up as their platonic ideal.
And then, almost as quickly as the movement blossomed, it wilted in the face of soaring interest rates and the shift towards austerity that followed in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Now, we need more housing co-ops. And building them will require more public ownership of land and buildings than we have been willing to entertain in this country.
It’s an idea Paul Hellyer’s commission explored when it kicked the tires on the concept of the federal government directly administering land use in urban areas. That’s probably a non-starter in 2022, but there are other ways to substantially increase public ownership of housing in this country, whether it’s through the Canada Pension Plan and its $541 billion in assets or the federal government’s own balance sheet. That money could be mobilized to support the cost of construction or help acquire the land, all with an eye towards making the math more favourable for groups looking to create new co-operatives.
If done correctly, that could change the math for other non-owners as well. Look to Vienna, where 44 per cent of the rental stock is subsidized housing and the city is by far the biggest landlord. Because they keep the rents on their units affordable, that has a knock-on effect on the rest of the housing market. As Justin Kadi, a researcher at Vienna’s University of Technology, told Marketplace, “The low rents in the social housing sector also keep the rents in the private sector low.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that Vienna is routinely ranked as one of the most livable cities on the planet.
Opinion: For a brief moment in time, public-minded values like community engagement and communal decision-making were allowed to eclipse private interests, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #HousingCrisis #Canada
The co-operatives of the 21st century will necessarily look different than them, and they won’t be able to take advantage of the same inventory of unused public land that helped make things like False Creek South possible. But they could add some much-needed density to land that hasn’t been fully or properly developed, just as the City of Vancouver is proposing in False Creek South.
And we have other assets that can be tapped, and new leverage points that can be exploited, in the pursuit of more publicly owned and administered housing.
All that’s really missing right now is the political will to use them. As we’ve seen over the last two years, governments are capable of doing far more than some people had previously imagined. It’s time for them to do the same here — before it’s too late.
Next up: Why it’s time for a renting renaissance.