Friends and Options: Vancouver's Housing-Affordability Crisis

Friends and Options: Vancouver’s Housing-Affordability Crisis

It all started with him just wanting to be with his friends.

Adam O’Neill’s quest for housing affordability in Vancouver is both utterly sincere and a voice to a reality of this city, where the housing market is already the most unaffordable in all of North America: Vancouver urban life is mighty lonesome.

“Last year, my wife and I witnessed some of our best friends move out of Vancouver because costs of living became too high as their family grew,” said O’Neill.

“And it made us realize that the writing’s been on the wall for a long time. While most of our friends over the years have been migrating out of the city for financial reasons, remaining Vancouverites are barely tethered to withering communities of companionship and support.”

O’Neill began brainstorming potential solutions and created Option Vancouver, a project dedicated to promoting affordable-housing initiatives in the city. For now he’s just a blogger and an ideas-man, but he believes it’s time for younger generations to start speaking up.

Affordability, however, is just one element in a larger fight for strengthening communities, O’Neill explains. “Part of it is about just living together. Sharing a lawn and tools and food and childcare and a vehicle and so on makes things easier for families. When people are sharing responsibilities with a co-housing model, it turns housing from a commodity into simply an essential part of our lives.”

Option Vancouver is focused on helping people on the housing continuum, the scale used to categorize housing options with emergency homeless shelters on one end and full homeownership on the other end, for the ultimate benefit of everyone.

The problem is that Vancouver’s infamously unique housing market skews the continuum, consequently creating oversaturations in certain areas. Due to this localized nature of capital, O’Neill’s objective is to focus Option Vancouver’s efforts, if only in its early days, on the middle class.

This logic is shared by the popular #DontHave1Million social-media campaign, which has since spawned a public forum and a rally as well as a plethora of doting press coverage, to condemn the grossly high average price of approximately $1.27 million for a two-storey, detached home across Vancouver and the North Shore.

Criticisms of the campaign sharply highlight that “trickle-down affordability,” that is, the belief that creating more housing options for middle-class residents will free up affordable spaces for lower-income people, is a statistical myth. Furthermore, real-estate developers nonetheless cite the myth to help justify building more expensive condominiums and houses in the city, in turn creating more problems than solutions.

It is certainly accurate that simply erecting more buildings at best only mildly relieves the demand in the housing market, which represents too small an effect to drastically improve affordability, least of all for low-income residents.

However, the housing-market problem is too multifaceted to rely on such a narrow-minded solution. “Trickle-down affordability” is inarguably an economic myth (and the #DontHave1Million organizers are certainly not making a wise public-relations decision by emphasizing the otherwise privileged backgrounds of the middle-income folks for whom they are advocating); but for those very reasons, more creative and effective ideas are needed.

Indeed, fears of an impending and severe brain drain due to housing costs were confirmed by a recent Vancity study, which concluded Vancouver subsequently faces a likely “labour crisis” in the coming years that will in turn raise overall costs of living for everyone, including low-income residents.

And O’Neill certainly appears cognizant of this need for creative ideas. Instead of simply promoting the construction of more buildings, he heavily advocates working with pre-existing spaces.

First up is to tackle a severe lack of affordable three-bedroom living units in the city. As it stands, less than 1% of all rentals offer three or more bedrooms, and many families with two or more children cannot afford condominiums or houses for more appropriate living spaces.

“Vancouver has a high proportion of heritage buildings converted to condos from old apartment buildings,” O’Neill explains. “These buildings tend to be more affordable and spacious than their contemporary counterparts, so I think it would be feasible for realtors and renovators to partner and convert some of these two-bedroom units into three-bedrooms to be more suitable for families.

“Half of the battle is trying to convince people that they can hack it, too,” he continues. “There are ways to live happily in compact spaces in urban neighbourhoods. More sprawl is not the solution. We need to preserve our farmland and nature; we can’t just keep expanding outwards – we need to densify.”

But the economics of the forecasted labour crisis ultimately seem to be the darkest cloud over all of our heads and another reason why relying solely on the mythical “trickle-down affordability” solution is naïve.

Yes, more housing units for the middle class will not directly create trickle-down benefits for those less fortunate, but if nothing is done at all to soften the bubble, the subsequent brain drain will turn Vancouver into a hyper-capitalist city where there will exist only the über rich and the super poor. In brief, Vancouver is poised to become a Žižekian wasteland like Dubai, “and in Dubai,” Žižek reminds us, “the other side [the super poor] are literally slaves.”

O’Neill thinks affordability advocates stand to gain from bringing the area’s tech industry on board. “Vancouver tech companies, for instance, do a great job of recruiting employees but have notoriously horrible retention levels because of costs of living,” he outlines.

“Middle-income employees cannot afford to stay in the city and some of these businesses are leaving Vancouver. Well-capitalized tech companies should consider partnering with the city and a real-estate developer to create shared-ownership buildings.”

One imagines affordable mini-versions of SFU’s UniverCity popping up all around Vancouver – and indeed, this is exactly what O’Neill has in mind.

“I just want to contribute to a just and diverse society that is healthy, productive, and creative, and affordable housing is not just part of that, but a part that I feel is sorely lacking,” he summarizes. “Ultimately everyone on the housing continuum needs help, but as part of that, we need models for co-living spaces where communities can thrive and friends can be together.”

It was, after all, Aristotle who said that the good lawgivers show more concern for friendship than they do for justice.