Higher-density development solution for housing affordability and climate change, new report

February 10, 2022

VANCOUVER — Metro Vancouver needs more housing—specifically “missing middle” housing between the extremes of detached homes and large condo towers—to address twin crises of housing affordability and climate change, says a report released today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives BC Office.

The report, Upzoning Metro Vancouver’s Low-density Neighbourhoods for Housing Affordability, by senior economist Marc Lee proposes a regulatory shift away from detached housing to allow higher-density development across the region. This could be achieved by: 

  • Opening up detached housing zones across the region to double or triple current densities.

  • Focusing on the missing middle including a range of housing types from row housing and multiplexes to small apartments and alternative tenure arrangements like co-ops, community land trusts and co-housing. The emphasis would be on small-lot development with minimal land assembly and parking requirements.

  • Requiring all new market development contribute to greater affordability by keeping land prices in check so that gains from upzoning would not disproportionately go to existing landowners.

  • Supporting non-market development by non-profit housing developers, whose mission is to create more affordable housing. A stronger public sector presence in developing new affordable housing is recommended with waived fees and expedited approval processes.

  • Developing a robust system of renter protections to protect existing affordable rental suites and include rights of first refusal, temporary accommodation and buyouts.

Hyper-localized politics at the municipal level often slow down these needed changes. Lee notes that  the provincial government could play a role in accelerating a much needed increase in density around the province through zoning mandates, making public land available for non-profit developers to build affordable housing, and through progressive property taxation. The Environment and Land Use Act allows the provincial government to rezone land anywhere in BC, which could help create a coherent framework across the Metro Vancouver region, he explains.

“Our region’s population will continue to increase in the coming decades and it’s time to build the housing we need for the future,” Lee says. “The decisions we make now will have an impact for decades down the road and we must address the critical issues of affordable housing shortfalls and the climate emergency.”

Lee notes that upzoning may face opposition from existing landowners but that it is ultimately an issue of fairness. 

“At the heart of this conversation is the unequal distribution of urban land enforced by zoning, the rules that specify what type of buildings can be built where,” he adds.

Higher densities also address climate and environmental concerns as when people live closer to workplaces, public services, shopping areas and other amenities, and in more energy-efficient, multi-unit buildings, they will have an inherently smaller environmental and carbon footprint. Lessening the need for car ownership can also reduce the cost of building new housing because of reduced parking needs.

Programs like the City of Vancouver’s recently passed Making Home pilot project, which will allowincreased density on 2000 lots across the city, are a step in the right direction though Lee notes the design parameters are to be determined.

“Upzoning must be part of a plan to manage housing in the interests of people who live and work in a city and should be accompanied by measures to dampen land speculation and purchases of investment properties,” he says. 

“In high-demand locales like Vancouver where population and economic growth are putting pressure on affordable housing, upzoning has been put on the policy agenda, but it should occur in the context of a more regulated market that puts housing needs first, not profits for developers or rental income for investors.”

For more information and to arrange interviews, please contact Jean Kavanagh at 604-802-5729, [email protected].