Planning to Construct Affordability in the West End

Change is an inevitable. How communities can optimize the process of change is a critical challenge that faces Vancouver’s distinct and varying neighbourhoods and the collective city as a whole. Good community planning must anticipate change and develop responses to change that are for the benefit of every citizen and not just those lucky enough to benefit from market condition and economic privilege. Planning our neighbourhoods is a critical component in the vibrant health of the City.

Community planning is a complex process that is premised on trust. It requires a constructive and respectful dialogue between elected officials, city planners, community members and community stakeholders. Community planning may be complex and resource intensive but it is vital in a process that attempts to respond to a changing world.

In March 2010, the Conference Board of Canada published a report entitled “Building from the Ground Up.” The study highlights the lack of affordable housing options in Canada and articulates a number of current trends that are affecting affordability. The report also speaks to the necessity of finding policy solutions to address this issue.

The key trends are:

-Population migration from rural to urban settings
-Increasing un-affordability in large Canadian cities
-90% of Canadian population growth will come from immigration

In addition to these trends the City also need to responds the effects of climate change. Vancouver, the “greenest city on earth” needs to mitigate climate change by reducing carbon emissions and promoting active living which also addresses the increasing health problems of sedentary living.

In general, cities are growing to include diverse populations that need affordable options that are ecologically sustainable. The West End is not exempt from these trends despite the fact that it is the most densely populated neighbourhood in the City and 80% of the housing stock is comprised of purpose built apartments. The neighbourhood still needs to respond to these trends. The West End needs to embrace the change that is coming, but the citizens also need to help plan the change.

West End residents are concerned about rezoning applications and perceive that recent development activity in the neighbourhood is a consequence of the City program STIR (Short Term Incentive for Rental). STIR is a two-year program to incentivize the construction of purpose built rental units. To make the projects more economically viable, the program digs deep into the City’s toolbelt. STIR projects can be granted density increases, have Development Cost Levies (DCL) and Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) waived, and include a reduction of the parking requirements. STIR is basically a market-based solution that is attempting to create affordability by increased supply. Whether this assumption will bear out as a viable tool for change in City is debatable.

What is not debatable is critical lack of affordable housing currently facing the city. We need more affordable housing options that promote and facilitate economic diversity, and livability – and these options must be ecologically sustainable.

There is a growing demand in the West End for a comprehensive community planning process. This has been brought on by recent proposed and approved developments in the neighbourhood. There is a hope that there could be a moratorium on developments while the community undergoes the planning process. Yet it must be recognized that the planning process is predicated on change (which is inevitable) and is a way of truncating, regulating and directing development to respond to the challenges that face our community.

The City continues to change and grow, and the West End is being challenged to be the face of that change in a healthy, diverse, economically viable way.

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