Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Building affordable and accessible housing in Metro Vancouver

With monthly headlines stating that the City of Vancouver is one of the most unaffordable places to live in North America, I’m sure many people were shocked to learn that a recent report commissioned by Metro Vancouver found that the City of Vancouver is actually one of the most affordable places to live within our region.

Sky-high housing costs in the City of Vancouver are normally centred on large-lot, single-family housing in one of the most desirable places to live in the world. I’ll get back to this in a moment.

When most people talk about affordable housing, they refer to the rule-of-thumb that housing costs should not exceed 30% of household income. As transportation is a significant portion of household expenses, and is directly linked to the build-form and transportation options available in a community, experts are now starting to define affordable housing as being 45% of total household housing and transportation expenses.

Fresh off the heels of the Metro Vancouver report, Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute has released a report called “Affordable-Accessible Housing In A Dynamic City

According to Litman Affordable-Accessible Housing means:
-Diverse, adequate quality, inexpensive housing options.
-Some units designed to accommodate people with disabilities.
-Unbundled parking (so households are not forced to pay for parking spaces they do not need).
-Durable and energy efficient building (minimal maintenance, repairs and basic utility expenses).
-Accessible (close to services) and multimodal (good walking, cycling, transit and carsharing) location.
-Universal design (transportation facilities and services accommodate people with disabilities).
-Housing and neighborhoods are safe and have good public services such as schools.

Example transportation costs for two-adult, low-income household based on which part of a region they live in. Select table to enlarge.

Litman found that apartments and townhouses, located in neighbourhoods with a diversity of transportation options, are significantly more affordable than single-family housing.

He makes the case that public housing projects and government-subsided housing are ineffective ways to provide affordable housing. He argues that policies which support the construction of accessible neighbourhoods with a diversity of housing and transportation options is what is needed.

Litman suggests that the best way to provide affordable housing is to build apartments and townhouses where people have the option of purchasing off-street parking. On-street parking has to be managed at the same time. Most all municipalities in Metro Vancouver require that off-street parking be included with every housing unit built.

Annual housing and transportation expenses for new urban housing. LR=Low Rise, HR=High Rise, SF=Single-Family, MF=Multi-family, 0-pk=No required parking, 1-pk=1 require parking spot per unit. Select table to enlarge.

Litman also proposes dozens of other ways that municipalities can support creating affordable-accessible housing. For example, Litman supports “Density Bonuses”. This is when a municipality will allow a developer to build at higher densities than are generally permitted in exchange for the developer doing extras like building compact, affordable housing. This is actually something that the Township of Langley does today.

So, why is the City of Vancouver the most affordable place to live in our region for a working families? The City of Vancouver has a diversity of viable transportation options such as walking, cycling, and transit. The cost of transportation is lower in Vancouver than most other parts of the region.

Also, while the cost of single-family housing continues to climb in Metro Vancouver, the cost of apartments and townhouses have remained fairly stable according to Litman’s research. Most people in Metro Vancouver do not live in single-family housing.

A diverse transportation system with a variety of housing types is why living in the City of Vancouver is more affordable than living in Surrey for most people.

It is not all bad news for the South of Fraser. South of Fraser communities actually have a diversity of housing options, but the sub-region does not have a diverse transportation network. Improving public transit will go a long way to addressing the need for more affordable housing in our region.

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