VoteLocal: A conversation about housing with SFU's Andy Yan

October 15, 2018

As the director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University and a life-long Vancouverite, Andy Yan spends a lot of time thinking about how we plan and live in communities. He has worked in the non-profit and private urban planning sectors throughout North America, and is one of our region’s foremost authorities on housing policy. VoteLocal spoke with Andy going into the final week of the 2018 civic election campaign, to get his thoughts on housing policy challenges and solutions over the next four-year term.


VOTELOCAL: What are your thoughts on the nature of the debate and conversation about housing that we’re seeing play out in this civic election campaign? Anything you’re concerned about, or any issues you think are being missed?

ANDY YAN: The danger I’m seeing is a shift to reacting as opposed to planning. One thing missing from the discussion is that we’re an interdependent region – economically, socially and in terms of transportation.It’s not just about Vancouver, but how we are connected as various regional nodes within Metro Vancouver. I don’t think that has been talked about enough… about how development, social infrastructure, and economic activity needs to be both integrated and spread out throughout region.

We need discussion about creating comprehensive social,economic, and infrastructure networks – not about individual one-off projects in each municipality. How do our communities leverage each other and work with each other’s synergies? For example, the development of social housing throughout the region, and not having it concentrated within just a few concentrated areas in certain cities. We should be engaging in a discussion about the role of each Metro municipality in terms of its responsibility to deal with specific populations, such as seniors.  How do municipalities deal with young families and their needs? Or those who are homeless? There’s a broad spectrum on the demand side of housing that requires thoughtful and integrated strategies and solutions, working as a region and a province.

With 75 percent of businesses with employees in the City of Vancouver having less than 10 workers, I think there is a particular vulnerability to our small business community in this unaffordable housing climate to attract and retain talent as well as have a stable worker base.

VL: The VoteLocal survey found that the public, businesses and politicians favour a mix of both demand and supply side policies to tackle the housing affordability crisis. Where do you see local governments going in the next four-year term on policy development related to housing?

AY: Coming from the academic side of things, housing policy is about both supply and demand. It’s about the development of a directed housing policy focused on who we are trying to house, as opposed to just letting the market decide who can be housed. On average, the City of Vancouver has only 8 co-op housing starts compared to 2,831 condo starts over the last 20 years. In part, the consequences are on our streets right now in terms of who is included and excluded in our housing system. The homelessness situation in Vancouver is a good example of lack of supply for low-income individuals, and they’re ending up on the streets with our health care and criminal justice systems fulfilling the shortcomings of our housing system – in its way, the most expensive types of social housing. Homelessness is a human tragedy with deep economic costs and social consequences for everyone in the region.

So it’s a question of priorities, and being explicit in who we are trying to house, and having the resolve and public policy to do it. On the demand side, it’s about being honest about what is not a priority and the types of demand we need to support – and the types we need to disincentivize or damper.

Back in 1994, there was consensus about densification of single detached house neighbourhoods in the City of Vancouver based on the aging population in the service of providing housing options and the ability to age in community. The city’s Project on Aging resulted in a report called“Neighbourhoods: Foundation for an Aging Population” by the ‘Ready Or Not!’ Working Group. It was developed after an extensive public engagement process. It’s a good example of focusing on who to house, and of bringing people together. I was amazed to look at this document and wondered ‘How did they get seniors in Dunbar to agree to this densification?’ They listened and co-created a solution. They brought people and communities together around an issue as opposed to segmenting them apart, with an empathy to developing shared principles, goals, and actions. That’s the role of local government.

VL: Speaking of densification… our VoteLocal survey found that affordable housing is the top issue of concern among voters, businesses and civic politicians, but we also found that a lot of residents are concerned about over development, densification and loss of agricultural land. Do you think these types of concerns will become an impediment for mayors and councillors who may be focused on densification of housing as a way to address affordability?

AY: It’s incumbent on new mayors and councils to show and to co-create how density does address community needs and issues. Density itself is just a means to end. And we shouldn’t assume that density immediately leads to affordability, sustainability, or livability. Density and building form dogma will not fix the affordability crisis in the City of Vancouver, but ideas, innovation, and political courage and resolve might.  There is no magic bullet, but only thoughtful instruments in a toolkit to achieve these goals of affordability, sustainability,and livability.

An open, transparent, and deliberate planning process is, in part, about giving a sense of ownership over the solutions so you can have a level of consensus on where a community should go. It’s also important to have that relationship between council and staff, and to understand that the mayor and council set the direction, and staff helps develop options, provide solutions and choices for the particularly community. We also need to acknowledge that we need more bespoke neighbourhood-based planning and housing policy. I am not a fan of “blanket rezoning” as each community is different with different opportunities and capacities to develop – and we need to allow that to come out – but also help meet regional goals and frameworks.

What’s missing is a level of civic education and civil dialogue.The top three jobs of a mayor and council are leadership, education and co-creation. These are the three major elements of civic leadership that I’ve come to think about in recent years.

Leadership… is about making hard decisions. You’re never going to get 100% consensus, but you need to show a transparent and accountable process with metrics and an ability to measure and adjust course.

Education… is learning what have we done in the past, what has worked and what didn’t work, and being able to have the humility to learn from previous actions, along with other municipal leaders. In my experience, planning processes are much better as mutual learning and teaching moments than “sell jobs.”

Co-creation… is working with the numerous bodies that deal with housing. Looking at the role of developers with neighbours and service providers. Many groups are involved in that co-creation. You need to bring them together to ensure processes are open, and to inform and engage those various groups into developing housing strategies, understanding demand, and also looking at supply.

VL: With all the highly charged politics around housing right now, how specifically should mayors and councillors approach these three elements – leadership, education and co-creation?  

AY: If you shoot from the hip, you’re typically going to miss. Leadership is not being afraid of innovation and stumbling forward. We’re talking about change here and change is hard. How do you educate the population about why you’re changing and have them co-create housing solutions with you? The public sees developers just dropping projects in the middle of their communities and they’re not seeing how it benefits their communities. It’s incumbent on the developers to reach out to these communities. And what if a community just says no? It’s up to the city to illustrate the consequences of not making those choices and being explicit about neighbourhood goals and values to developers.

Civic government is best not to come in as messiahs. It’s morelike trying to orchestrate a dissonant choir between communities, councils, andmayors into a singing “Messiah”. If civic leaders come in and say, “I have allthe solutions,” it avoids the public getting a sense that they are part of a solution.There’s a tremendous temptation for leaders to come in and dictate solutions,but real leadership comes from listening, showing, and co-creating how we areall part of the solution.

I worry that Metro Vancouver is becoming a city-region of angst. New York, where I lived for a couple of years, is neurotic. But it kind of works because everyone is neurotic in their own special way. In Vancouver, I’ve seen the development of a certain angst towards the future, and it’s not healthy. Hope is a better foundation for a future than fear. This angst came through in the VoteLocal survey. It’s a concern, and I think it’s redefining our city councils as more than half of mayors and councillors in the region after this election will be new. The change in councils presents an opportunity for the next generation of leaders in the region to emerge and to learn from the past to build a better future together.

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