Opinion: Housing shortages halt high-tech growth

Published on: April 25, 2017


We’ve heard a lot about B.C.’s fast-growing high-tech sector, especially during the provincial election campaign. These talented, young entrepreneurs are driving innovation — and the provincial economy.


Attracting these skilled professionals to our region is critical, as Vancouver is recognized as a global hub for high-tech talent.

But this week, as I read the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade’s report on housing affordability, I couldn’t help seeing dark clouds on the horizon for growing this sector here.

The report sounds new alarm bells regarding Vancouver’s housing affordability crisis. High home prices are threatening our economic competitiveness. If workers can’t find an affordable place to live, companies won’t move or expand here.

I recently heard the story of Sydney Botting, a 28-year-old high-tech worker. She and her partner have been renting in Vancouver for years, and despite earning good wages, can’t afford to buy their own place to raise children. She loves Vancouver, but feels squeezed out of the housing market and believes they will have to move elsewhere if they want to start a family.

She is not alone. The report says young people between 25 and 34 years old — the highly-productive demographic fuelling high-tech industries — simply can’t afford to live in Metro Vancouver. This is true even though government statistics show high-tech workers are paid far above the average wage — about $6,000 a month — and yet many still can’t buy a home in Vancouver or find affordable rentals in a less than one-per-cent vacancy market.

But this week’s report shows us a path forward, offering solutions that will lead to a more balanced, liveable and affordable region. By embracing more housing options and reducing the barriers to creating more homes, we have the power to change the never-ending story of rising home prices.

The provincial government has adopted measures like the Foreign Buyers’ Tax and a luxury tax on high-priced homes to help reduce demand. Now, we must focus on increasing the supply of homes.

That means looking at municipalities which are on the front lines of the housing crisis. Municipal governments control the zoning, planning and development processes in B.C.

Of the report’s many recommendations, here are just three solutions that could help create that diversity of housing options.

First, in a region which has built an abundance of two types of homes — single-family homes and high-rise condos — municipalities can do more to promote what we often call the “missing middle”, which includes duplexes, triplexes, row homes, townhomes, microsuites and laneway housing. Largely lacking in many single family areas, these housing types are also needed by young people, families and seniors. By including these additional kinds of housing options, and allowing residents, communities and builders to share in the economic benefits, municipalities can create more homes for people with different income levels.

Second, by streamlining the approval process, as the City of Vancouver is now proposing, municipalities can incentivize the kind of development that will benefit communities. Currently, a new project in Metro Vancouver may face years of delay as developers navigate some 25 separate steps. This hinders new home supply and drives up costs for developers, then passed onto new homeowners.

What if municipalities balanced their tough development standards with the concept of expediency? This is not about dropping regulations or reducing standards; it’s about ending duplication, overlap and conflicting policies.

Finally, we can encourage housing affordability through proper planning of rapid transit developments.  Too often, transit lines are built and operating long before housing developments are approved. Many SkyTrain stations are surrounded by single-family homes, such as 29th Ave. But what if new transit lines and communities were planned at the same time, blending high-rises and retail around all transit stations like Metrotown, with gentler infill such as duplexes and low-rise apartments into the single-family areas? The result would be whole communities with increased housing, lower prices and guaranteed ridership for transit.

These are just three of the many solutions to our housing affordability crisis. As we work together with a common goal, I know we can create the kind of community we want to live in.

Doing nothing will only make things worse. Over the next 25 years, the Vancouver region is expected to grow by more than one million people. That will require a half-million new dwellings. Proper planning today will ensure our region continues to thrive, socially and economically, for generations.

Anne McMullin is president and CEO of the Urban Development Institute.


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