Opinion: Vancouver has an empty dorm problem

Opinion: After five decades of mostly “economics-free” planning decisions, fewer people live in the city’s single-family neighborhoods than 50 years ago

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Metro Vancouver has had five decades of mostly “economics-free” planning decisions.

We have the third most unaffordable housing in the world, causing distress for young people and homelessness for thousands of low-income people.

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Our most productive businesses are hampered because they can’t hire the people they need. The urban expansion required by planning regulations damages our environment.

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During this time, as homes shrank in size and prices rose alarmingly, lot sizes did not adjust. Instead, thousands of bungalows were replaced by larger houses with more bedrooms.

There are fewer people living in Vancouver’s single-family neighborhoods today than 50 years ago, with more than 70,000 empty rooms.

We don’t have a problem with empty houses; We have an empty bedroom problem.

Alain Bertaud’s Three Principles for Metro Vancouver will be released on April 2, offering a possible respite.

Since his nine-day visit to Vancouver, Bertaud, one of the world’s most respected urban planners, has been refining his Three Principles for Metro Vancouver, which is a total of 15 words.

Bertaud’s Three Principles do not tell us what to do, but rather raise questions about how we do it.

This is an approach that, by its very nature, will result in a healthier city. It will be up to municipal leaders and engaged citizens to ensure that the principles are upheld.

They are the following:

Principle 1: Urban managers must know economics

There are people who control our cities who have never taken an economics course. And that shows us.

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Every decision has trade-offs, opportunity costs, and unintended consequences. Cities are complex systems that must be cultivated like a garden, not designed like a machine.

When hiring a senior planner, politicians, urban planners and especially young people, who have the most to lose, must insist that candidates have a solid foundation in urban land economics.

This movement could revolutionize our cities.

Principle 2: Quantitative, not qualitative, goals

Planning documents are full of words like affordable, sustainable, neighborhood-friendly, etc. The problem is that no one defines what this really means.

Municipal leaders must commit to achieving specific goals. Then we will know if we have succeeded or failed.

Simply making these measurements public will be healthy in itself. What is measured is done.

Principle 3: Continuous monitoring, not master plans

It is very Soviet to see the city as a kind of construction site that needs a plan.

One problem is that by the time all these processes are approved, the world will have changed. And cities often put all development applications on hold until the perfect master plan has been completed. Valuable time is lost.

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While our housing crisis deepened, desperately needed development applications were not accepted until the Vancouver and Broadway plans were completed.

We missed out on unprecedented years of incredibly low-interest financing that could have transformed our city.

Now, high interest rates are crushing the opportunities we once had. It is difficult to estimate the damage done to our city due to that delay.

Bertaud has pointed out that our regional urban center concept in Metro Vancouver defies the laws of economics and can never be achieved.

People are supposed to work in the same neighborhood they live in. It goes against economic forces and the main reason cities exist: to support as large a labor market as possible, a precondition for a prosperous city.

The technology is available so that we no longer need master plans. We can get real-time data that tells us when prices rise in one area or travel times increase in another.

For example, when the critical price-to-income ratio measure of housing affordability exceeds four, municipal governments must take action to resolve the problem. That should have happened decades ago.

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The price-income ratio is the average house price divided by the average annual income of households in a region.

Today, the price-to-income ratio in Metro Vancouver is over 12, one of the highest in the world, with surprisingly little response from local governments.

Councilors must be informed when measurements are at the danger level so they can demand action.

Bertaud’s Three Principles can help us achieve housing affordability and solve many other urban problems.

They have been drawn from Bertaud’s five decades of work in more than 50 cities around the world. As the World Bank’s chief urban planner and author of the internationally acclaimed Order Without Design, he’s seen it all.

He wisely refrains from telling cities what to do. Rather, it encourages them to ask the right questions.

Our Global Civic Policy Society think tank is reaching out to municipal councilors and engaged citizens to work together to ensure that Bertaud’s Three Principles are respected.

Vancouver’s businesses and youth need to know that help is on the way, that we can return to a vibrant, resilient and affordable city.

Sam Sullivan, former mayor of Vancouver and BC MLA, is founder of the Global Civic Policy Society.

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