Vancouver mayor on housing crisis: “I never dreamed it would get this intense.”
Gregor Robertson’s platform in 2008 vowed affordable housing and an end to homelessness. Eight years and three terms later, the city’s housing market is in a perilous place – and has forced the mayor to get creative
His first campaign during the Vancouver mayoral election hinged on a deceptively simple idea: housing is a human right. In 2008, as he stumped through this city of some 600,000 people Gregor Robertson vowed to boost affordable housing and end homelessness.
Eight years later, Robertson is into his third term as mayor. Housing remains one of the top issues facing the city, but the battle has been recast. No longer is Robertson simply fighting to keep the city’s most vulnerable off the streets, he’s part of a global cadre of mayors squaring off against superheated housing markets to ensure that middle- and low-income earners have a place to call home.
In a radical move, the Canadian city now charges an extra 15% to any overseas investor buying property there. The short-term impact on Vancouver house prices has been startling – but will it last?
The city’s struggle to inject affordability into a housing market that ranks as one of the world’s least affordable was laid bare last week, as Vancouver became the first jurisdiction in Canada to slap a tax on vacant homes.
“I wouldn’t have dreamed the crisis would get this intense, half a dozen years later,” Robertson told the Guardian in an interview at Vancouver’s city hall. “We’re dealing with global capital, national governments underinvesting in housing and provincial governments not doing enough. That leaves the cities dealing with chaos on our streets and people struggling to find a place to live.”
Housing in metro Vancouver, which includes the city of Vancouver and the greater region that surrounds it, now ranks among the least affordable in the world. In a city where the median household income in 2014 stood at about C$76,000 (US$56,000) a year, low interest rates and foreign capital – much of it from China – have pushed more than 90% of the city’s detached homes past C$1m (US$740,000) in value while homelessness has rocketed to record highs.
It’s a challenge echoed in cities around the world, from London to Sydney. But in Vancouver the pace of the transformation has been singular; one decade ago the percentage of million-dollar homes in the city stood at 19%. “We’re now in a different league,” said Robertson. “It’s been a big change, it’s pretty dramatic.”
At the heart of the issue lies a fundamental question over whether housing should be treated as a right or simply seen as an unregulated commodity, said Robertson.
Staunchly in the former camp, Robertson has for years been among those in Canada sounding the alarm about rising housing prices, calling on the provincial and federal governments to tax luxury homes and those who flip houses and more rigorously enforce Canadian tax laws.
Mounting public anger and a chorus of concern emanating from the country’s banks forced a turnaround in recent months. In August, the province of British Columbia instituted a 15% tax on all home buyers in metro Vancouver who are not Canadian citizens or permanent residents. Soon after, the federal government said it would close a tax loophole believed to be used by some speculators.
The city of Vancouver has proposed its own measures in recent months, from a 1% tax on vacant homes starting next year – after an attempt to do so last year was stymied by the provincial government – and a crackdown on short-term rentals, such as those done through Airbnb.
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But the measures are a case of “too much, too late”, said Robertson, shaking his head. “Ideally those would’ve come earlier and more modestly just to ease the curve.”
Housing starts in Vancouver have fallen to their lowest level in more than five years while home sales plunged 38.8% compared with October of last year. “We’re watching it closely,” said Robertson. “What we don’t want is instability and volatility.”
His comments hint at the balancing act being demanded of global cities for whom the ability to attract foreign capital has long been seen as an unequivocal strength.
Vancouver boasts the strongest economy of any city in Canada, in part thanks to the construction and real estate industry. In 2014, these two sectors accounted for some 25% of the province’s GDP. “We need to find a balance between welcoming investment and ensuring it doesn’t skew the housing options for people who live here,” he said.
The city’s focus now is on boosting the supply of rental housing, particularly for those on modest incomes.
Vacancy rates in the city hover around 0.6%, leaving many working multiple jobs to make rent or couch surfing. “Anything that is built is immediately occupied, rents continue to escalate,” said Robertson.
The city has also been watching closely as other jurisdictions around the world wage battle against the same forces, he said. “I’ve met with officials in Hong Kong, New York, London, San Francisco, and talked about housing challenges that we all share.
“I think its just everyone’s got to be at the table and committed to a big goal of building affordable housing and making sure everyone has a good place to live,” Robertson said. “Because a country like Canada should not have people dying on our streets, homeless, when there is so much affluence and openness to global capital.”
Photo on front page: Vancouver’s rental vacancy rate stands at 0.6%, and the city estimates an increase of 2,000 rental properties would raise it almost sixfold to 3.5%. Source: Bas Vermolen/Getty Images. Photoon this page: Gregor Robertson has called on the national and provincial governments to do more to alleviate the housing crisis. Source: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images.
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