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June 20,2007

By Jeff Nagel Black Press

Denser living is the only strategy that can help keep home prices from spiralling out of reach for more of the region’s residents.

That was the consensus of a panel of housing and development experts who spoke last Friday at a GVRD dialogue on housing affordability.

“Densification is upon us and is the way of the future in the region,” said Peter Simpson, president of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders Association.

Panellists also agreed one of the best methods is to use density as a carrot to encourage developers to build more rental housing or affordable housing units blended with other market units.

“If you can double the density it’s like creating free land,” said Jay Wollenberg, president of Coriolis Consulting.

The forum came amid fresh signs it’s getting tougher to afford to live here.

The median price of a single family house in the GVRD cracked $700,000 for the first time in May.

And a new Royal Bank study found it takes 70% of the median Vancouver income to afford a typical two-storey house.

With 45,000 new residents coming to Greater Vancouver every year, prices will continue to climb fast unless the supply of housing rises as well.

And in a region tightly constrained by mountains, ocean, parks and agricultural land, that means building up.

But while civic leaders agree on that goal, some of them also fear the wrath of angry residents who oppose any move to densify their neighbourhoods.

“We have to deal with Dick and Dorothy from down the street,” Delta Coun. Scott Hamilton told the forum. “These people will line up out the door at public meetings.”

Panellist Ward McAllister, a real estate developer, said cities that push the burden of growth onto their neighbours must be punished.

“For those in the future that don’t accept density, there should be penalties,” he said, suggesting the return of federal gas taxes should be cut off.

“Sprawl is not an option,” he said. “It’s vital that Lower Mainland municipalities all buy into a regional growth strategy.”

The GVRD is in the midst of a process to redraw its Liveable Region Strategic Plan, and McAllister said it may be time to contemplate a move to regional planning to end the patchwork of local planning decisions.

One of the key challenges is the fact virtually no rental apartment buildings are being built because their income stream simply can’t compete against the returns that come from selling condos.

Burnaby Coun. Colleen Jordan noted many three-storey walk-up apartments are 40 to 50 years old and huge pressure is growing on councils to let them be rebuilt as condos for sale.

She suggested zoning areas as rental only might be one answer, but could risk creating ghettos.

The panel also heard calls for lower development cost charges (DCCs), the fast-tracking of permitting and legalization of secondary suites.

Peeter Wesik, president of Parklane Homes, said increased development close to public transit corridors offers potential for more people to live with fewer vehicles and devote their savings to housing.

One of the things that must change, he said, is “the attitude that public transit is for losers.”

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