Why is Vancouver housing so expensive? People tend to blame foreign buyers, absentee landlords or greedy developers. In fact, it has a lot to do with simple geography.
Much of Vancouver stands on the alluvial plain formed by the Fraser River as it spills into the sea. To the north are the mountains and the waters of the Burrard Inlet, to the south the U.S. border, to the west the Strait of Georgia. To the east, rules protecting farmland restrict further expansion of the city’s sprawling suburbs.
Demand for land and housing is high. Vancouver is a highly attractive and livable city, a magnet for immigrants from all over. The supply of land and housing is limited. The result is predictable: average house price is well north of a million bucks. One Point Grey mansion recently sold for $42-million, a local record.
The obvious solution is to build more densely in the available space. Vancouver, like many cities, has mixed feelings about that. Its downtown is famously dense, from the older apartment blocks of the West End to the condo forests in Yaletown and the north side of False Creek. But much of the city is still low rise, filled with lovely, leafy neighbourhoods whose residents resist what urban planners call intensification.
All the same, Vancouver has been finding ways to build density in logical places. One is along busy transit routes like the expanding SkyTrain network. Stations on the Cambie Street corridor have become building hubs, a good example of the “transit-oriented development” that planners love. More of that is to come along the $2.83-billion Broadway subway, expected to be in service by 2025.
Another is to repurpose old institutional or industrial land. Last year a big developer, Concord Pacific, paid close to $1-billion for the downtown plot occupied by St. Paul’s Hospital. The money will help pay for a new St. Paul’s in the False Creek Flats. The same developer plans to replace the old Molson Coors brewery at the south end of the Burrard Street Bridge with a dense mix of housing, offices and shops.
Right next door, a huge development boasting 12 towers and 6,000 homes is to rise on a parcel of land in Kitsilano. Because it is on Indigenous territory, the dramatic project, which is known as Senakw, will not have to go through the usual hoops that slow development.
Only this week, preliminary plans were unveiled for yet another giant project led by Indigenous groups. Three First Nations are teaming up with the Canada Lands Company to redevelop the Jericho Lands on the city’s west side. Up to 18,000 people are to live on the 90-acre site, which would include new parkland, water features and links to nearby Jericho beach.
The suburbs, too, are building up. Concord Pacific recently announced it was planning to add five extra towers to its Metrotown development in Burnaby. The project sits on the site of the old Sears shopping complex.
To encourage even more density, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart has just proposed easing city regulations to allow up to six housing units a piece on lots that are now zoned for only single detached houses. That would allow homeowners to do on a small scale what developers have been doing on large plots: repurpose their land to accommodate more people.
Another initiative laid out in a city staff report this month would eventually triple the number of housing units on the low-density south side of False Creek, the former industrial zone first redeveloped back in the 1970s.
None of this is universally popular, to say the least. Like a lot of people in Toronto, many Vancouver residents roll their eyes when they hear that yet more glass towers will be rising on their horizon, or that multi-unit buildings will be invading established havens of single-family homes. But the benefits are clear. Building density cuts the often-prohibitive per-capita cost of supplying water, sewers, electricity and other basics to residential communities. It benefits the environment, because those who live in dense developments use less energy and produce less greenhouse gas than those who live in low-rise subdivisions. It allows for more affordable housing, too. When developers are permitted more density – higher towers, more housing units – they often agree to provide for more affordable units in return, housing seniors or low-income families.
Will all the intensification we are seeing bring Vancouver housing prices down from the stratosphere? Hard to say. But it can’t hurt, and it will certainly lead to a better city: more vibrant, more interesting and ultimately more sustainable. Vancouver is right to grab every chance it can to create urban density.
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.