In the city in which housing is ranked the most unaffordable in North America, retired developer Arny Wise can’t believe Vancouver city council has requested only a fraction of the massive Oakridge Park project be set aside for middle-class wage-earners.
Only 13 per cent of homes in the giant luxury housing and office complex underway at Vancouver’s Oakridge Park, which will cover the equivalent of 21 soccer fields, are deemed “affordable,” said Wise, who spent his career as a real-estate developer and consultant in Toronto and Vancouver.
The glamorous Oakridge Park development is a “once-in-a-generation project” — the largest single residential build in Vancouver since the 2010 Olympic Village, says Wise. Yet the vast majority of its 3,323 “homes” will not be accessible to nurses, firefighters and teachers, let alone those on lower incomes.
The Oakridge Park housing units are “unaffordable for anyone but high-rollers and investors, both foreign and domestic, Real Estate Investment Trusts, home hoarders, flippers and speculators,” said Wise, who recently made a presentation opposing up-zoning of the Oakridge property. Its market condos are advertised at an eye-popping $2,000 to $2,500 per square foot.
Wise isn’t alone in worrying that similarly huge Vancouver housing developments — such as those proposed for the Jericho Lands, Marpole, northeast False Creek, Heather Street and Broadway corridor — will also fail to seriously address the housing crisis in Vancouver, which Demographia this week ranked the most unaffordable city in all of Canada and the U.S.
But Wise doesn’t necessarily blame the mega-developer, Westbank Corp., for largely ignoring the lower and middle classes.
“I’m not critical of developers. I’m critical of the City of Vancouver. Developers are just in business to make a profit. They’ll take whatever they can negotiate with the city. And if the city requires only 13 per cent affordable housing, that’s what they’ll do.”
Colleen Hardwick is the only city councillor to vote against the latest up-zoning of Oakridge Park. The mayor and other councillors decided in March to approve more residential floor space, more office units, more rental apartments and greater density for Westbank in exchange for revenue and public facilities in the form of so-called Community Amenity Contributions (CACs).
“We are continuing to build the wrong kind of housing, which is luxury,” said Hardwick, an urban geographer who will be running to replace Mayor Kennedy Stewart in the fall election under the banner of TEAM for a Livable Vancouver.
High-end Vancouver developments such as Oakridge Park, which will include 15 residential and office towers, some more than 50 storeys tall, are being “marketed in showrooms from Shanghai to Dubai,” Hardwick said.
While some of the 10 city councillors who voted to expand the Oakridge Park project have lamented the shortage of affordable condo and rental units, Hardwick suggested elected officials go along with repeated up-zonings because the city has become “addicted” to developers offering CACs in exchange for more density and profits.
The attitude of many councillors, said Hardwick, seems to be: “It’s better to get the crumbs rather than nothing at all.”
CACs, Hardwick said, now account for half of the city’s capital budget, which goes into infrastructure.
Hardwick supported, in principle, the recommendation of Wise and others that Vancouver city council should expect large new projects to provide a “progressive housing mix,” which would make roughly one-third available for people on low incomes, one-third for those on middle incomes and one-third for high-income earners.
When Westbank was asked about criticisms it’s only providing 13 per cent ‘affordable’ housing, a communications official responded that this year’s rezoning, the latest, approved 413 new rental homes at Oakridge, of which 31 per cent are affordable.
“This exceeds the city’s target of 20 per cent affordable housing for rezonings of large sites in the city. This is in addition to the over $500 million in public amenities that Oakridge Park delivers,” said the unattributed email statement.
University of B.C. urban design Prof. Patrick Condon said what’s happened with Oakridge Park serves as a wake-up call to those worried that other mammoth housing projects coming down Vancouver’s pipeline will also be approved without adequate options for the non-wealthy.
“It looks to me like the Broadway plan and the citywide plan are grounded in the same ‘trickle-down’ housing policies,” that Condon said operate on what he considers the failed theory that housing will somehow become cheaper by adding more high-priced supply. The Oakridge project, he said, “just puts more gasoline on the raging dumpster fire of out-of-control prices.”
If the trickle-down theory worked, said Condon, author of Sick City, “the city of Vancouver would have the cheapest housing in North America by now. Since the 1970s we have added almost 150,000 housing units. No other North American city centre that I know has increased housing by as much in such a short time. And yet, in that time, our housing prices have inflated, in adjusted terms, by 300 per cent. We have North America’s highest prices, not lowest.”
After a series of up-zonings over the past decade, Oakridge Park is now slated to provide more than three million square feet of residential space — in 3,323 units, 70 per cent of which will be condos. Nine per cent will be social housing and four per cent “affordable” rental units. That means 87 per cent of Oakridge Park “homes” will target high-end buyers, domestic and foreign.
Hardwick said city council needs to realize that repeatedly negotiating with developers to permit higher heights and density inflates land values, which in turn make it harder to build affordable dwellings. There is already an abundance of high-density zoning in the city, she said, more than enough to respond to projected population growth.
With gigantic housing developments in the works for the Indigenous-owned Jericho Lands, which is three times larger than Oakridge, as well as the Broadway corridor and other west-side neighbourhoods, Hardwick said Vancouver needs to reset its housing strategy.
“What we’re doing now is not working,” she said.
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