There was an interesting piece on housing affordability in The Province over the weekend. You know The Province. It’s the go-to paper for those who want to gripe about the relentless expansion of the tax-and-grab nanny state. And yet the strong message in Sunday’s paper was that “it’s up to all three levels of government to find a solution to the problem of high [housing] prices.” Otherwise, as the story made clear, people from Vancouver will have to move somewhere else, like (oh no) Powell River or Montreal.
Without doubt the question of housing affordability is important. It’s also complex and emotion-laden. But it is more than a little tempting to reflect on the fact that the most effective cure for those who are suffering from the malady of affordable housing is, just as the news story suggested, to move somewhere more affordable.
Sooner or later, if everyone in Vancouver decided to move somewhere more affordable, guess what would happen? Vancouver would become more affordable.
Oddly enough, that’s probably the reason why most of us came here in the first place. We - or our forebears - saw this as a place of greater opportunity than wherever it was we came from. And now there are so many who want to live here that the demand for that scarce commodity - land - has caused prices to rise to levels which are beyond the reach of many.
Now I am quite certain that government can play a role in helping create the conditions for an increased supply of relatively affordable housing. I am particularly fond of policy options like increased density, laneway houses and smaller lot sizes. These help create options for affordability without dictating outcomes, and do not impose costs on taxpayers. Good planning and zoning policies can also make a real difference in increasing the diversity of housing options. However, you can call me a greedy neo-con (and some people have), but it’s just not clear to me why my tax dollars should be used to subsidize housing for people who are perfectly capable of earning a reasonable, family-supporting income, but would like government to subsidize their preference to live in an expensive neighbourhood.
In thinking about these issues, I am reminded of some conversations I had at Parent Advisory Council meetings at schools in my constituency when I was an MLA. Some may recall that in 1996, NDP premier Glen Clark imposed a tuition freeze on post-secondary education in BC. The intention was to make post-secondary education more accessible. Instead, within a year or two - in what was a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences - the result was that university admission standards began to rise to levels never before seen. Parents of school age children began to worry that their children would actually not qualify for post-secondary education. (As a parent of school age children, I had some of the same worries myself.)
In my constituency (Richmond-Steveston) many parents saw UBC as the destination of choice for the children. And the admission standards at UBC were becoming very high. At the same time, however, UBC was rising up the international rankings for universities. I remember asking a couple of parents whether they thought that their kids might have a good start if they first attended the local university college (Kwantlen), as a more accessible (and high quality) entry point to post-secondary education. The answer was often no. Without saying it in so many words, these parents were perfectly clear about what they wanted for their children: to be able to attend a world-class university, and to do so without achieving world-class grades.
Now I completely share the desire of these parents to get the best they could for their children. But you cannot square that circle: you cannot create a world-class university with under-achieving students.
And in some respects, our desire for housing affordability in Vancouver represents the same flawed reasoning. Vancouverites enjoy a wonderful quality of life: a benign climate (well, okay, maybe not last weekend); astonishing natural beauty, good public infrastructure, great health care and public education systems, safe streets, and more. It’s an amazing place. Apparently we want all this and affordability, too. I’m not sure that the one is not in some respects exclusive of the other. Or to put the point more starkly: the reason houses are practically free in some neighbourhoods of Detroit is that no one wants to live there.
Of course there are complicating factors. Because we are nearly completely surrounded by water and mountains, we don’t have much room for expansion, unlike the big cities elsewhere in Canada. And I’m also not ignorant of the impact of speculation, but one of the reasons why there is speculation is because investors believe that the underlying asset is or will be in great demand.
But at its most basic, we are, I think, paying a price for our own success. To put it another way, if housing affordability is our biggest problem, perhaps it is because we have got everything else right.
I acknowledge that as a result, some of us who have grown up here will not be able to afford to live here - or at least not, perhaps, in the same neighbourhood or the same kind of house in which we grew up. I don’t discount the difficulties of dislocation, but sometimes, perhaps, displacement is just the glass half empty view of opportunity. My wife and I both grew up on the west side of Vancouver, and we moved to Richmond to buy our first home (a townhouse) because we could not afford to buy a house anywhere near our childhood neighbourhoods. And everything seemed to work out for us. And although I am from a family that has been in Vancouver for a long time, my grandparents and great-grandparents mostly came from far away, and while I am sure the decisions each of them made to leave their homes were not easy they all found opportunity here. So maybe movement and dislocation are in my blood. But if that is true of my case, it is surely true of a city where we are almost all first or second-generation immigrants.
I do not think it is an aspect of our social contract as Canadians that we are entitled to (as the Dixie Chicks put it) “live in the same zip code that our parents lived.” What is guaranteed to us by our Constitution is the right of mobility, which is, I would suggest, critically indispensable in a free and democratic society. But the converse, a right, as it were, to stay put, irrespective of the flood tides of changing economic and social circumstances, is a much more complicated and contestable proposition. There’s a role for government in addressing the difficult question of housing affordability, but each of us is also responsible for making the choices which best match our aspirations with what is actually achievable.