Transit Referendum Part II: Development Politics in Vancouver

(c) Henri Robideau

A lot of people, for various reasons, are not planning to vote “yes” in the Vancouver transit referendum. I don’t agree with a lot of their reasoning (See Part I). But there is another thing happening here that’s probably even more consequential than the referendum itself. The transit referendum is making clear how screwed up development politics in Vancouver truly is.

This phenomenon is by no means new. On Thursday, I saw a fantastic exhibit of Henri Robideau photos and texts at the grunt gallery relating protests against the destruction of affordable housing and new development projects, dating all the way back to 1971. The exhibit, called Eraser Street, is really good. But the politics is weird: the same people who protest destroying houses also protesting building houses would make sense if they were simply against new things. But they weren’t – they were advocates for the poor. That to me is a sign that there is something wrong with how development works here. And the transit referendum has both exposed this, and made it worse. This is highly frustrating, and also, I don’t think Vancouver is at all the only place where it’s screwed up. The same dynamic exists in Seattle. I think things in San Francisco are different – in that they’re far worse – but are one possible natural extension of the current Vancouver situation.

The root of the problem is the relationship between the people of the city and developers. Almost everyone in Vancouver who is not, personally, a developer, hates developers. It makes sense for conservatives – i.e. people who hate change – to be against developers. But nearly everyone on the left hates them too, because development displaces people, destroys community, and is mostly just catered to the rich. (My theory is also that a lot of people on the left are also conservative, like for example me). And since, development or no, the housing in Vancouver is disproportionately expensive (see here, here, etc.) the argument that development helps the housing crisis is not very persuasive. It’s gotten so bad that, again, some people on the left are encouraging voting “no” in the transit referendum so as to not make the city more development-friendly.

The Economics 101 argument for development is very easy. If the problem is that housing is too expensive, the solution is to build more of it. That will increase supply relative to demand, and prices will drop. But this doesn’t seem to be what actually happens in Vancouver (again, see the above linked chart). Instead what happens is that you create either empty neighbourhoods of bought-up but not lived-in places like Coal Harbour, or rich neighbourhoods like Yaletown, with the non-rich pushed out, sometimes in incredibly obnoxious fashion. It all leads to reactions like this:

So development is not creating affordable housing. The problem is that if Vancouver turned against development, it wouldn’t create affordable housing, either. You are not going to get rid of people wanting to live in Vancouver by refusing to build places. And since rich people have more money, by definition, they will be able to outcompete poor people for the existing places. That will make sure that those that can afford it end up paying exorbitant prices for mediocre housing, and the prices of everything else rise accordingly, pushing more and more people out (I think this is called gentrification).  See San Francisco for an example of this happening. What Vancouver needs is development that is more regulated with respect to how it affects the citizens of Vancouver. Make developers contribute to neighbourhood amenities, raise the percentage of units in new developments that must be rentable, designate a percentage that has to be allotted to affordable housing, try to stop places from sitting empty. No development is not the solution.

People who are uniformly against development are making the same mistake that the people who want to vote “no” in the transit referendum are – they assume that you can maintain the “status quo” by refusing to do anything. You can’t. Vancouver’s population is growing and will continue to grow. These people will need places to live, and they will need transportation. But the argument against development is at least superficially sensible: you don’t want giant condo towers, so you try to stop them. The “no” referendum is not like that. We do want better transportation. To screw that up in order to make it worse for rich people to live is terrible. It’s cutting off your nose to spite your face.

But the fact is, people are making that argument. Zuuko once posted about how to lure conservatives into the environmental coalition. You might be interested in what Charles Montgomery, the author of the book he was ostensibly reviewing, thinks of the transit referendum (he’s for “yes” to put it mildly). But Zuuko’s point in that post (which I totally supported at the time) was that environmentalism should try to appeal to the centre-right via urbanism. This point turns out to completely ignore collateral damage. I don’t know how many conservatives have been converted from anti-urbanism to pro-urbanism, but it’s successfully pissed off enough liberals that I think it’s at an even worse place than before.


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