Symposium Shares ‘Down-to-Earth’ Fixes to High-Cost Housing

Published in The Tyee | March 13, 2013 | Circulation: 340,000 unique monthly readers

Vancouver will host affordable-housing thinkers, designers and decision-makers from across B.C. this week for the Housing Affordability Symposium (HAS), held March 14 and 15.

The two-day annual event has become known for offering a raft of creative solutions to the high costs of housing, which in Vancouver are among the world’s highest and across the province create challenges for many communities.

The conference this year comes in the wake of a new Metro Vancouver Housing Committee report that reveals the average rent in the city has climbed by nearly 17 per cent in the last five years alone.

Could new ideas help? Ideas like buying and selling walk-out basement suites. Tweaking zoning rules to reduce parking and pass on the savings. Imaginatively sharing communal space. Offering the homeless lodging in movable modular units — or in scattered apartments where they can finally have an address.

Bringing together everyone from architects to politicians and advocates to developers, this year’s HAS continues the focus on what outspoken architect and keynote speaker Michael Geller calls “down-to-earth” affordable-housing solutions.

“One of the best parts is the presentation of on-the-ground case studies and demonstration projects,” he explains. “I often think that the best way to convince people an idea is practical is to show it being done.

“There are very good, practical, down-to-earth examples of housing innovation that are resulting in greater affordability… It’s not just talking about it. We’re looking at drawings, actually seeing pictures of completed projects and having the people (responsible) in attendance to answer questions.”

But for symposium organizer Auli Parviainen, this year’s conference isn’t simply about “actionable solutions” to numerous problems — from homelessness to home ownership — and the need for more rental units.

“We’re also looking at the changes that are going to need to be addressed with cultural and demographic shifts that are occurring,” she says. “There are a variety of needs that must be met — expectations for housing are changing.

“What solutions will allow market affordability to occur, and how do we do that? That’s the question, always, for us.”

Even those who can aren’t buying

This year’s new demographic focus will incorporate the voices of social demographers, urban planners, and regular residents grouped in three categories — the so-called under-30 “millennial” generation, families and seniors.

Each of the groups, researchers are discovering, has changing needs that must be addressed as markets shift. The symposium will devote panels to each demographic group, identifying both struggles and solutions.

One of those speaking as a “millennial” is Alicia Medina Laddaga, one of the young architects behind Vancouver’s Laboratory of Housing Alternatives (LOHA). She tells The Tyee that HAS is an important forum to connect with like-minded thinkers and policy-makers.

“We want to gather people with ideas together, and translate them into solutions,” she says. “That’s what we’re working towards.

“A lot of young, creative professionals are leaving the city, saying, ‘I’m not giving up my art discipline in order to keep living here.’ But how would Vancouver look without arts and culture? It would be a very sad and not-fun city.”

Among LOHA’s ideas are proposals for homes that offer both individual and communal space. For instance, shared artists studios incorporated into their lodgings shared workshops, common areas and bike parking.

“People are not only only looking for individual spaces, but to create community around them,” she says. “There’s a lot of talk about shared or co-ownership, and community-based development.

“Now the market’s changing. Even people who can afford to aren’t buying — at least, not in the neighbourhoods where they want to live. Opening up this conversation is exciting.”

Chaired by Bob Deeks, whose firm RDC Fine Homes boasts “affordable, high performance, sustainable housing,” the symposium also features presentations by ground-breaking Okanagan migrant housing geographer Carlos Teixeira and an opening keynote by Chris Turner, author of The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need.

Geller himself is offering the closing keynote speech and said his aim this year is to encourage participants to get to work putting ideas into practice.

“My keynote is going to be, out of all the ideas that are coming up this year … (let’s) try to figure out which of the ones have the greatest likelihood of succeeding in the short-term,” Geller says. “How do you actually create a work plan to make sure they are followed up on?

“Unfortunately, I have drawers and drawers full of affordable housing reports. Many of the ideas we’re talking about now have been discussed for decades — some go back 30 years.”

‘Absolutely crazy’

While many conference speakers are addressing issues around both home ownership and rentals, the issue of homelessness (and finding long-term resolution) is also on the agenda. And while advocates like Geller support emergency shelters, in the long-term it’s an expensive and inadequate solution. One costs $24,000 per resident a year, he adds.

“It’s crazy, absolutely crazy,” Geller exclaims. “I’ve advocated that it’s better to simply rent apartments around the city and put people in those apartments and provide them with services, which in turn would allow them to have an address. One of the problems with a shelter is you don’t have an address, which makes it harder to get work. Some say they’re never going to work, but well, it sure is harder to go to work without an address.”

Some of Geller’s other suggestions for reducing housing costs include bylaws allowing duplex owners to rent out basement suites or allowing walkout basement suites to be sold like condos or under shared ownership agreements. Reducing minimum parking requirements for new buildings and encouraging people to use car shares, co-ops, and public transit could shave $50,000 off condo prices.

But with the average Vancouverite’s rent climbing steeply over the last five years — from $898 in 2007 to $1,047 last year, according to a new Metro Vancouver Housing Committee report — the affordable landscape seems bleak.

“In the very near future, that landscape is changing,” Parviainen says. “Can we start creating housing forms that are appropriate?

“Anecdotally, I do know that a lot of concepts introduced at the symposium are already fully-executed solutions. They’re inspiration for people looking at a number of ways to use those solutions in their own communities.”

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