Some Minutes Of The Vancouver Affordable Housing Community Forum Meeting: Part One

This evening, between 7 and 8:30PM at the Vancouver Community Library location in downtown Vancouver, there was a community forum on Affordable Housing: Personal Problem, Community Problem, Or Not My Problem. This evening’s meeting was the first of two meetings scheduled on consecutive Thursday nights, and was designed as a session for community members in the standing-room only crowd at the Columbia Room of the Vancouver Community Library to listen to various experts speak about the shortage of affordable housing in the city of Vancouver proper as well as greater Clark County as a whole. The crowd seemed to be about 2/3 female, mostly filled with an older audience along with a few college students, and before the meeting started the person taking these minutes was assumed in error to be a politician or bureaucrat or some other person of importance, which was clearly not the case [1]. This meeting is the revival of a previous series of community forums at the previous location of the Vancouver library that had been allowed to lapse for about five years. The moderator for tonight’s meeting was Mr. John McDonagh (henceforth John), who is the editor of the Vancouver Business Journal. The members of the panel were Messrs Sierk Braam (henceforth Sierk), an advocate for the homeless, Jack Harroun (henceforth Jack), a building industry representative and urban developer, Chad Eiken (henceforth Chad), a bureaucrat involved in planning for the City of Vancouver, and Javier Navarro (henceforth Javier), a State Farm insurance agent and Hispanic community representative.

John opened up the meeting by framing the discussion as being about myths and possible solutions for the affordable housing shortage in Vancouver, with the definition of affordable housing being that which cost $1100 or less for a household. Javier spoke first among the panel and commented that the shortage of affordable housing affects everyone and not merely any particular segment of the population. He blamed the shortage of affordable housing on a change in the rental landscape that was triggered by the eviction of many homeowners and the decline of home ownership in the 2008 recession, which led to a supply of people capable of paying for high-end renting, which drove up prices for everyone else. Chad spoke next, stating that the cost of permitting was not to blame for the high cost of housing, saying that on a recent multi-unit construction project that fees only amounted to 3-4% of the total cost of construction. He also commented that affordable housing was not only a problem for low income families, but was a matter of civic pride as low housing availability has likely cost Vancouver its place on the rankings of the best cities to live in the United States. He also drew a connection between rent increases and a correlated increase in homelessness, where a $100 increase in rent increased the number of homeless by 6%. After this Jack spoke, saying that a major reason for the affordable housing crisis was that there was no “move up” space for people to go from renting to first-time home buying because of restrictive lending practices and crippling student debt. He commented as well that a developer has an 8% margin on building homes, and openly questioned if builders were pricing themselves out of the potential buying market in the area. Apparently even developers are concerned about high prices, but he was very optimistic that Vancouver could build its way out of the crisis, given the right incentives and policies. Sierk then spoke about how the crisis in the rental market relates to the absence of entry level houses. He commented as well on demographic problems relating to the fact that half of all renters pay more than 30% for their housing, an alarming statistic. He commented that solutions need to be multi-tiered to address problems all up and down the spectrum of housing, and that we cannot rely on not-for-profits and governments as they only have enough capacity for 1/5 of all low-income families in Clark County.

At this point John began the Question and Answer portion of the meeting by directing questions to most of the speakers. He asked Jack about permitting, and Jack talked about the increased fees from school districts like the Evergreen District that were driving up the cost of housing by a large amount. John then asked Javier about cultural dynamics that are crowding the rental market, including the fact that some within the Hispanic community (potentially illegal immigrants?) who have the funds to buy for housing are prohibited by law from doing so at present. When John asked Sierk if Vancouver could build its way out of the current housing shortage, Sierk expressed skepticism. When John asked Jack about the cycle time for housing, Jack replied that for developers at present it took two years from investment to construction on average in Clark County at present, with a 15% rate of interest on the financing for such speculative investments. He expressed that developers had a strong desire for certainty that would reduce the risk and delays inherent in contemporary construction in the Vancouver area. Chad commented, in defense of the city, that there were many timelines involved in construction, some of them short and some of them longer.

At this point there was a lively set of questions from the audience. Vancouver has had a growth rate of 2-3% recently but predicted a growth rate of less than 2% in terms of its needs for housing. Jack was unable to provide a detailed breakdown of the percentage of various factors in the total cost of construction for housing development. There were questions about the cost of new building codes as well as the feasibility of rent controls, which are prohibited by state law. Other regulatory options, like inclusionary zoning, have undesirable trade-offs that increase the general cost of housing. There were questions about the feasibility of converting vacant housing into wheelchair accessible housing, and whether reducing the cost of heating would make housing more affordable, which was answered by Jack firmly in the negative. There were questions about the cost of land and the possibility of ‘social’ housing, which prompted a tense discussion on socialism and the inefficient economies of construction for governments and not-for-profits compared to the private sector. There were questions about financing, and comments by Chad on the fact that Vancouver offers wide flexibility for housing construction that has not been taken up by developers at present. There were questions about geographic constraints and growth zones, and the panel agreed that there was no instant solution to rent increases and shortage, but Sierk commented that with community pressure and the encouragement of socially responsible housing investors that attempts in rent profiteering could be limited. Jack hoped for the development of better public/private partnerships. At this point John invited the four panelists to give their closing remarks. Chad thought that the Affordable Task Force for the city/county had done thoughtful work. Javier stated that the current housing mess started with evictions. Jack commented that regulations cost money, and offered some solutions for lowering costs long-term. Sierk spoke about the need to address housing concerns on the broad scale, including for the homeless, and speculated as to whether we might recognize a right to housing and shelter. If so, how is that right to be paid for? After this the meeting was adjourned and we were all told to leave the library as soon as possible as it had closed at 8PM, and the audience departed to see a couple of police cars outside, with the police talking to a member of the audience whose audible mumbling had distracted the speakers on the panel so much that he had been escorted out of the forum meeting. It appears that people came tonight to speak, and not to listen, to complain, and not to learn, and there was a lot of anger about the housing situation within the audience.

[1] Although I do often end up taking minutes, even where it is not my official duty to do so. See, for example:

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