Rennie’s call for regional housing plan points to major weakness in tools to achieve affordability

Bob Rennie

Bob Rennie

Yesterday’s massive gathering of the Urban Development Institute to hear Bob Rennie’s annual industry update had the feel of a rally of winning race horse race bettors at a tribute to their smartest track analyst.

The housing market has been kind to these folks and they were looking forward to their main salesman’s forecast for the coming year.

But Rennie’s address — he says it will be his last — was more than market sooth-saying. It contained a political challenge to the province and Metro politicians to make planning of the housing market a truly regional affair as a precondition to achieving real affordability.

That will require regional transit investment, something everyone agrees on but the province is reluctant to fund. Support for the transit investment will, in turn, require more development close to transit.

“We cannot solve the issue of affordability just in Vancouver,” Rennie said. To allow people to live “close to work,” the region has to build significant density at transit hubs, so commute times to cheaper homes get shorter.

Most coverage of Rennie’s remarks focussed on his analysis of the massive pool of equity held in clear-title properties by aging baby boomers — about $197 billion that will soon move into the hands of the next generation. This tidal wave of cash will not do much to reduce demand, even if a speculation tax cools the year-over-year inflation in price.

The affordability solution lies in higher density development further from the core, Rennie argues, where ground-oriented and tower developments can put people close to things they value even more than their jobs: parks, schools, stores, child care.

This development could have much reduced parking and focus on rental, a key contributor to housing supply for working families.

The problem with this solution? Metro Vancouver’s 22 municipalities work as a single unit on waste management and water supply, but go their separate ways on housing development. There is a plan, but each municipality does as it sees fit. As Burnaby residents are learning, that autonomy comes with a big price tag.

Fixing that problem would require provincial intervention to ensure all municipalities are pulling in the same direction. I’m not holding my breath.