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The idea of social housing can change definition depending on location. But the general image that this phrase evokes is affordable homes, usually built to help out the less fortunate. The city of Vancouver has made quite some noise recently about its success in constructing 1,938 units of new social and supportive housing units in 2018.
While it’s certainly commendable that the city is taking efforts to produce more social housing, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. According to current rules, the definition of social housing could include a studio apartment renting for as $1,700 a month. In fact, it’s safe to say that a large reason behind Vancouver’s successful social housing supply increase is due to how the city defines social housing.
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According to a recently released Annual Progress Report and Data Book released by the city of Vancouver, around units 60% of those 1,938 new social and supportive homes approved are only affordable by families with incomes higher than $50,000 a year. Almost a quarter of them are only affordable by households earning more than $80,000 a year. Considering that the median household income in the city is $65,421, and $50,250 for renters, it’s a real stretch to call most of these social housing units “affordable”.
Dan Garrison, Vancouver’s assistant director of housing policy, explained how that definition works in a recent interview. A building can count as providing social housing if its owned, maintained and operated by a government agency, or a non-profit organization. And at least 30% of its units must be rented to households with incomes up to the limits set by B.C. housing. Those limits are currently at $41,400 for a bachelor unit and $58,000 for two income earners.
The problem is that not just that 30% of units can be counted as social housing. The remaining 70% of those units can also be tallied as social housing as well, regardless of their rent, or cost. Given that definition, there are plenty of units technically counted as social housing, and yet geared towards renters with a household income above $100,000, an amount almost twice as high as the median household income for renters.
To make matters worse, social housing units, even those that only qualify to be called as such due to a technicality, are still exempt from certain development cost levies.
Of course the city does need more units in the middle-income earner range. But as mentioned in past articles, developers aren’t usually motivated to build “missing middle homes”. There’s simply more money to be made in building units targeting higher income families.
The current definition of social housing, and the way it’s counted in order to break records in social housing construction initiatives is raising some eyebrows. “They should just call it what it is,” said Nathalie Baker, a lawyer with Vancouver firm Eyford Partners LLP. “If you’re not being up-front and forthright about what we’re dealing with, how do we know we’re actually solving a problem and not making it worse?[…] It’s kind of crazy to think that’s where we’re at, if a household earning $100,000 lives in social housing.”
Even Dan Garrison agrees with Baker’s argument. “The thought that someone who earns $80,000 to $100,000 a year would live in a non-market housing building is a fairly new concept,” Garrison said. “I think part of that speaks to the housing crisis and how much affordability is a challenge. Because it’s now a challenge for people at almost all levels of income in the city to be able to afford housing.”
When asked if he understands the criticism that the city is padding its housing stats to make the new social housing numbers look more favourable than they really are, Garrison replied: “I definitely understand where that criticism comes from… I don’t disagree with it. But I would just say that we are also being pretty transparent about the levels of affordability we are achieving.”
Regarding the way the city openly displays its housing stats, Andy Yan, the director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program says that “There is a brutal and refreshing honesty in these building statistics from the City of Vancouver on who this city is being built for and who it is not.[…] It’s pretty brave to come and admit what you’re building, and what kind of incomes could support these types of units you’re building. There’s a certain courage you ought to acknowledge about these statistics from the City of Vancouver.”