Vancouver ‘cannot complain’ about high home prices while limiting development, French urbanist says

An Air Canada Express aircraft travels past construction cranes at the Oakridge Centre mall redevelopment in Vancouver on April 11, 2023. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.

  • Urbanist Alain Bertaud says strict land use regulations in geographically constrained areas like Metro Vancouver, which is predominantly made up of single-family homes, are inefficient and detrimental to affordability.
  • Owen Brady says market mechanisms are a more productive way to get more housing built than what is usually said at public hearings.
  • Former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan says more and more people are becoming pro-development, but a consensus had not been reached on greater housing density .

VANCOUVER — Vancouver’s dizzying home prices will never come back down to earth until the city uses its limited land more efficiently, said the French writer and urbanist Alain Bertaud at a recent event in the city.

Bertaud is the author of the book “Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities,” which argues that city planners should rely more on urban economics to dictate how a city develops, rather than arbitrary planning. 

Bertaud, who is a critic of land-use regulations in many cities, says much of Vancouver’s land is only zoned for single-family homes, which he says is a very inefficient way of using land. 

“Unless land is used extremely efficiently, there will be a shortage of land and therefore very high land prices,” says Bertaud. “One measure of housing affordability is the number of years of salary that a household needs in order to pay for a house, one of the highest in the world is in Vancouver.”

The September event was hosted by former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan and the Global Civic Policy Society. 

Most of the Metro Vancouver area is currently zoned for low-density housing, with 80 percent of the area’s developable land being occupied by less than 40 percent of its households. Metro Vancouver occupies a physically large amount of space, much of it is suburban in character, with single-family homes dominating the landscape. 

The imbalance of the city’s population and the supply of housing is often singled out as one of the major reasons for Vancouver’s world-renowned unaffordability. 

“I’m not saying it’s correct or incorrect, maybe high housing prices are a choice of the people,” says Bertaud. “But they cannot complain about high housing prices and at the same time, drastically limit the amount of land available (for development).” 

Owen Brady, a director with Abundant Housing Vancouver who attended Bertaud’s talk, agreed with his thesis that overly strict zoning regulations are detrimental to a city’s development. He also agrees that market mechanisms are an effective way to get more housing built. 

“Much of what gets said at public hearings is cheap talk. Market mechanisms are people voting with their dollars,” says Brady. “People wanting to share land to reduce their housing costs would be able to collectively outbid wealthier people who prefer single-family homes, except that it is generally illegal for them to do so.” 

Bertaud also notes that Vancouver’s proximity to the ocean and the mountains further constrains the amount of land that can be developed. He stresses that a city’s labour market is vital to its productivity and that there are consequences for many of its younger residents leaving Vancouver. 

“Younger households are obliged, either to live very far away in the suburbs, or they just leave and live in a smaller city where land is more affordable, like Calgary,” says Bertaud. 

Sam Sullivan says many young people facing high housing prices are part of a growing constituency, especially the “YIMBY” movement, that favours upzoning parts of Vancouver and other cities across North America and Europe to create denser housing. 

The federal government, as well as many of its provincial counterparts, have embraced the language of YIMBYism over the past year, but Sullivan says there is still not a clear consensus on densification. 

Many opponents of densification cite concerns about altering the character of their neighborhoods, or accuse proponents of densification as tools of wealthy developers. 

“There’s a lot of hostility and a lot of lack of understanding of it,” says Sullivan. “It will take a while, I hope that we can move forward because it is harming so many people.” 

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