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

News

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.” 

The next plan to save newspapers as Bill C-18 flounders? More government money and a ban on CBC ads

News

As Google and Meta look increasingly likely to shun the government’s online news legislation and, as a result, block Canadian news from their platforms, an organization representing newspaper publishers has a plan B: more government money to help cover the salaries of journalists and a ban on advertising on CBC News.

As part of the government’s pre-budget consultations, News Media Canada offered a series of ideas designed to deal with the “precarious state of the news publishing industry,” with the top recommendation being a big boost to the existing tax credit on the salaries of journalists at qualifying news organizations, from 25 percent to 35 percent.

“We should not be competing with the CBC for scarce ad dollars,” said Paul Deegan, the president and chief executive officer of News Media Canada. “There’s no one single measure that’s going to solve this. We’re all trying to figure out what the best solution is.”

Eligibility for the labour tax credits is decided by an independent advisory board appointed by the government, causing concern among some critics about its effect on journalist independence, or the perception of it among Canadians.

“I definitely think that there is reason for concern about the dependence on governments or government regulation for support for the sector, which has obvious implications for its independence. I don’t think that’s a good or sustainable approach,” said Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa where he holds the Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law.

Some experts also worry about the effect that increasing dependence on the government will have on the quality of news and the trust of readers, which is already in decline.

“You can conduct your business and you can continue to post your stories, but if you don’t care whether anybody reads them or not, or if that becomes of secondary interest to your business model, then what are we doing here?” said Peter Menzies, a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and former publisher of the Calgary Herald.

“We’re supposed to be talking about saving democracy and the value of a free and independent press. You don’t rescue the free and independent press by making it unfree and dependent,” said Menzies.

The newspaper publishers also want the government to earmark 25 percent of its advertising dollars to “trusted news sources,” which would include private sector broadcasters. The group is also asking the government for incentives for businesses that spend advertising dollars with Canadian companies and to extend the Local Journalism Initiative for five more years at a price of $25 million per year.

If Meta and Google were to reach agreements on compensating publishers as part of Bill C-18, the government’s online news law, which have been estimated at about 35 percent of newsroom costs, it would take the labour costs covered by government and government regulation up to 70 percent. For comparison, the CBC’s full budget is made up of about 65 percent government funding, with the rest made up of advertising revenue.

Geist said it’s unlikely that both companies will reach agreements and it looks increasingly clear that Meta has made a global decision to move away from news.

That could be why government funding announced five years ago as temporary funds to help legacy outlets transition to the digital age is looking increasingly permanent. In 2018, the government announced a collection of policies to boost the balance sheets of legacy media organizations at a cost of $595 over five years, which included the 25 percent labour tax credit.

Some of these programs went under-subscribed due to layoffs in the quickly shrinking industry. The labour tax credit, for example, was projected to cost up to $90 million but cost $35 million in 2022. A tax credit for news subscriptions had a projected cost of $40 million in 2022 but only wound up costing $15 million.

“I think it’s really sad. Right from the start, when they were pushing for this, they said it had to be temporary, that they would have to come up with their own solutions eventually,” said Menzies. “I’m not aware of any evidence that they have been successfully or diligently working on a transition to the digital age.”

Menzies has called on the government to create a Canadian Journalists Fund that would be funded by taxing companies like Facebook and Google but would not have the government involved in its administration or distribution of the funds.

“Before we abandon the idea that there is a better way, we should try one,” said Menzies.