What’s up with Vancouver real estate prices?

December 9, 2011 at 8:26 pm | In affordable_housing, vancouver | 2 Comments

In a kind of  yang-ish counterpoint to my last post about yin-ish Portland (and Victoria), here’s a pointer to a BC Business article, Housing has become Vancouver’s toxic asset, by Tony Wanless, that makes me think Vancouver’s yang is just a tad out of control. Wanless points to a blog post by Vancouver independent city council candidate Sandy Garossini, Unaffordable (That’s What You Are), which presents the truly jaw-dropping insights she gleaned during her recent campaigning in Vancouver.

What really jumped out for me was an eery parallel between suburban developments blighted by the sub-prime mortgage crisis and what’s happening in Vancouver. In the former, you have those underwater developments that have been turned into virtual ghost towns, with perhaps one family holding down the fort on a block of otherwise empty houses.  In the latter (according to the articles), you have west-side Vancouver neighborhoods where there are blocks of houses kept empty by their off-shore investor owners, while a single family remains on the street as an actual resident.

You’ve got to read Garossini’s post.

And check out what Gregory Henriquez has to say about Vancouver’s real estate market:

Many see Vancouver in a housing bubble, and it may well be. Others however, such as celebrated architect Gregory Henriquez, think our prices still have far to go to reach that point. Amazingly, Henriquez says that Vancouver is still under-priced. He is not looking at local economic conditions, however, but at the international forces in play. Viewed globally, Henriquez says that our market has become the “safety-deposit box for the world.” (source)

Interesting, how Victoria (across the Strait) remains relatively immune.

Must be the yin.

Yang-a-damn-a-ram-a-rama…

Hey, only $2.5million for about 2800 square feet – what a deal.

 

How to Save Downtown (Victoria BC)

May 30, 2011 at 8:16 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, dying_downtown, FOCUS_Magazine, land_use, urbanism, victoria, writing | 2 Comments

Below is the real version of my article, How to Save Downtown (it’s about downtown Victoria BC, but applies to many city centers crushed under the weight of overly needy – and stupid – municipal governments as well as strapped economies…).

I submitted this article to FOCUS Magazine for publication in its June 2011 issue. I was subsequently horrified to see that the publisher truncated the article so severely as to make it nonsensical. After I complained, he put a more-or-less intact version online (at last reading, there was at least one paragraph still missing), but the print version of the article has unfortunately already gone to press. I wish I could have taken back my submission, but I couldn’t. I’m much embarrassed (and angry) to see my name attached to it.

Here’s the article  as it was intended to appear. Readers might notice that it grew out of my previous dying downtown series:

How to Save Downtown

Victoria City Council recently offered the business community an olive branch when it addressed the tax ratio of commercial to residential rates by voting to reduce marginally (very marginally) that ratio by 0.004% in favor of commercial rates. While the Chamber of Commerce responded with tepidly mumbled words of encouragement for council’s decision, the daily newspaper merely reported the other side of the coin: that residential property taxes will rise by 7% compared to 1.1% for businesses.

Anyone who bothers to walk around downtown Victoria can see that many businesses are struggling. Take Fort Street’s Antique Row. Start at Cook, continue to Douglas, and note the number of “for lease” or “going out of business” signs. Too often, though, we ignore the plight of businesses and focus instead on the rise in residential taxes.

I recently posted photos of the many empty Fort Street storefronts to my blog. The comments that came in were instructive. Readers (including business owners) blamed downtown’s desuetude on many things: big box stores; tourism downturns; street people; lack of community support for independent merchants; problems related to overzealous parking commissionaires.

Everyone cited high rents, worsened by excessive property taxes:

“I have been perplexed that while we saw a recession start in 2009 retail rents continued to rise right through it as though there was nothing happening.”

“There is certainly no shortage of eager, creative and motivated entrepreneurs in Victoria. If they can deal with the impossible rents, along with the fact that the City is inherently anti-small business (zoning, permits, etc), they may have a chance.”

Comments repeatedly cited the City of Victoria’s lack of business support, noting that it burdens businesses with adversarial inspectors and bylaws.

Others noted that there is too much emphasis on tourist retail and not enough on incubating innovation for the homegrown market.

And people asked: if so many storefronts are empty, why are rents still so high? Bound to triple-net leases, tenants are typically on the hook for property taxes, and even building improvements. For paying property taxes, the City delivers nothing in services, not even garbage pickup.

In 2005 Greater Victoria had a retail vacancy rate of 3.5%. By 2010, that rate had climbed to 5.9%, and it doesn’t look better for 2011. According to Colliers’s Market Report, “2011 is likely to be a year of ‘status quo’ for Greater Victoria retail.” While the forecast admits that “2010 was a year of uncertainty,” it also posits that “the overall market has remained relatively healthy.” Downtown’s empty storefronts suggest otherwise.

Perhaps macro-analyses of Greater Victoria, which include data points around “secure federal and provincial employer presence” (read: consumers) and Uptown or Westshore shopping mall expansions (read: vendors), don’t speak to what’s going on specifically in our downtown.

I asked Graham Smith, who looks after Greater Victoria retail for Colliers, about lease rates and their responsiveness to the market. Smith pointed out that every property is different, each has its unique qualities. Whether it’s on this or that side of the street or in this or that block affects its lease rates. And just as properties are unique, so are owners. Smith likened it to selling a house: most people are convinced that their property is uniquely valuable, and some owners will insist on getting their price, while others just want it rented.

Why would a property owner let his property stand empty instead of offering struggling tenants a rate reduction? Smith’s market-based answer seemed cruel, albeit realistic: if a business is struggling, there’s something wrong with the business model besides leasing expenses. A 10% rent reduction isn’t going to help that business thrive if there either isn’t really a market for what it’s retailing, or it’s not open when customers want to shop.

However, consider the tax burden imposed on business. Take 789 Fort Street, a property assessed at ~$2 million; its 2010 property tax was $49,130.18. A comparable ~$2 million residential Victoria property (1989 Crescent Rd., for example) is taxed at ~$13,685.00. That’s a difference of nearly $35,000.

Who pays the property tax on commercial buildings? Typically, the triple-net lessee.

According to sources at City Hall, Victoria relies equally (50-50) on residential and commercial property taxes, but commercial property is clearly carrying the brunt. Nor is Victoria alone. 2010 Tax Rates reveal that Victoria taxes businesses the most, but Saanich and Langford are close behind:

Victoria Residential: 3.6581
Victoria Commercial: 13.1471
Ratio: 3.59
Langford Residential: 2.3343
Langford Commercial: 7.3764
Ratio: 3.16
Saanich Residential: 3.2697
Saanich Commercial: 11.6980
Ratio: 3.58
Oak Bay Residential: 2.9305
Oak Bay Commercial: 5.0610
Ratio: 1.73
(source)

True, every municipality has a pro-residential bias. After all, residential taxpayers elect the politicians. However, the difference is very much skewed against City of Victoria businesses in absolute terms: a lessee will pay much less property tax for a similar property in Langford since the property has a lower assessed value. This difference can be the make-or-break factor for a business, and partly explains the exodus from downtown. Let’s also not forget that fewer than ten years ago, Victoria’s ratio of commercial to residential taxation was 2.63, while it has now climbed to 3.59. (source [PDF])

An effective way to reduce the currently painful ratio would be to increase the number of residential properties on the City’s tax roll.

Recall my conversation with Graham Smith of Colliers. From his 11th floor CIBC Building boardroom we could see 789 Fort Street, a one-story building with two storefronts. Presently, half the building is rented, while the other languishes.

I pointed out that this building should have rental apartments on top, which would provide both customers and even employees. The newer building next door (at Fort and Blanshard, southwest corner) was built within the last fifteen years. Although newer, it’s also just a single story, with zero residential above the store. It seems we haven’t been adding mixed-use buildings with a view to bringing a diversified demographic into the downtown.

So why don’t we encourage more development that brings residents into the downtown, which would help “spread the pain” of property taxes on mixed-use commercial/residential buildings and would benefit retailers who need steady repeat customers? Consider that downtown Victoria’s population has actually declined since the 1970s when new seismic regulations left buildings vulnerable to unaffordable code upgrades. If you’ve ever wondered why some buildings downtown don’t have people living on the second or third floors, it’s because they didn’t remain “continuously occupied” since new codes came into effect. If a building remained continuously occupied, it’s exempt. If it’s vacated, however, it becomes subject to the new rules, and requires fearsomely cost-prohibitive seismic upgrading.

As for new buildings, condo towers (which target just one small slice of the larger demographic pie) have added some population, but we’re still below 1970s population levels. Newer one-story buildings, as well as older one-story buildings, represent a missed opportunity to diversify the downtown and to bring its residential levels back up to what they used to be.

There is a new proposal that’s heading in the right direction. The Cosmopolitan is a 5-story development for the 600-block of Fort. Currently making its way through City Hall, it includes ground-floor retail, with 4 stories of rental housing above. If the project is approved (it needs a minor height variance), it’s an opportunity to build exactly what Victoria needs: residential over the store. I asked the developer, Jurgen Weyand, how the numbers work when building rental. The short answer: they don’t, really. Compared to building condos, building rental is an investment on his part that may pay off for his grandchildren. But retailers will benefit from having residents that live where they work and shop.

So let’s look out Colliers’ 11th floor boardroom window again. Sometime in the last 15 years, a new building went up at Fort and Blanshard. But it’s just one story and has no apartments above the store. Sometime in the last few years, tenants came and went at 789 Fort Street, but it’s just one story and there are no residents living above the store. There are scores of downtown buildings that have no one living over the store. The Cosmopolitan will hopefully contribute to reversing that trend.

Clearly, we need more development downtown, whether it’s condo towers or five-story walk-ups above ground floor retail. New condo towers may attract retiring empty-nesters who want to shop and re-create in a walkable downtown. Rental apartments above ground-floor retail diversify the demographic, to attract a younger, more mobile tenant who works in those businesses for her day job (and shops there, too), while incubating the next great thing in the creative economy after hours. Win-win.

Bottom line: if we want to save downtown, we need people living there, right over the store. That would provide customers for businesses, as well as defray the property tax burden currently off-loaded via triple-net leases solely on businesses.

 

Gentrification 2.0?

June 5, 2010 at 11:22 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, cities, homelessness, housing, innovation, jane_jacobs, land_use, social_critique, vancouver | 2 Comments

The title of my post is semi-serious, semi-ironic. I’m ambivalent about gentrification: if it means unslumming, I figure it’s good; if it means homogenization toward a single class (typically privileged) at the expense of economic diversity, it’s probably not-so-good, right?

When I write “Gentrification 2.0,” I’m saying that I’m not sure how this particular example – The Woodward’s Project in Vancouver – will play out. It’s 2.0 insofar as it’s not unslumming in Jane Jacobs’s sense, nor is it private market gentrification. It’s an interesting hybrid.

Canada’s National Post newspaper has started a series of articles about the Woodward’s Project. The reporter is Brian Hutchinson, who focuses on the neighborhood (Downtown East Side) and the social implications of putting a spiffy mixed-use high-rise development into its center. This is an unusual development, however: it has “125 fully equipped apartments reserved for low-income singles, and 75 spacious units reserved for families; 80% of the family apartments are rented at below-market rates” (source), while at the same time it also boasts market-rate condos valued at over $1million and provides the better-off residents with rooftop luxuries that afford (to use a word Hutchinson used) “bacchanalian” excess.

I wrote about the Woodward’s Project after taking my daughter to lunch in Vancouver for her birthday. It’s a fascinating project, and I’m looking forward to reading the entire series. Hutchinson is “embedded” at Woodward’s for a whole month.

Unsorting

February 3, 2010 at 12:04 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, cities, housing, ideas, land_use, politics, social_critique, urbanism, writing | 7 Comments

I read Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart a few weeks ago, and have been meaning to return to it for insight into several aspects of politics as I’ve experienced them here in British Columbia. True, Bishop writes about the US, and BC isn’t the US, and, true, Canada has three big parties, not just two. But in my province it’s really all about just two parties, the BC Liberals and the BC NDP (and our first-past-the-post electoral system ensures that third parties have a nearly impossible row to hoe). Where I live, people do “sort” themselves in ways that are practically as pernicious as US counties sorted into all-blue or all-red group-think ideological camps.

But more on that some other time…

*

Bunker House, Queens

Bunker House, Queens

*

First, some observations on sorting and urban form…

Recently, the offspring and I were talking about All in the Family, which I watched often growing up, since it was a favorite show of my father’s. Thanks to YouTube, salient bits of it are instantly available to younger viewers.

Last night I heard laughter coming from my son’s room – he had just finished watching Jeff Rubin talking about how our oil-dependent economy will have to change radically. In the talk, Rubin conjured an image of Archie Bunker and Al Gore together in bed, based on the new paradigm we’re heading into. So of course my son had to research (ahem) All in the Family, and he was watching excerpt after excerpt on YouTube (hence the howls of laughter – I initially worried that he thought Rubin was funny, but no, it was the Bunkers).

The Bunkers

The Bunkers

Mostly, aside from marveling at how Archie could spew his sometimes vicious opinions without the PC police censoring him, my son was struck by how impossible it was for Archie to avoid the objects of his prejudice. Everywhere Archie Bunker turned, he ran into “coloreds,” “communists,” “Polacks,” “homos,” and so on through the entire unsorted bin of …well, of what?

Of a mixed urban neighborhood – versus neighborhoods sorted almost exclusively through (upward) economic choice or (downward) economic non-choice.

Without New York City and its population-packed boroughs (in the Bunkers’s case, the Astoria neighborhood of Queens), Archie could have become isolated (sorted), and found affirmation in a like-minded tract development. But in that more urban environment, which isn’t upscale enough to maintain homogeneity and therefore has to accept newcomers constantly, he has to accept neighbors whose views he dislikes. Because Archie himself isn’t rich enough to move, he has to mingle. Because real estate and rents are so dear in densely built-up areas that have easy access to the downtown core, no one has the luxury of living on his own hectare, at a distance. In fact, Archie has to put up in his own four walls with the “Meathead” (Michael, his Polish-American, social-work studying, non-laboring son-in-law with hippie roots). Rents are too expensive for the Bunker daughter Gloria, newly married to Michael, to move out. So the lucky couple gets to live with her parents.

Which brings us to how the tendency to sort, as described by Bill Bishop, even finds expression at the domestic level, in house architecture.

Since the seventies when All in the Family was produced, it has become unexceptional for each kid to have his or her own bedroom. It’s expected that parents have an “en-suite” – a full bathroom of their own, off the “master” bedroom (oh, those feudal aspirations!, sovereigns all, we parents are loosey-goosey in our permissiveness, but masters of our own domains, with hot and cold pulsating showers to warm our cold clean hearts, and Jacuzzi tubs for all that stress, of course!).

It’s not unusual for the kids to have either their own (shared) bathroom, or possibly even have en-suites of their own. We’ve become a bit antiseptic in how we provision for privacy within our own homes, and we sort in our own four walls.

Since the days of All in the Family, it’s normal for a family member to go off to his or her own domain (senior masters and junior masters-in-training) for entertainment. A TV in a kid’s room isn’t unusual, I hear…

Within Archie Bunker’s economic class and in his Queens neighborhood, that sort of domestic sorting was impossible: the houses weren’t built for it. And the social sorting proved equally impossible for the same reasons. If you were lucky, you might climb into Queens (economically), but it was harder to climb “above” Queens and still stay within spitting distance of the city. Unless you struck it insanely and unusally filthy rich (as The Jeffersons did, the Bunkers’s African-American neighbors who moved to Manhattan), you had to forsake the urban if you wanted to climb out of the Queenses of most older American cities. Hie thee to an ex-urb and sort yourself! Stay in Queens and be ready to rub up against people.

It’s kind of strange to think that television had to beam Archie Bunker’s discomforting vitriol into the already-sorting 1970s living rooms of low-density suburbs, where people were replicating in their domestic living arrangements the social sorting they preferred in their neighborhoods.

Even Archie noted that it’s natural for people to be “among their own kind” (which for him meant blue-collar bigots). He was just lucky enough not to be able to afford it.

A fluke: Sammy Davis Jr. finds himself trapped for a while in Archies lair

(A fluke encounter: Sammy Davis Jr. finds himself trapped for a while in Archie's lair, er, chair)

February article: Housing 2.0

April 14, 2009 at 1:18 am | In affordable_housing, architecture, cities, FOCUS_Magazine, housing, writing | 3 Comments

It took a while for me to catch up with my own goal to blog about the articles I’ve posted to Scribd, but here (finally) is a quick pointer to Housing 2.0, the piece I published in the February 2009 issue of FOCUS Magazine.

It’s a funny title in some ways, but this brief introductory description, followed by the first paragraph, might clarify the intent:

Using the Wikipedia model, along with modular housing, to solve homelessness: As web 2.0 development has shown, people are able to unleash creativity and energy when they see how to move forward and get things done from the bottom up.

Vancouver architect Gregory Henriquez wants to tackle Vancouver’s crisis of homelessness with temporary modular housing. Homelessness, he points out, is growing at a much faster rate than housing can be built, which basically means that housing production should speed up. The problem is that traditional housing construction can’t.

So, the gist is that it’s another attempt on my part to shift our thinking away from “let government do it” to “let the people do it.” If we have a group of people who’ve become systematically beaten down (sometimes through their own bad choices, sometimes through the bad choices others made for them), does it make sense to keep them passive and in a state of learned helplessness, or is it better to help people move – step by step – toward autonomy? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. I know what my answer is.) Henriquez tried to make a case for what he called “Stop-Gap Housing,” and it makes a lot of sense in our housing market (which is both imploding in some ways, while still incredibly unaffordable at the same time).

I also, in this article, try to get a “2.0″ kind of thinking focused on bricks and mortar (literally), which is something that’s badly, badly needed in land use and development. There have actually been some great historical precedents for that kind of fluid thinking, in particular Archigram’s DIY City concepts (I blogged about this and my ideas and responses around “housing 2.0″ here).

I’m not sure the Victoria readership appreciated all the weirdo references I threw out in this piece, but everyone should get out of their comfort zone occasionally, right? ;-)

Note: The March article, Victoria’s Urban Forest, is also up on Scribd, and I’ll blog a short post on that one tomorrow.

“Timber!” or “Timber?”

January 21, 2009 at 4:50 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, canada, housing, land_use, victoria | 2 Comments

After attending today’s Urban Development Institute Luncheon on “The Story Behind the Six Storey Mid-rise Initiative” (with speaker Trudy Rotgans, Manager, Building and Safety Policy Branch in the BC Government), I have some additional thoughts on the topic (first broached from another angle here). As billed, the presentation’s topic was this:

You heard about it first back in September of 2008 when Housing and Social Development Minister, Rich Coleman, announced the province would increase the limit on wood-frame construction from four to six storeys by the beginning of this year. Since then, a detailed and intensive round of consultations and studies were undertaken looking at everything from seismic testing and wood shrinkage to fire fighting capacity. Also tied to this initiative is the government’s focus on finding ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Minister Coleman asserts six storey wood-frame buildings allow us to reap “the environmental benefits of density while preserving the character of [our] communities.”

Come find out where the conversation started, what questions and answers popped up along the way, and whether or not six-storey wood-frame has been both safe and successful in any area comparable to Victoria.

First, I found it useful to see the frame (as it were) for building codes. Their roots lie in disasters – London’s Great Fire, or incidents involving New York City’s firefighters or earthquakes up and down the Pacific Rim of Fire.

Seeing that frame made me think about how building codes are reactive creatures, and how once they’re in place, they stay in place. This happens even if they outlive their usefulness because there’s no apparent reason to shift them. Fires and earthquakes are never “outlived,” of course, which means that the only good reason for a code to outlive its usefulness is if building technology shifts in a significant way. But then it’s a major effort to do the shifting because fires and earthquakes obviously don’t change their nature.

For some silly reason, I had always thought about codes as something proactive (not reactive), as something that pushes us or builders toward better quality. Their reactive quality had escaped me. So, ok, reality check: codes are not proactive, generally. They are essentially reactive creatures. That was the first part that made me go “hmm.”

For if it’s the case that the code is reactive, there have to be equally compelling reasons to shift it. This moves the heavy lifting into the court of the proponents who want to revamp the code to allow for changes, in this case to allow six-story wood construction.

Readers in other countries where more-than-four-story wood construction is already a given, bear with me. It’s a whole new frontier here.

Speaker Trudy Rotgans correctly noted that, given some of the hoarier aspects of our building code, some assumptions about the code are “worth challenging.”  And indeed they were when Rich Coleman (Minister for Housing, BC) approved the amendment for wood construction on January 9, 2009 (effective April 6, 2009).

As she delivered her presentation, questions regarding the government’s motivation to change the code arose almost immediately, and Rotgans answered that certainly, the Canadian Wood Council (an industry goup) has been working on these revisions for several years. There’s nothing wrong, in my view, with admitting that BC’s forest industry could benefit from the leveling of a playing field that currently favors one material over another (concrete and steel over wood) for mid-rise construction, or for the government to look for ways to help one our key industries.

But by lessening some of the code’s more reactive measures, the government hasn’t simultaneously built into the revamped code anything proactive in my naive sense of the term: there’s nothing in there, from what I could gather from today’s presentation, to ensure quality. When (in my May 13, 2008 entry) I linked to E3 Kaden + Klingbeil’s Berlin project (7 storey wood construction, video here), I was thinking of quality wood construction.

No builder here would get any benefit – time, money – from building like they do in Berlin. It’s more likely that the usual techniques – relatively slight wood-framing, plywood sheathing, fibreglass between the studs, and drywall to finish the interior – will be used. And if that’s the case, then you have to wonder whether it’s worth it.

It won’t necessarily be cheaper to build in wood with quality craftsmanship and attention to the building’s durability, its sound-proofing and fire-proofing aspects. (The Berlin building is certainly durable, it must be as good as sound-proof, and it doesn’t look like fire could do much damage. It has LEED or environmental advantages, but I wonder whether the financial bottom line was that much better than an equally good concrete building’s.)

Yet a desired cost-advantage was what had some of us wishing for the mid-rise initiative. We have a housing crisis, and many of us hoped that it would prompt builders to take advantage of savings to construct more housing at a lower cost, whether rental housing or condos.

So that brings us back to code: the architects and builders I spoke to after the lunch were skeptical. As one of them put it, “who’s going to go first?” Who will build – using the North American West’s notorious (imo) fast-food equivalent of suburban house construction techniques to build 6-story condos or apartments? Which insurer of home buyers will back it? Which builders’ organization will?

I’m usually relentlessly optimistic, but today’s presentation didn’t convince me. By simply taking away some of the reactive aspects of the code, the framers of the new amendments didn’t put anything proactive in place. It’s left to the builders themselves to re-invent the wheel, and it’s going to be an expensive wheel (so there goes the affordable housing hope) if they go the quality route.

I think most builders want to build quality. The diehard cynics who think everyone is on the make 24/7 will disagree, arguing that builders are waiting for a chance to throw up crap. That’s untrue. From what I sensed in today’s crowd – and it was a sold-out event – there was a real measure of disappointment that these building code amendments don’t really show a way forward.

Canadian cities in a quagmire?

December 19, 2008 at 6:56 pm | In affordable_housing, canada, cities, housing, justice, social_critique, street_life, vancouver | Comments Off

We’re experiencing an exceptional cold weather spell in southwestern British Columbia, and last night a 47-year old homeless woman died in Vancouver.  She burned to death, trying to keep warm with a live fire; the police think her blankets must have caught fire. The story is all over the news of course, including here: Woman’s body discovered in burning shopping cart.  Like so many others, she kept her possessions – and at night, herself – in a shopping cart.  The cart, enclosed by blankets, became her pyre.  Unlike many people who are homeless, she was also a drug addict and shelter-resistant (someone who refuses to use shelters).

Regardless of where you stand on the issues surrounding homelessness, shelters, affordable housing, and what to do about people who are mentally ill or drug addicted, there’s one thing that struck me in the news item.  It showed once again that Canadian cities don’t have the autonomy they need, and that they will continue to face unique problems because of this lack.

I’ve written several times that it’s wrong that cities in Canada are “creatures of the Provinces” that don’t have real powers while simultaneously the senior levels of government have downloaded (or offloaded, the terms are used interchangeably) more and more responsibilities to them.  Trying to solve homelessness with the limited abilities to raise money that cities in Canada have is a huge challenge.  Compound this with problems posed by people who are seriously mentally ill or drug addicted, and you get a quagmire.

Quagmire, as in beyond “mere” crisis.

Tracey, the woman who died, was approached three times by Vancouver police and asked if she would come inside into a shelter.  She refused, and got quite angry by the third try, which took place around 12:30 a.m. Dec.19.  By 4:30, she had set herself alight.  What’s the city to do?

Here’s what the article says:

[Gregor] Robertson [Vancouver's newly-elected mayor] is considering other ways to remove mentally ill people from the streets in life and death circumstances.

“We can’t literally let people die on our streets that can’t take care of themselves,” he said. “That’s immoral in my mind.”

One of the options is a program called “Code Blue,” where outreach workers can forcibly bring people inside if they’re believe to suffer from mental illness. It’s used in New York when temperatures dip below -9 C.

“It is something to look at,” says Rev. Bruce Curtiss of Vancouver’s Union Gospel Mission. “If someone is out there and not in a capacity for whatever reason.”

A final decision could not be made by the city and would rest with B.C.’s provincial government. There’s concern a Canadian version of Code Blue would be unconstitutional.

“The issue there really is ‘are we barred by the charter of rights and freedom from implementing that particular system or is there some other approach that our government could use to help someone like this individual?’” said B.C. Solicitor General John Van Dongen.

Yes, and while the B.C. Solicitor General studies the problem and the city consults with its lawyers, more people will die.

Remember that Vancouver, alone among Canada’s cities (at least in the West) has a Charter of its own, and therefore more autonomy than other Canadian cities.  (It’s a unique fluke that Vancouver has a charter, as far as I understand it. Lucky Vancouver.)

But even Vancouver is hog-tied, if not by the Province (of which, even with a Charter, it is still a “creature”), but also by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which seems to have been concocted at a heady time when all freedoms (especially in the abstract …sorry, do I sound jaundiced?) seemed like a great idea and no one considered that cities would be the refuge of people who are homeless – a difficult enough situation in itself – but who might also pose extra challenges if they are in addition mentally incapacitated or drug addicted to the point where they will simply die on the street unless forced to survive (by being sheltered).

Oh, and don’t forget: Canadian cities are supposed to “solve” all this downloaded misery with 8-cents from every dollar that Canadians pay in taxes, and with property and business taxes they collect from the folks in their municipality. They can’t float bonds and they can’t collect income or consumption taxes.

Quagmire.

Vancouver Sun article: “Shelters turned away homeless 40,000 times in nine months”

May 23, 2008 at 3:09 pm | In affordable_housing, canada, cities, homelessness, housing, social_critique | Comments Off

Ok, tell me you don’t find this story by Vancouver Sun’s Frances Bula rather alarming: Shelters turned away homeless 40,000 times in nine months? I wonder if there’ll be follow-ups, and whether the count that people were turned away 40,000 times over a nine month period is accurate. If it is, then that’s proof that the Province isn’t doing nearly enough to get a handle on housing, housing affordability, addictions, mental health, and homelessness — not to mention on the portfolio of Children and Families. It seems that of those 40,000 times that people were turned away, it happened almost 16,000 times to women and children.

What a society… No federal housing policy in Canada, obviously nothing much on the Provincial level — and yet the Province is swimming in money, with new gas exploration licenses bringing in something on the order of half a billion dollars?

Look, the cities are bearing the brunt of this crisis. Memo to Province: fix it! Give the cities the tools, kick municipal leaders into action in the right way, do whatever is needed.

Victoria’s problems around homelessness are growing all the time, too — see Rob Randall’s blog entry on the proposed Ellice Street shelter relocation: authorities are telling the neighbours they expect the count of people who are homeless to decline in number. Well, I doubted that when I read it then, but in the wake of Bula’s article now, I really doubt it.

Building taller buildings: in wood, not reinforced concrete

May 13, 2008 at 10:55 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, housing | Comments Off

An article in today’s local media reports that British Columbia’s Premier Gordon Campbell is proposing changes to the province’s building code to allow wood-frame construction for buildings taller than 4 floors.

Going higher … using wood
Canwest News Service
Published: Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A plan by the province to raise the minimum height for wood-framed apartment buildings to encourage more use of the province’s timber is receiving strong support from builders.

Premier Gordon Campbell told mayors attending a Whistler convention he wants to support the province’s forest industry by allowing the construction of wood-framed condominiums above the current four-storey limit.

Housing Minister Rich Coleman told the Canadian Home Builders’ Association he wants to see wood-framed building up to six storeys high. Coleman said the necessary building code changes could be accomplished through regulatory change and could be in place by September.

B.C. is already pushing the limit under the National Building Code by going as high a four-storeys in wood, said architect Richard Kadulski, but going higher, is doable, he said. [Article here.]

Sean Holman of Public Eye Online asks, “So where did the Campbell administration get the inspiration for this plan?” And answers as follows:

Well, back in February, International Forest Products Ltd. vice president Ric Slaco attended a Campbell administration climate action meeting. And, at the meeting, Mr. Slaco delivered a PowerPoint presentation [*] urging the government to promote British Columbia wood products by making “BC’s Building Code and procurement policies wood-centric” and expanding the province’s wood first policy to private buildings. This, as part of an effort to increase wood product use in construction for both environmentally and economic reasons. Fancy that! [Article here.] [* note: the presentation links to a 30-page PDF, worth clicking through on.]

Hotly debated already are safety issues (fire, seismic issues) and feasibility of building “that high” using wood. But for those willing to brave a bit of German, here’s a link (via Architekturvideo.de) to a company in Berlin (E3 and Kaden + Klingbeil) that’s building the first 7-story building in wood in that city. It’s causing a stir there, too, because people just assume that stone is what endures, concrete is a decent second place, and wood just doesn’t rate — it rots. But if you watch the video, you’ll be convinced that it’s entirely possible. I have to admit that their construction techniques are spectacular, almost over-engineered, and I have no idea whether BC’s builders will be held to quite that sort of standard. If the buildings are to last, however, maybe BC builders and architects should check out the Kaden +Klingbeil video and pick up a few tricks.

Note that current building codes in Berlin allow for wood construction up to 5 stories, so this project (E3) is breaking that barrier.  Note also that it has to meet very stringent fire code regulations: if you watch the video, you’ll see that basically all the wood (except for some ceiling panels) is covered up with thick slabs of fire-blocking material, which is why the building doesn’t look like it’s made of wood.  The architect also talks about how energy efficient the building is, as well as the building method.  There’s a lot of carbon off-setting in this construction material (which is what the BC PDF emphasizes, too).  In addition, the architect mentions that this building took only one third of the time to build as opposed to concrete construction.  In other words, you can get people into housing faster using wood.

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