Homelessness is a big issue in Vancouver, BC. Most people agree on that, but what gets less agreement is the methods with which homelessness can be reduced.
With a few small exceptions, most BC residents do not think the government — federal, provincial, or municipal — is doing an adequate job of addressing homelessness. Tensions surrounding the Vancouver Downtown Eastside and the tent city that formed on East Hastings Street last month only drew even more attention to the issue, particularly as it relates to the government's role.
Homelessness is undoubtedly going to be one of the top issues in this fall's local elections. Elected officials are supposed to execute the will of the people, so it's important, then, to identify what it is the people want. A poll conducted by Research Co. earlier this month amongst approximately 800 BC residents tried to do just that, quantifying how people feel about various possible methods to reduce homelessness.
Methods To Address The Madness
The methods raised to respondents were: "changing zoning laws to allow property owners to build more units on standard lots", "offering incentives to developers if they focus on building affordable housing units", "devoting tax money to build units to house homeless residents", and "increasing temporary housing options for people experiencing homelessness." Respondents were then asked to rate how strongly they felt about those options: "strongly agree", "moderately agree", "moderately disagree", "strongly disagree", or "not sure."
With "strongly agree" and "moderately agree" grouped together, the method that got the most agreement, at 80%, was "increasing temporary housing options." That seems overly-broad and like a no-brainer, but the keyword here is "temporary." The poll did not define the term, which could technically include month-to-month rentals, but is likely worded with things like emergency shelters and Single Room Occupancy units in mind. Nonetheless, many signs indicate that Vancouver is short on affordable and temporary housing of all kinds. A big reason tent cities such as the one that formed on East Hastings last month even exist is because many literally have no place to go.
The method that garnered the second-most agreement was offering incentives to affordable housing developers, at 78%. The City of Vancouver has actually had an incentive program like this for a few years now, called the Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program. In an official FAQ document, the city said the program "incentivizes the development of new below-market rental housing across the city, and ensures that rents in a proportion of the units created are secured at permanently affordable rates and made available to moderate income households." The provincial government has similar incentives of its own. It's unclear how much these incentives have helped, however, but it's safe to say they likely do not hurt.
Devoting tax money towards building affordable housing drew the third-most agreement, at 67%. Nobody particularly enjoys paying taxes, but it's important to remember that taxation is what pays for the government to raise the standard of living. Who is taxed and how much they are taxed is, of course, critical. Vancouver has a famous Empty Homes Tax. Paul Kershaw, a professor at the UBC School of Population and Public Health and the founder of the "think and change tank" Generation Squeeze, recently proposed a federal tax that would see owners of homes valued at over $1M pay a tax, money which would then be diverted towards addressing the housing and affordability issues that plague places such as British Columbia and Ontario.
Lastly, was changing zoning laws to develop more housing, at 60%. This alludes to what is referred to as "density." No different than the traditional, scientific definition, increasing housing density means increasing the amount of housing without using extra horizontal space. What this usually looks like in practice, for a big metropolitan area like Vancouver, is more focus on multi-floored buildings, rather than single-detached homes. Again, the City of Vancouver has tried to facilitate this, with what they call "density bonusing" and "density relaxations." Recent TransLink SkyTrain expansion projects have also placed an emphasis on "transit-oriented" development, which is also related to density.
Actions To Address The Problems
None of these methods alone can solve the problem of homelessness in BC. (Let's be realistic: we can't solve homelessness; let's just aim to reduce it.) But all together, in conjunction with other methods, perhaps things can change.
In this same Research Co. poll, respondents were asked whether or not they believed homelessness had increased, decreased, or stayed in the same in the past three years. Forty-two percent of respondents said homelessness has increased in their neighbourhood. 63% said homelessness has increased in their municipality. 79% said homelessness has increased in BC. This indicates that while there is evidence that various levels of government have tried to address the issue of homelessness with the aforementioned four methods, it hasn't been enough.
Data shows that a majority of people agree with these four methods -- and that agreement held across all respondent demographics, including gender, age, ethnicity, region, income level, and the political party they voted for in 2020. This, indicates, perhaps, that these are solid methods, but they are just not being used adequately enough to affect change. Let's just hope that isn't because people are not taking the issue seriously enough. In Vancouver, that's yet enough thing we cannot afford.