Vancouver’s experiment with mixed-income housing broke new ground. But to what extent is it a replicable model?
When Bob Rennie set out to sell 536 glitzy condominiums in the Woodward’s complex next to 200 units of Downtown Eastside social housing, Vancouver’s real estate marketer extraordinaire took a self-described leap of “blind faith,” one that people told him would ruin his career.
“I was convinced that Woodward’s would work,” Rennie says, leaning over a round table in the corner of the austere, cement-walled coffee shop below his Chinatown office. Rennie’s choice of slogan for the Woodward’s marketing campaign, “an intellectual property,” pointed to the highbrow allure of the theatre, gallery and university campus included in the complex. But it also hinted at a slightly deeper faith in the buyer’s appreciation of the in-your-face diversity Woodward’s offered.
“It wasn’t just a bet on selling that complex,” he says, gazing out the window to the bustling streetscape outside. “I was placing a bet on mankind.”
The bet paid off: the Woodward’s condos sold out within hours of going on the market. But to UBC sociologist Richard Carpiano, it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. According to his research, wealthy buyers have every reason to choose to live among economic diversity.
In 2009 Carpiano and his colleagues asked how levels of affluence in a neighbourhood affect the development of children living there. After reviewing the scores of almost 38,000 children in over 400 neighbourhoods throughout B.C. on a test indicating their readiness for school, Carpiano found that children actually thrived the most in neighbourhoods with a relatively equal proportion of affluent and disadvantaged families.
He attributes the results partially to the presence of services aimed at assisting lower-income residents, which in turn benefit wealthier residents as well. But he also suspects the results have to do with the greater access to what sociologists refer to as “social capital,” surmising that increased neighbourhood diversity allows a wider range of residents to invest themselves in the community.
Carpiano’s findings, which were published in the academic journal Social Science and Medicine, added a surprising new angle to existing sociological research. While many studies point out the benefits mixed-income neighbourhoods provide to less-fortunate residents, Carpiano’s findings also suggested that the more affluent citizens benefit as well. Living among diversity, Carpiano found, is actually good for everyone.
Vancouver's neighbourhood diversity
Vancouver has been no stranger to neighbourhood diversity since the early 1970s, when the city decided to develop the industrial land lining False Creek’s south shore between the Cambie and Burrard street bridges into a residential neighbourhood with an equal mix of low-, middle- and high-income groups. The goal in the neighbourhood was to replicate the demographic composition of the entire city within the confines of a single neighbourhood. Then, in 1988, the city passed a policy requiring that 20 per cent of the unit potential in all new neighbourhoods be made available for the development of affordable housing. The idea was to avoid concentrating affordable housing in a few areas.
In fact, nearly every neighbourhood in Vancouver, from the Downtown Eastside to Yaletown and Point Grey – with the notable exceptions of Shaughnessy and Kerrisdale – has some element of social housing. But that has mostly been the government’s doing. Only recently have private developers been eager to jump into the game.
“More and more, we’re seeing developers willing to contemplate that type of mix,” says Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s director of city planning. “I think Woodward’s was an important catalyst for making that idea more interesting for the development industry.”