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Vancouver will always be expensive. The answer is to build more housing—and transit—outside the city

The speech to the Urban Development Institute (UDI)—before 1,000 developers, politicians and their friends at the Hotel Vancouver ballroom on Thursday afternoon— started inauspiciously. Bob Rennie, the acclaimed condo marketer and UDI keynote speaker for the past 14 years, was having trouble being heard over a poor AV system. After 30 seconds of fiddling with the microphone, he yelled out: “I don’t control the technology. I only control the message!”

For observers of the Vancouver housing market, this rang true in more ways than one: much of the way Vancouver, and indeed the Lower Mainland, has developed over the past two decades is thanks to Rennie. His firm, Rennie Marketing Systems, helped stoke the region’s love for condos, while his personal sway over builders and politicians is evident in projects ranging from Olympic Village to Woodward’s to “the Amazing Brentwood.” And while the region becomes ever more expensive, his message remains constant: “Supply is the only solution.”

While that message remains the same, ironically the theme of his UDI talk was “it’s time to change the narrative.” Not away from more supply, but rather the idea that it’s possible to create “affordable” single-family housing in the city of Vancouver, or that people who work in Vancouver can live in Vancouver (to house everybody who works in Vancouver would require an additional 76,000 dwellings for an additional 197,000 residents, he noted). On the politically charged topic of a foreign ownership tax, he said bluntly: “It won’t change supply or demand one iota” and would only stoke racial tensions within neighbourhoods. The Chinese, he said, “actually want to live here, not just invest here.”

Rennie argued forcefully that the future of affordability lies in the region, not the city proper. It’s hard to change the “expensive” brand of Vancouver, especially given the challenge of densifying established city neighbourhoods (“If you have a no tower sign on your front lawn,” he said at one point, referring to the neighbourhood group opposed to Boffo Properties’ tower off Commercial Drive, “then you have no right to talk to your children about affordability”). Burnaby’s condo prices, he pointed out, are half those of Vancouver, while in Surrey, they’re 35 cents on the dollar. With better transit lines—largely paid for by developers granted increased density around those lines—people could live anywhere in the region and get to work in a reasonable time. And with more employers like Telus encouraging workers to telecommute, the importance of a downtown core like Vancouver’s diminishes, he added.

As always, Rennie came armed with a treasure trove of facts to support his case for density—and also, through a new partnership with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a case for lowering the homebuyer’s tax burden (purportedly 37 per cent of the cost of a new house is taxes).

Still, the issue of affordability is increasingly emotional. “Nobody wants the facts,” admitted Rennie. “Donald Trump showed us that you cannot address emotional issues with just data—that you cannot address emotional issues with just policy. You can only address emotion with emotion—but only once we have the data.” As for how that emotion should ultimately be addressed—or by whom—that remained unanswered by Rennie. On that message, at least, he has no control.

Read elsewhere
How Vancouver lost its affordability and its mind. A graphic illustration of how real estate got so expensive. (Vancouver Sun)

Want a casino in your neighbourhood? BCLC is looking for places to build new ones. (CBC)