Posts Tagged ‘unaffordability’

Everybody works but the vacant lot

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Condo artwork by artist Alex Grünenfelder
Everybody works but the vacant lot, Henry George as quoted by Fay Lewis

This is a parody artwork at Vancouver’s 221A Artist-Run Centre, parodying the “Micro Loft” building being erected next door to it in the current lightning-fast condo land rush taking place in Chinatown.

From their website:

221A is pleased to present Cube Living (Phase 2), a 4-week artist-in-residence with artist and designer Alex Grünenfelder, running from January 23 to February 25, 2013. Grünenfelder will examine how real estate developments operate as containers that capture living space as urban spatial commodities through the packaging of bodies, objects, lifestyles, identities, capital and politics.
Grünenfelder will begin a limited release of micro-properties measuring 1 cubic foot. This innovative product addresses the stagnation and endemic unaffordability of Vancouver’s real estate market. In developing a spatial commodity that can be purchased in very small units, Cube Living is able to offer affordable properties at prices under $50! Micro-properties are an accessible solution to the inflated real estate market crisis that threatens to push Vancouver’s economy into decline.

Many Vancouver residents find it difficult or impossible to enter the market. Despite government urban densification policies that have brought 10,000 new condo units to the city each year, [1] Vancouver remains the second least-affordable city in the world. [2]

Vancouver has experienced explosive real estate development since 1986. In the 2000s, then-mayor Sam Sullivan’s Ecodensity program initiated radical urban densification with the aim of promoting housing affordability and environmentally sustainable neighbourhoods. Pundits declared that flooding the market with new condos would result in more affordable—or at least stable—prices, so that new buyers could purchase small units and eventually trade up into a larger living space. Buildings got taller and condos got smaller, but prices have kept rising. Development and construction hasn’t been able to meet the goal of affordability and now the city is faced with a dire situation.

“The current property market is almost saturated. Sales are in decline because people can’t afford to lower their asking prices. We need to expand into new markets, and the only way to produce a lower tier of affordable entry-level properties is to create highly liquid, easily tradeable micro-spaces. This is the only way to address the affordability crisis within our market-driven real-estate economy.”

[1]RBC. “Vancouver’s housing market: moderation in store but vulnerable to a harsher outcome.” April 2012. Page 6.

[2]Demographia. “9th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survery: 2013”. Page 2.


221A website, twitter, Facebook event.

Art and cooperatives in the economy

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

Elvy del Bianco on art and cooperatives

Photo by Dan Toulgoet , Vancouver Courier – Elvy Del Bianco presents rare films shot in Vancouver between 1964 and 1988 at the Waldorf Hotel in 2011.

This is one of the more interesting short talks I’ve listened to, and I’m posting it here in the hope that it gets wider distribution. It was presented by Elvy Del Bianco, a researcher with major BC credit union VanCity, itself a cooperative. Del Bianco’s position at VanCity is quite unique; his job is to research the relationship between arts and innovation and promote a cooperative business model in an attempt to foster social capital locally. What is social capital? Well, the short answer is that it’s the various benefits of cooperation. Del Bianco explains using the model of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, one of the most profitable in the EU thanks to its “lego economics” in which smaller businesses (balsamic vinegar, parmesan, even Ferrari) combine resources to leverage economic power. Culture both plays a role in and benefits from this model. It is also interesting to note that the region is not just wealthy but is one of the most democratic anywhere, with a small income gap in what is historically a left-wing Italian heartland with a long history of employee-owned companies.

Below is Del Bianco’s 6-minute talk at Vancouver’s Pecha Kucha, and it’s well worth watching no matter where you live. The audio is a little challenging at points, and as I found out when I spoke at Pecha Kucha, you have to speak quickly if you want to fit complex ideas into a 6 minute spiel. But it’s an extremely interesting talk. His comments the challenges facing arts and culture in Vancouver are interesting; he talks about condo development speculation driving unaffordability, as well as the massive, unique-in-Canada massive cuts to cultural investment on the part of BC’s provincial government.

Bianco is himself an artist, having worked many years as an actor after training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He grew up in East Vancouver.

Berlin’s skyrocketing housing costs and hipster proliferation

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

The above video by a Berliner complains about Berlin’s influx of hipsters, addressing them directly in its conclusion:

“Please stop to face your neighbourhood… it matters if you try to live in Neukölln or whether you just live your imported party here. Just because the fucked up free market economy expects us, for example, to satisfy your wishes because you have the money and the power (at least afterwards) even though you refuse to believe in this fact now because you prefer to feel poor.. but that’s not the truth and you know that.” The video’s observations echo this critique of hipster culture.

The Guardian takes a different view, blaming Berlin’s skyrocketing living costs and rapid gentrification not on hipsters or artists, but on a world financial crisis that caused those with capital to invest in property rather than in the stock market. It’s all in the title: “Berlin’s housing bubble and the backlash against hipster tourists:
Skyrocketing housing costs in Berlin can’t be blamed on an influx of ‘foreigners’, but are in fact fuelled by the global financial crisis.”

I think both analyses contain some truth. They’re concurrent and not unrelated problems. On the hipster side it points to some problems with the whole creative class/creative city argument, but haranguing hipsters into better behaviour is no solution. The solution would be structural, a rights-based approach to housing policy. The Guardian writer concludes,”these are no natural forces. They can be kept in check with the right policies, like a cap on rents or laws against property speculation. Decent, affordable housing is a basic right, for locals as well as for international students, artists and layabouts.”

It is good to actually see housing actually being considered a human right in the press; the rights-based approach is mentioned far too seldom in the media let alone among policy-makers who have mostly been sucked into believing that private enterprise can fix the housing unaffordability problem. It can’t, and it won’t.

On the gentrification side, look at this critique of what’s happening to neighbourhoods in San Francisco and New York (High Line). Or hey, anything happening in Vancouver, a world capital of property-as-investment rather than property-as-shelter.

Mumbai, Vancouver, same complaints

Friday, May 18th, 2012


When I was in India in February, I stayed with a designer friend in Mumbai. He has lived for 20 years in a beautiful heritage building that was originally built as an orphanage. It is a great mixed-use building with flats housing different income classes, offices, and on the ground level a potted plant nursery. It sits in a former commercial/light industrial/lo-rise residential area, a neighbourhood that is a model of good mixed use. Sadly it is now quickly being overtaken by generic luxury condo towers. This has driven neighbourhood property values through the roof, and the orphanage is now to be torn down for a glass tower. My friend says when the buiding comes down he will leave Mumbai, the city where he grew up. A very successful designer, it’s not that he couldn’t afford to stay. It’s that he doesn’t feel like watching the city be destroyed by this process.

Mumbai was doing extremely well with heavy low-rise density, housing millions of people close to where they work. It is now dangerously unaffordable, and by unaffordable I don’t just mean by local Indian standards but by international standards. What will this mean for the city? My friend’s story is instructive. He grew up relatively poor in one of these dense lo-rise buildings. Because of the summer heat, residents of the building kept their flat doors open to allow a cross draft through the building. As a result, children ran freely from one flat to the next. My friend said he tended to eat dinner wherever the food looked interesting that day. He was effectively raised by the village that came into being via the design of that dense 4-storey building and its lack of air-conditioning. He credits some of his international success to growing up in this friendly, crowded but livable matrix, a matrix that will soon disappear.

Vancouver, while it’s the 2nd most unaffordable city in the world relative to median income, suffers from a problem that is clearly also global. And that problem is a housing problem created by lack of regulation and by developers perverting local civic processes. Like the person with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail, real estate industry people see cities as nothing more than real estate operations. Their increasingly unimpeded control of city halls all over the globe, just another part of the last 30 disastrous years of deregulation, is having an extremely destructive effect on urban fabric, ruining cities and introducing speculation into a market that should only be for housing people, not homes-as-commodities.

When’s this going to stop? We need density. But we better pretty careful what building form of density we’re going to allow. Even with regulations, developers will be able to make money. They always do. But they can’t be allowed to make our cities unaffordable and unlivable.

For those who didn’t see the recent post, see Richard Florida’s The Limits of Density. And Northrop Frye on condo culture.

On the freeway in Mumbai


Mumbai apartments


Mumbai apartments

Women in saris, Mumbai


Mumbai sign

Pedestrian-friendly, high density, low-rise neighbourhoods in Mumbai, the sort of urban fabric Jane Jacobs advocated for.

Mumbai teahouse

Mumbai building bound for demolition
Stairwell railing in the orphanage bound for demolition. Below, taken from the sleeping loft in a top-floor Mumbai loft, inside a beautiful old orphanage building.

“I’ve been told that the tallest building in hell has an awesome view of the emerald city”

Monday, May 14th, 2012

Heard those lyrics over the car radio last week. I did not know that the Emerald City was close enough to hell that you could actually see it from there, but that whole geography sounds a lot like Vancouver.

As everybody knows, the Emerald City is the fictional capital city in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But many forget the details: the city’s outer walls are green, but the the city itself, with its tall glass towers, is not; it only appears so because all who enter the Emerald City are required to wear green-tinted eyeglasses. Supposedly this is to protect their eyes from the “brightness and glory” of the city, but in effect it only makes everything appear green when the city is, in fact, “no more green than any other city. Sound familiar, Vancouver?

Baum’s Oz series, beginning with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was written in the U.S. during the financial crisis of the 1890s. Everyone knows the story of Oz, but not everyone knows that it is in part a political economic allegory based on early features of the takeover of the economy and politics by lending institutions, a phenomenon with which we’re now all too familiar. The yellow brick road represented the gold currency standard; Dorothy’s shoes were silver and represented the quantitative easing that Baum and a majority of the struggling population, especially the agricultural south, were clamouring for. But I digress.

I consider myself an environmentalist and am deeply in favour of green urban planning—when it’s real. I was initially in favour of Vision Vancouver’s “Greenest City Initiative,” but that support has evaporated. Read it for yourself; it’s smoke and mirrors and contains nothing substantive. Tall, speculation-driven glass condo towers are almost certainly not green (see link above). They cause numerous problems, are the opposite of energy efficient, have no longevity, and don’t bring adequate density to offset the resources they use and the extreme property value distortions they create. The Greenest City Initiative, resting as it does far too heavily on highrises built by megadevelopers , is the green sunglasses of Oz. I wonder what property values are like in the Emerald City? And what’s the point of a policy that contributes to a commuter city no workers can afford to live in? By the way, the ever-present highrise policy is noticeably de-emphasized on the GCI website.

Let’s remember that the Emerald City’s magical wizard turned turned out to be a secretive, inaccessible, fraudulent little guy behind a curtain, creating grand illusions with smoke and projections.

I know I’m probably getting repetitive on this topic, and it’s only going to get worse. History itself is getting painfully repetitive.

Vancouver hosted the first ever global conference on green cities: UN Habitat Conference on Human Settlements, 1976. How far we have fallen.

UPDATE: Read The Limits of Density:
“Density does not always demand high-rises,” notes McMahon. “Skyscrapers are a dime a dozen in today’s world. Once a low rise city or town succumbs to high-rise mania, many more towers will follow, until the city becomes a carbon-copy of every other city in a ‘geography of nowhere.'”

PPS. from Wikipedia:

In Gregory Maguire‘s revisionist Oz novels… the Emerald City is an even darker place than in Baum’s novels. It does have splendid palaces and gardens, but also sections beset by crime and poverty… The green glasses that are worn by the citizens are often used as a way to stop them seeing what is going on around them. Video Game Emerald City Confidential portrays the Emerald City as a film noir place with private detectives, widespread corruption, mob bosses, smugglers, and crooked lawyers. Set 40 years after the events of The Wizard of Oz, it’s described as “Oz, seen through the eyes of Raymond Chandler“.[16]

PPPS. Light at the end of the tunnel? “Hey Toronto condo owner: Why so glum?