The Pro-Density Movement Giving NIMBYs a Run for Their Money

Skyrocketing rents and stagnant housing in Vancouver and San Francisco have young people showing up to city council to say a firm 'Yes' to density in their metaphorical back yards.

March 30, 2017

By Gabrielle Lakusta / Photo: Heritage Vancouver Society

There’s a new movement springing up in Vancouver aimed at counteracting the Not-In-My-Back-Yard resistance to development and density that has for decades been a dominant force at City Hall. The pro-density group Abundant Housing Vancouver started in July with the express goal of rallying people to say yes to the kind of radical development that might just make a dent in the city’s housing crisis. The end game of the pro-density “YIMBY” movement is to have more high-density, transit-oriented rental developments pop up throughout the city—even in the single-family neighbourhoods once considered hallowed ground.

More than 80 per cent of residential zones in Vancouver don’t allow for apartment buildings or other forms of high-density housing, points out Danny Oleksiuk, a member of Abundant Housing Vancouver. But in a city with a zero percent vacancy rate where more than half the population rents, policies like that prevent core housing needs from being met. And while the city’s new Housing Reset strategy does include introducing “gentle” density into single-family neighbourhoods, the duplexes, basement suites and townhouses proposed just won’t cut it, says Oleksiuk. “To ban apartment buildings when there’s not enough housing is really bad policy,” he says. Noting his group organizes people to attend public hearings to speak in support of new developments and encourage more density and housing of all types.

For years, the overwhelming majority of people attending public hearings to oppose new developments have been single-family homeowners who don’t want an influx of renters changing the character of residential neighbourhoods and scooping up their parking spots, Oleksiuk says. When other residents attend these meetings who are pro-density, they can give different opinions so new housing might have the opportunity to be built. “We want to show support, these meetings are public so anyone can attend,” Oleksiuk says. Since starting the group, members have rallied in support of new housing at rezoning hearings, held walking tours to educate people on Vancouver’s zoning policies, and written an open letter to the city urging them to reconsider its current single-family zoning. There are six founders helping with the group and over 1,000 supporters in the group but, anyone is welcome to join by signing up for their mailing list or visiting their website to see what events are coming up. The group is already being contacted by hopeful individuals in other municipalities wanting to start similar groups.

Apartment and condo towers need to become commonplace throughout Vancouver, not just in the downtown, according to a new pro-density movement. (Photo: Percy)

While the YIMBY movement in its official capacity might be new to Vancouver, its already taken root in other cities facing similar housing crises. Sonja Trauss, a speaker at tonight’s (March 30) Real Estate Development talks, started the San Francisco Bay Renters Federation (SFBARF) as a response to the city’s insane housing costs. Like Vancouver, San Francisco has the highest rent in its country, but with the going rate for a one-bedroom apartment at more than $3,500, San Fancisco makes Vancouver’s housing crisis seem small time.

Trauss started her organization by inviting friends to attend public hearings concerning new housing development proposals in the city, and she’s now going into her third year of working full-time with the group. The problems that San Francisco faces are a little different than Vancouver’s—in SF many zones allow apartment buildings but new developments still aren’t being built. SFBARF and other groups are lobbying to change zoning through back-door strategies that allow people to add more buildings to existing developments as long as they’re still on the same property envelope.

And the group is getting results. Since SFBARF began, rent in San Fransciso has slightly decreased as more rental housing has been built. The demand is still high, but the housing market has begun to respond and many more pro-density groups have also cropped up. “It’s better to have many small groups in politics, instead of one huge group,” said Trauss, noting it makes a bigger impact when many different groups show up to development hearings and demonstrate a diversity of support on the issue. “It’s similar to backlash of Trump being elected, people are starting to realize they can do it too,” she explains.

Oleksiuk is hoping for a similar outcome in Vancouver, where most public hearings for new developments take place in the evening and are easy to attend for people who work full-time. This doesn’t require massive protesting, or any at all; simply showing up to a public hearing and giving your opinion is all it takes to help new housing get built, says Oleksiuk, noting there is power in numbers when it comes to counteracting the dominant voices of single-family residents. “If people went and saw how the residents speak and what they say, I think it would motivate a lot more people to show up to these meetings,” he says. Oleksiuk will also be speaking as part of the YIMBY panel at the upcoming housing forum held by the Vancouver Board of Trade.

Anyone interested in joining Abundant Housing’s can sign up for a mailing list to know when meetings are taking place. Or check on city council’s website to see the schedule.

Post updated April 4 2017

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