Archive for resident attitudes

Solving the rental housing shortage and price challenge

Many dynamic cities throughout North America have a housing challenge.  Prices are high, whether people wish to rent or own.  In some neighbourhoods escalating prices may be pushing out people who have lived in the community for years, even helped to build it into a great place that is now desirable. Many communities may also be becoming less economically diverse as the minimum income needed to move in may be well above the regional average.

While some suggest trying to forbid any redevelopment or even substantial renovations to homes and buildings (that is, stopping gentrification), I don’t think this is a solution.  Communities are like organic entities. They grow, evolve and change constantly.  Trying to hold them back would be like magically making your cute 3 year old stay in her cute state forever–very quickly she would stop growing and developing, which is actually the very thing that makes her interesting and cute at any one stage.

What can help keep neighbourhoods more economically diverse, with housing for everyone, is greater density and greater flexibility of housing types in those communities where prices are escalating fast (that is, where demand to live there exceeds supply).

In the Vancouver metro area, and in many cities across Canada (and the world) people are starting to increase the value they place on: short commutes, walkable communities, transit-oriented communities, and living a more sustainable lifestyle (less auto use, for example).  If you want a healthier planet and environment, this is a good thing.  But it has the consequence of higher housing prices.

 In my view, the challenge in all of these cities is and will be two fold:

First, get people in existing walkable,’hoods with great transit to accept greater density: more neighbours. This can be what I’ve called “stealth” density (homes you don’t really see from the street) like laneway houses, basement suites, front-back duplexes, etc. It can, of course, also be apartment towers which are appropriate in certain places, or condos/apts over storefronts on busy streets.  If the supply of housing can increase, it will help prevent prices from rising further and maybe help them come down in a few places. And the city will also have to welcome proposals to provide more housing through a variety of creative approaches including reducing parking requirements for new homes in walkable, transit-oriented places.

 Second, steps need to happen to convert suburban areas that are currently more auto-centered into more walkable areas with amenities nearby.  This will also mean existing residents in these places accepting more density and even some new commercial uses in their areas.  You don’t get the customers for successful organic grocers, coffee bars, clothing stores, etc. without a lot of people living nearby, but increasingly you don’t get people wanting to live nearby without the grocers and cafes.  

 And housing of any type is helpful in making rental accommodations more affordable to those of modest means.  We need more purpose-built rental, more owner-occupied homes, more co-ops, more co-housing projects, more subsidized housing plans, and anything creative in between.  This will help push down prices, or at least stop their escalation in places with growing populations or growing demands.

Sometimes I hear renters’ rights groups protesting a city planning department giving a concession to a luxury rental project, claiming it doesn’t help the poor and middle income.  It does.  Any new housing that can pull people with high incomes out of existing lower-cost rental will help make room in a lower priced building for someone else who can’t afford the luxury options.

If we want lower cost housing, or at least housing prices to stop escalating, we need more of it–where people want to live.

Households as both renters and owners

Several friends of mine own a condominium unit but don’t live there.  Instead, they are renters when it comes to their family home (a larger condo, a townhouse, or the main floor of a small house).

Is this a uniquely Vancouver experience, or the start of a broader urban trend in North America?

Here’s how it has happened in Vancouver.  A young couple together buys a condo in the downtown area (Yaletown, Coal Harbour, etc.), maybe a 1 bedroom unit.   They love living and working in close proximity and in the walkable, amenity-rich milieu that higher density neighbourhoods can offer.

A few years later they decide to have a child or children, and quickly the 1 bedroom unit is too small.  Suburbia and long commutes offer no appeal and really nor does having that suburban house (with lawns to mow, gutters to clean and other time and money sinks).  They like being able to get to-and-from work quickly, allowing for more family time.  Plus, they have lots of friends with children downtown–this is their community.

But, if they want another, larger, downtown unit, the costs of selling the one bedroom and buying a larger condo or a townhouse is quite high (in part because of market lift since they first bought in).  By contrast, the cost of renting that larger condo or townhouse is much less, especially when offset by the rental income they can achieve from leasing their owned 1 bedroom unit.  (For example, rent out the well-located 1 bedroom for $1700 and then rent a larger place for $2200/month; by contrast buying the larger place might cost $3200/month–or more–in mortgage and condo fees; if they moved to a slightly less expensive neighbourhood still near downtown, they might be able to rent a large 2 bedroom place for the $1700).

They keep owning the 1 bedroom unit, as an investment.  The rent covers most of the mortgage and carrying costs initially, and over time as they pay down more of the principle, the rent fully–or more than–compensates for the carrying costs.

This scenario allows the family the benefits of old fashioned home ownership where they have a nest-egg at the end of 25 years, or equity should circumstances change and they wish to buy a different home.  It also allows them the flexibility of renting in terms of being able to move should employment needs change or if they need to relocate for children’s schooling.

Owning the 1 bedroom is also an investment in the city, to which they are also contributing as citizens who work and play there.

So what do you think? Is this a bizarre Vancouver anomaly? A once-in-a-market-cycle phenomenon? Or something that is happening or could happen in many other cities going forward?

(P.S. I’m now on Twitter)

Higher fuel, living green and a new normal for home prices?

Over the past few years, many urban residents have become increasingly interested in more sustainable as well as more time efficient lifestyles.  Thousands (even millions worldwide) are choosing to live closer to work, even if it means a smaller home–whether to save money, spare the environment or save time (or all three).

Simultaneous with the above there has been a significant escalation in housing prices in the older, urban cores of Toronto and especially Vancouver (much more than in their auto-centric suburbs).  (I’m still working on finding electronic stats showing the price shifts–post some links if you have them.)

Some argue this is a bubble.  Maybe.  But at least in my neighbourhood I don’t see one sign of bubble froth–speculation.  Families are buying these houses to live in, themselves, and to raise their children.  Flippers and speculators are rare.

Prices are quite possibly at a cyclical high (different from a bubble) and will ease off as mortgage rates start to rise.  But it’s also possible that Toronto and Vancouver have become New York and San Francisco North.  These US cities are places where geographic constraint combined with strong desires by millions to live there have pushed housing prices well above the national average and outside “normal metrics” of affordability.

As a result people live in smaller homes, rent out rooms or suites in larger homes, and accept the fact that more salary goes into housing than it would elsewhere resulting in other “sacrifices” like foregoing car ownership (or 2nd car ownership), or certain material expectations.

Maybe meeting expectations makes “cities” happy

Richard Florida has a new thought provoking piece on what makes cities happy.  Since cities are inanimate and cannot really be happy or sad, he seems to be referring to the aggregate mood of the people.

He and his colleagues look at the positive correlations between happiness and such things as income and having higher education levels.  And they note the negative correlation to lower education levels.

This made me think about political revolution theory.  More specifically the theory that societies are most prone to revolution when rising expectations fail to meet reality.  (This is the J-Curve model.)  The reverse also generally holds: revolutions are least likely when reality is matching rising expectations — because people are happy if their expectations for life are being met, or exceeded.

So, therefore, if a city is able to meet the rising expectations of people who live there, the citizens will appear to be happy by most measures.  I think this partially fits with Florida’s observations.

For example, he found that cities with high numbers of citizens with advanced education levels tend to be happier.  We could assume that these individuals have higher expectations for themselves, and also tend to meet them.  But we should probably watch out for situations in which those with higher education are not succeeding.

Florida also notes the lower levels of happiness among metro areas associated with the working class — their expectations for life have likely been dashed.
For political leaders a key issue may be to manage expectations.  For those of us just trying to understand cities, we may need to look beyond comparing such things as housing prices, average wages, and even education levels across cities.  For example, it may not matter to happiness if one city’s citizens have a lower living standard because of high costs; it matters more whether they expect something different.

Finally, a city celebrates its successes

Vancouver frequently receives positive accolades, whether as the world’s most livable city, for its sustainable nature, or as one of the more attractive tourist destinations in North America.

Despite these, or perhaps because of them, local residents and the media tend to focus on the problems the city has:  drug wars, homelessness and crime; as well as other challenges for residents like high housing costs, the fact that transit isn’t perfect, nor is the weather.

In the years and months leading up to hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, it seemed like everyone focused on the problems, and that protests about these would overshadow the global event.

And then the Olympic flame actually arrived.  Everyone came out to see it (or protest it, but more to see it and wave a flag at it).  And as everyone became acutely aware of being in the global spotlight, suddenly the citizens of the city decided to celebrate the positive — what they love about their city, and not the problems (which are hardly unique to large urban areas).

Major downtown shopping and urban thoughoughfares were closed to cars, allowing buskers, artists, athletes, sponsors and ordinary folks to mingle, cheer and participate. At first, thousands came out onto the streets.  And then tens of thousands.  And then perhaps more than that by the time Canada’s men’s hockey team won gold.

What were people celebrating:

That Vancouver is pedestrian friendly.  You can walk along the waterfront on seawalls, or through downtown streets that are always alive.

That the transit system worked, somewhat to the surprise of many.  And it worked spectacularly well.

That Vancouver is all about being surrounded by water: the False Creek Ferries and Aquabus were jammed, taking people around the creek between Granville Island and Yaletown / Downtown; the SeaBus was a crucial transit link to get spectators to mountain venues.  To me, a great symbol of this was the Olympic Rings being projected into sea-spray during the nightly fireworks and waterworks show.

That Vancouver is fun:  Whoever thought of putting the zip line across Robson Square was a genius.  It showed the whimsical and youthful side of the city, and reflected a unique activity possible at nearby Whistler and Grouse mountains.

This may well be another transformative event for the city and its residents, like Expo 86 but crammed into 17 days.  Although I expect residents demands to improve the city and not accept the foreign accolades at face value will continue, I also predict that locals will spend more time appreciating — and celebrating — what makes the city successful. Finally.

To my regular readers, I’ve spent the last two weeks enjoying the most phenomenal urban street party and experience.  Regular posts will resume next week — feel free to send me an e-mail with topic suggestions.

Automotive advertising and newspaper struggles

Many city newspapers in North America are struggling.  A few months back in a post I suggested it was because they were not covering local topics, instead picking up on non-analytical wire copy and propaganda media releases rather than reporting actual events.

The Global Urbanist has another theory, suggesting in a recent e-mail that newspaper declines are actually linked to a decline in advertising dollars from car companies and the fact that automotive-based commuters simply don’t have time to read the paper.
So s/he asks:

Why do newspapers have an automotive section?

On reviewing the world’s largest newspapers, I realized they circulated in regions with high transit use.  Japanese newspapers hold the top five spots in circulation numbers.   Japanese are also the largest users of passenger rail services.  Almost half of Tokyo’s 30 million residents commute by rail everyday. In the United States the top newspapers also correlate with the top mass transit centres with the exception of USA Today.  That exception could be explained as being the airline’s newspaper.  Daily airline passenger traffic in the U.S. is equivalent to almost half of New York City transit user traffic.

This makes sense since a train ride or a flight is the ideal environment to read a newspaper as opposed to the attention demands of driving an automobile.  So why do North American newspapers spend so many resources promoting automobile culture, and hardly any promoting transit?  Does the decline of transit culture in North America equate to the decline in daily newspaper readership?

Of course the answer is newspapers are funded by advertising, not readership.  There are a lot of advertising dollars coming from the automobile culture.  Whether it is a classified ad to buy or sell a used vehicle, an auto dealership promoting new deals, or a manufacturer promoting the upcoming model; there’s a lot of revenue coming in from drivers.  When was the last time Bombardier or Siemens promoted their latest rail innovation in the newspaper?  So newspapers are initially drawn by the advertising revenue from the automotive industry that leads to the long term detriment of their readership.

Today North American newspapers find themselves on a road to extinction.  On-line options get much of the blame, but these options are also available to Japanese, Germans, and British, all of whom maintain substantial readership numbers among their major newspapers.  The lengthening of the North American driving commute is as responsible if not the key factor to the decline of the continent’s newspaper industry.  When cars drive themselves or there’s significant increase in mass transit traffic the industry might start to recover.  Metro International is the fastest growing newspaper in the world and there key success factor is that they distribute at transit hubs.

Your thoughts?
p.s. I’ve been busy with family and vacation, but have several big posts percolating that I hope to post in the next few days

Can America be America without sprawl?

Spreading out into the suburbs allowed Americans to continue a number of long-standing cultural threads taught to them about their nation’s past.  Many Americans may therefore not easily change and relocate to communities of higher density living.

Europeans came to the United States in the 17th through 19th centuries for several reasons.  These included wanting to escape government (state) persecution of their beliefs as well as having a chance to own land and be more independent.

The new US constitution written in 1789 assumed that Americans would be small independent farmers.  The idea of the rugged, self-reliant individual as citizen emerged.  The first amendment guaranteed citizens right to keep arms, to prevent the state (the government) from removing their liberties (keeping in mind citizens were only white men who owned property at this time).

Living in a prosperous city — then as now — requires a different mindset.   The agents of the state — police, laws, bylaws, — uphold property rights and social safety, in return for being paid in the form of taxes.  Being a city resident requires trusting others to look after aspects of your life.  Taking the law into your own hands theoretically results in becoming an outlaw yourself, and criminal prosecution. Being in a more densely populated area also means getting along with people who are not necessarily like you — America’s mythical founders, the pilgrims,  went to the new world to establish a community that included only themselves.  Others since moved West with the same goal.

As the United States spread west, conquering nature it also forged the notion that everyone (well everyone who was white and male, anyway) should have the option to have a farm.  And as new states were created, they were all roughly the same size.  This idea of equality in land size emerged.

In modern times, automobiles allowed for people who no longer worked on farms — instead in city factories or office buildings or other edifices — to all have the dream of the same house with a yard.  The suburbs sprawled out from cities just as America sprawled out from the East Coast decades and centuries before.

One reason for the push west — and the push to the suburbs — has been a desire to be different from Europeans.  Immigrants often deliberately left behind the constraints of the old world.  America was founded on not being Europe.

More recently, Europeans have been portrayed as those who live in cities, speak multiple languages, spend their time philosophizing, and don’t believe in guns or SUVs.    Americans are frequently taught to think of themselves as the opposite.

With this historical foundation, it could take a while for many to believe that it is as American to live in a condo by the river in Portland as to have a suburban home in Plano Texas or to ride a bike to work in 20 minutes rather than drive the SUV for 45.

If a Great Reset is to happen, the hope is probably in younger and future generations rejecting some of the historical narrative of what it is to be American.  The more Hispanic, black, Asian and other immigrant (or children of immigrant) voices that can be heard, the more the traditional myth can be challenged and be exposed for what it is — a narrow, exclusionary view of America that doesn’t account for the experience of the majority of it’s citizens in the 21st century.

Only then might being an educated, creative, tolerant urban dweller be an image more connected with the narrative of America’s history.   Until it ceases to fit with how many Americans view themselves and their country, suburbia will remain a dominant force in the American economy — to its detriment, most likely.

Social media and community engagement

Many popular culture analysts noted the decline of community in the later decades of the 20th century.  People seemed to “tune out” and become uninterested in world events, local politics and issues that affected their daily lives.  Some blamed television, others the double-income family combined with longer commutes that left little time to connect with those who lived nearby — and little reason to do so.  Shopping at automobile-centred power centres and supercentres some distances from home combined with working in isolated business parks while carting the kids off to distant private schools would hardly generate any reason to connect with people local to your home.

The 21st century has brought the decline of passive TV watching and the rise of social media.  It has also brought a renewed interest in cities, density and getting out of the automobile, at least occasionally, and connecting at a slower speed.

This combination of citizens living in closer quarters, spending less time in their cars, and more time with their families, friends — and on social media — may be the foundation of a new community structure.

In my neighborhood we have a private Yahoo e-mail group, “Parents in ‘The Area’”  where we share ideas and help answer each others questions about everything from parenting to renting to home renovation dilemmas.  As this group has evolved, what’s interesting is how different the member backgrounds are.  If not for this social media, we might not have otherwise connected in the ways we have.  An excerpt from something I posted to the group as we pondered our raison d’etre last week:

What I really appreciate about the group is the opportunity to converse with people who bring a variety of different — and even diametrically opposed — perspectives to our community. The one thing we have in common is that we are parents, trying to do the best we can.

In today’s “Multi-channel” universe of information, ironically the tendency has been for people to shut out or ignore perspectives that are not their own – you can tune in to your own custom “channel” if you want.  Our group somewhat forces all of us to tune in to many “channels” of information – perspectives — that we otherwise might not have tried to understand.
Just think, within our group we have:

  • Parents who vaccinate, and those who do not, and those who do so selectively
  • Carnivores, vegetarians and vegans
  • People who watch lots of TV, only a little, or none at all
  • Families who generally believe in western medicine, and those who prefer eastern or alternative approaches
  • Families who home school, families who support public education, families who use religious or independent schools
  • Gay families, straight families, single-parent families
  • People who rent their homes and people who own their homes, and people who own homes and rent suites within them
  • People who work in a wide variety of jobs and professions
  • People who prefer to buy most things for their children new, and those that prefer (or need) to buy most things second hand

It is becoming harder to find communities like ours who share in a non-judgmental way.
So we should all give ourselves a pat on the back for what we’ve created.

And, in still thinking about this group, and in how younger generations use social media seamlessly (and more than I do), I can’t help but think that maybe, technology will now lead North Americans back into forging tighter local communities.

Is social media helping you connect with people or businesses where you live?

Will economic patriotism improve cities

In the United States there is notable talk about how people should be buying American, with some trying to have this enshrined in official policy. Economix this week pondered whether this economic patriotism was uniquely American (I doubt it).

Meanwhile, Richard Florida comments on a “home base” effect that certain brands have. Starbucks peforms best in Seattle, for example.

If the economic downturn has people thinking more about where they spend their money, this might be great for cities. Or, more specifically, great for neighbourhoods and community building in cities.

What makes a place special, is that it can offer something unique.  The world has become rather homogenized — McDonalds, Coke, Starbucks can be found everywhere.  But a local coffee rostery, micro brewery, independent grocer, funky clothing store or a tasty bakery are examples of businesses that help to create an authentic place, rather than a generic retail space.

If the economic downturn pushes more people to spend their money in ways that benefit their local communities, this could help the livability of cities — and help them attract visitors and permanent residents alike.

Unfortunately, I think that application of the “support local” principle will be unevenly practiced.  The lure of Wal-Mart and the big boxes will tempt many, especially in more frugal times.   This will leave some neighbourhoods full of interesting, independent businesses and others reliant on global boxes.

Are you or people in your community shopping local? or has the lure of the mega-discounter prooved too tempting?

City politics are where it’s at

Recently, popular interest in city-based politics and municipal government activity has grown — whether in metro Vancouver (as Frances Bula ponders) or most areas of North America.  Meanwhile many city daily newspapers are failing.  I think there is a connection.

Cities are becoming the engines of economic growth as the knowledge economy and urban service sectors rise in importance, while natural resource extraction and manufacturing (that often took place in smaller towns or suburbs) are declining — at least in North America.

Thus, residents are becoming more concerned with metro issues — whether transit, roads, housing and crime or the latest from the arts and entertainment scene.    Policing, property and transportation issues as they affect day-to-day life in the city tend to be within the bailywick of municipal governments. Attracting and retaining both businesses and the employees they want to hire also tends to be a city issue.  In all these cases other levels of government are involved, but at the end of the day municipal politicians are increasingly held responsible for worsening or improvements to the little things that affect the quality of life of residents.

Those urban dailies that don’t provide enough information on municipal initiatives or sufficient unique and local perspectives — and instead rely on boring newswire stories — are struggling.  At least in Vancouver (and please tell me about your community papers) weekly or bi-weekly newspapers that cover nothing but local politics and community events seem to be holding on.

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