For a while, land values in Vancouver seemed to go in only one direction: up, up, up.
But this year marked the first time in years that big parts of the city saw drops in their assessed property values. At the same time, other areas continued to see significant increases.
And now, a deeper dive into the numbers provides some important lessons as Vancouver prepares to embark on a massive undertaking: a city-wide plan.
The decreases seen by some Vancouver properties, particularly at the higher end of the market, can be attributed to a number of factors: just this week the B.C. NDP took some credit for helping “moderate” the housing market with tax measures, while others point to federal changes to mortgage rules. Even further afield, other recently scorching housing markets, everywhere from Singapore to Sydney and Shanghai, have shown signs this year of cooling.
But an interesting picture emerges when you look at Vancouver’s new property assessments on a neighbourhood scale, particularly the ones that have continued to charge upwards. Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, analyzed property assessment data year-over-year changes for Vancouver’s 23 “planning areas” — what most of us would call neighbourhoods.
From Strathcona in the northeast and Marpole in the southwest (both of which saw about a 16-per-cent increase in total assessment values), to Mount Pleasant and Grandview-Woodland in East Vancouver (which went up 13 and 10 per cent, respectively), and the West End (a 12-per-cent increase), Yan found most areas that saw the biggest increases had something in common: they had recently adopted community plans.
When the city implements a community plan for a neighbourhood, they’re meant to be “road maps” in the city’s words, providing “clear but flexible frameworks to guide positive change and development in neighbourhoods.”
But community plans also make neighbourhoods appealing to developers, Yan said.
“It’s where speculation occurs before a stick of housing goes up … Property values go up first before the buildings,” Yan said. “Overall, it may be a windfall for property owners. But it’s a hurricane for commercial and residential renters.”
Since the West End Community Plan was approved by council in 2013, the neighbourhood has seen a flurry of development activity and soaring property values, which have contributed to pressures to displace longtime renters and shutter independent businesses.
Maybe not all of that can be attributed to a community plan. But if you talk to longtime West End residents, many of them place a lot of blame on the plan for dramatically changing what they loved about their neighbourhood.
Karen Tennant said the West End Community Plan and its fallout were largely to blame for the demise of her business, Chocolate Mousse Kitchenware, which shut down this week after 34 years as a West End retail institution. Tennant said they were driven out of business when their property taxes skyrocketed by about 400 per cent over a three-year period.
“We don’t mind the increase in density,” Tennant said Thursday. “The speculation is the problem.”
For some, these stories illustrate the need for a comprehensive city-wide approach to planning.
Last November, the very first motion passed by Vancouver’s new mayor and council directed city staff to get started on the first steps of a city-wide plan, taking into consideration everything from accommodating growth to preserving affordable housing and growing local jobs.
It’s bound to be a big undertaking. The motion, introduced by Green Coun. Adriane Carr and seconded by NPA Coun. Colleen Hardwick, notes that Vancouver’s only complete city-wide plan was written almost 100 years ago.
The motion also notes that more recently, in 1992, the city launched a CityPlan process, which was stopped before its completion, in 2010.
Hardwick, a vocal proponent of the city-wide plan, said the hope is this new endeavour can be accomplished more quickly than the CityPlan attempt from the 1990s, which, she said, eventually “lost political will, and there was turnover in senior staff, which I think derailed it.”
Ensuring mechanisms to protect existing commercial and residential tenants from displacement as neighbourhoods evolve should be a “crucial” part of a city-wide plan, Hardwick said Thursday.
“The people that have the long-term view are saying: ‘We don’t want to have our neighbourhoods hollowed out, we don’t want to lose all our mom-and-pop stores,’ ” Hardwick said.
In addition to preventing displacement, Yan thinks another important aspect of a city-wide plan is ensuring that the value created by those planning decisions doesn’t disproportionately serve private interests.
OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle agrees. In December, council passed a motion introduced by Boyle, directing staff to consult with policy-makers and stakeholders to “explore the pros and cons” of changing how the city collects, on behalf of the public, “a percentage of the land-value wealth being created by City of Vancouver decision-making.”
The motion also directs staff to review the mechanisms Vancouver currently has in place to capture public benefits from land-use decisions, such as Community Amenity Contributions, or CACs, which are payments from developers to the city when council grants rezonings.
The city has been working to improve the CAC system, which has been criticized over questions of fairness and a perceived lack of transparency. But, Boyle said, a land-value capture tax could “move us even further (along) on predictability and transparency.”
“The public creates land-value increases through decisions we collectively make … So the public should benefit from those land-value increases,” Boyle said. “I think the time to implement it is before we make larger zoning changes as part of the city-wide plan.”
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