It’s uncanny. Two cities on two continents, but “growthists” in Vancouver and Melbourne seem to be reading from the same playbook.
Lance Berelowitz, an urban planner who chaired Vancouver’s planning commission, praised the Mayor’s so-called “Eco-Density” initiative as the answer to the city’s ever-increasing house prices. Given that between 800,000 to one million new residents are expected to come to Greater Vancouver in the next 25 years, it can be assumed that developmental pressures on the city’s limited land base will steeply drive up land costs. It follows then, that “housing prices in Vancouver will keep going up, unless we substantially increase the housing supply to match the ageing demand.”
For Berelowitz it is unconscionable that Vancouver, currently representing about 27 per cent of the metro area’s 2.2 million citizens, continues to throw up a kind of cordon sanitaire around its perimeter and not “shoulder its load” by accepting its share of growth. To do this he offers several European solutions to shove more innovative housing units into the area. But what is interesting about his plan is that he failed to mention Vancouver’s housing surplus. Between 1991 and 2006 Vancouver grew by 126,000 people who required 15,000 new dwellings to house them. But developers built 69,000 units. According to activist Randy Chatterton, judging from BC Hydro statistics, 18,000 units are unoccupied, and MLS listings are up 26 per cent while sales are down 10 per cent. Now there are seven unoccupied apartments for every homeless person in Vancouver.
“Accepting our share of growth” is a standard line of urban planners and politicians. What they never reveal is their role in not only accommodating growth but promoting it. Developers build houses on spec. They are built on the expectation that compliant governments will continue to provide international clientele (migrants) and the monetary and tax policy necessary to lubricate investment in real estate. It is a case study of Say’s Law - supply creates its own demand. Berelowitz never once thought to question the necessity for Vancouver to grow by 45 per cent in the next quarter century. He never thought to consult Dr Michael Healey’s landmark 1997 study of the Fraser Basin ecosystem that recommended a halt to immigration and a Population Plan to defend the region and others like it from runaway population growth. That’s because the ideology of urban planning is not growth-control but “growth management”.
Former real estate developer and media mouthpiece Bob Ransford recently “despaired” of those in Vancouver with, are you ready for this old chestnut, a “drawbridge mentality”, that is, “who think we can resist the global flow of population and somehow sustain our lifestyle”. One wonders what kind of lifestyle Ransford imagines for the Vancouverites forced to live like sardines in a sardine can just so more migrants can move in and buy the bachelor suite closets that his developer friends would obligingly sell them. It seems logical that the law of physics would place a limit on the process of densification that Berelowitz, Ransford and the Mayor would set in motion, but so far they have shown no apprehension of it. And the law of “livability” would surely fall well short of that physical limit.
One wonders how Ransford would behave if he were the last of ten passengers on an elevator that safety regulations set at ten. Would he hold open the door for more people in the lobby who wanted in because he feared being accused of “Nimbyism” or having a “drawbridge mentality”? Would he suffer an urban planner who insisted that the elevator could hold 12 or 15 people, or a real estate developer who sold tickets to more people than could safely ride on the contraption? Would he listen to a human rights advocate who said that every person of colour from another country had a right to jam on board regardless of the elevator’s carrying capacity because it was a matter of social justice? If it was a matter of profit, one suspects he would. Growthists can’t grasp the concept that existing passengers, existing residents, be they of a city, or a nation, have a moral right to set limits.
Ransford ices his argument with more tired clichés. Cliché number one: “Our kids will not be able to afford to live in a city where no new housing is built.” Trouble is “our kids” aren’t buying that new housing. In Greater Vancouver 85 per cent of new housing is occupied by immigrants, while 70 per cent of new housing in other Canadian urban centres is occupied by “new” Canadians.
Cliché number two: “If we halted growth we will have a real labour shortage with our rapidly ageing population.” Fact: the C.D. Howe Institute demonstrated that it would take an unsustainable immigration rate 28 times higher than its present rate for the next 50 years for Canada to maintain its present age structure. Postponed retirements and higher productivity will greatly lessen the impact of this over-hyped bogeyman.
Lastly, Ransford recruited the words of retired planner Peter Oberlander who said that compact settlement patterns were an inevitable feature of urban growth especially where we were committed to preserving agricultural land. “The city is humanity’s supreme achievement”, he maintained, in dismissing fears about continued growth. Apparently Oberlander never heard of the failure of “smart growth” in America or the compromise of British greenbelts by developers or he might be less confident in his “compact settlement patterns.” And when it is recalled that a Greek polis was ideally imagined to consist of 5,000 citizens, one shudders to think that today a city of five million is considered a “supreme achievement”.
In a speech that could have been ghost-written by any of the aforementioned Canadian growth-a-holics, Premier John Brumby of Victoria spoke of his government’s plan to “manage growth”, because you see, growth is inevitable, and growth projections must be treated as, if anything, “pessimistic”, i.e. conservative. Thus Melbourne is going to grow at least 44 per cent by 2030, with 6.2 million people by 2020. “Demographer Bernard Salt has projected we will regain our title (sic) as Australia’s largest city within 20 years.” Note that the Premier treats a population growth plateau like a sports trophy to be raised aloft in triumph. Melbourne will regain its “title” like Mohammed Ali regained his title against George Foreman. Similarly when Victoria was “losing” people in the 1990s, presumably the state of Victoria was a “loser”. But now “the exodus has been turned around and people are now voting with their feet in favour of Victoria”. It is as if Premier Brumby is fighting an election campaign and people moving to Victoria are casting a vote for him. A commonplace illusion among Premiers, Governors and Prime Ministers
But he does acknowledge the strain that in-migration places on infrastructure and states that a million extra residents will require 380,000 new houses or apartments. Given Melbourne’s growth rate, he projects only a 17-year supply of land, and housing affordability, planning and supply issues demand full attention. He confesses that “the faster we grow the greater the demand on land supply”. Yet the one option that Brumby will not consider of course is to lobby the federal government for a severe cutback on immigration. Out comes a variant of Canadian Cliché number two: “we are facing a skills gap of 123,000 jobs over the next decade, which could curb our ability to benefit from the climate change economy.” Victoria attracts 27 per cent of Australia’s skilled migrants, and Melbourne 25 per cent of migrants of all categories. It is curious that the Premier would think that the importation of workers would be key to fighting climate change, when research clearly indicates that the best climate change fighting strategy is reducing population growth.
Certainly the Vancouver experience leads one to question the party line of housing lobby groups that releasing more land is requisite to housing affordability. Australian Property Monitors operations director Michael McNamara argues that “demand for housing is extremely flat and developers haven’t been able to sell the projects that they’ve got, let alone launch new projects - so we totally dismiss the argument that releasing more land on our cities’ outskirts is going to affect affordability”. ANZ Bank senior economist Paul Braddick says “there is no strong evidence to suggest that a lack of land supply has been driving up prices. The proof of that is house prices have gone up across the board - indicating it is not just land availability that is the culprit here.” Macquarie Bank analyst Rory Robertson attributes the fact that city house prices have grown 75 per cent faster than wages in the past 20 years to a halving of interest rates, the halving of capital gains taxes in 1999 and massive immigration which chose to settle in the eight capital cities.