By Russell Walsh - The Lower Mainland's housing crisis can be solved. The green and pink parts of this map mark Crown Land in the Lower Mainland, BC. This map holds the key to solving what is arguably the most critical problem the Lower Mainland has ever faced - astronomically high, unattainable cost of accommodation.
As a recent news article put it, the Lower Mainland's housing crisis has now reached dangerous levels. But as the land status map above shows, the solution to the housing problem rests in plain sight. At least on a sunny day it does. The government urgently needs to release a small portion of the vast amounts of Crown land in the region, and it needs to release that land at cost, to qualifying buyers, bypassing the regular developer/real estate market which has failed the region so very badly.
Take a close look at the above land status map, Crown land is comprised of both the pink parts and the green parts. Privately owned land is shown in tan. Even a casual glance at the map instantly makes it clear that there is no shortage of land in the Lower Mainland. And the status maps for other parts of the province tell exactly the same story. Under the proposal outlined in this report, Crown land lots would be sold to qualifying purchasers in the range of $20,000 - $40,000 per lot. Since roads are a capital item, the per lot price could be reduced to a basic $5,000, with the remainder amortized at about $75 a month over 20 years.
East of Lions Bay, Vancouver BC - Crown Land Map
Here's another land status map, this time covering the area east of Lions Bay. The colour code has changed slightly since the government has upgraded its mapping software. Crown land is coral and green. Coral is surveyed crown land; green is unsurveyed crown land. Privately owned land is shown in yellow.
Again, as the map graphically illustrates, there is absolutely no shortage of land in BC. Not even in the Lower Mainland.
What is 'Crown Land'?
In the late 1700's European explorers showed up in BC and in a pattern repeated throughout history they moved in and took over from the indigenous residents who had themselves moved into the region thousands of years earlier.
The Europeans explorers took over. Ownership of the land was 'transferred' to the ruling king or queen back home. That's where the term “in the name of the Crown” comes from. It sounds so much nicer than saying stealing.
In order to encourage development, settlement, agriculture, and so on, governments were forced to relinquish some of their newly acquired land for private use. The remainder, however, would remain 'Crown land'.
It's three hundred years later now, and one is tempted to think that most of this crown land has by now been released for general use. Not so. Only 5% of BC land has been released for private ownership.
There are some leases, of course, timber licenses, and arrangements for natives. But other 95% of BC still remains Crown land. And therein lies the root of the Lower Mainland's critical housing crisis and by extension the rest of the province as well.
Land for British Columbians
What this report proposes is that a small portion of this Crown land be released at cost to qualifying British Columbians, with 'at cost' defined as the cost of building roads. Services such as gas, power, telephone, and cablevision are self-funding, with customers paying a connection fee and then monthly service fees.
What does 'Qualifying British Columbians Mean'?
The primary reason for the Lower Mainland's astronomical housing prices is the influx of some very wealthy offshore buyers and while discussing this fact might ruffle feathers, barring the introduction of ownership rules created to protect indigenous residents as they are in places like Australia or Mexico, any Crown land released for sale under the current rules will simply be gobbled up by the world's wealthy, against whom virtually no indigenous resident can possibly compete financially. They will simple continue to be outbid, as they are now.
The sale of Crown land lots would have to be restricted in a number of ways. Here are some suggested restrictions:
How would the lots be sold?
The Lower Mainland's housing crisis has created some very unusual problems that will require some non-traditional solutions to solve. Meaning developers are out. Real estate agencies – at least in the initial phase – are out. Some existing department of the BC government such as the Ministry of Lands, Forests, and Natural Resources could establish a special division for the administration of Crown land releases.
Going Green – and Beyond
The Crown land release initiative represents an excellent opportunity to do right a number of things we previously did wrong. For example, jettison the flawed Transportation Association of Canada rules for road building by making road allowances much wider as well as asymmetrical. (Bulged at intersections vs straitjacketed)
Bulging allowances at intersections allow the construction of traffic circles to proper international standards. Traffic circles reduce accidents by 93% while at the same time processing double the traffic volume when compared to stop signs or traffic lights.
Plus wider road allowances would allow buried services to be placed in utility corridors along the sides of roads instead of burying them beneath the paved roadways themselves. This would produce the following benefits:
At the time of writing we stand on the verge of the introduction of the Hyperloop system, an extremely high speed (1,200 km/h) tube maglev transportation system. Imagine Kelowna, in 20 minutes.
But nowhere in the Lower Mainland were provisions made for the incorporation of future services services such as the Hyperloop. Or even bike lanes, for that matter. The attempt to add bike lanes onto roads already too narrow for traffic continues to be a divisive and expensive nightmare.
Here is an example of roads built with adjacent utility corridors that also service as bike and walking paths.
Traffic lights, where absolutely unavoidable, should include backup powering so they would continue to function during power outages. Such a feature adds a maximum of about $1,000 to a set of traffic lights – negligible against the $25,000 base price for the lights themselves.
Power services should also be placed underground, in the service corridors, as they are in Europe. A bit more expensive initially but far less costly to maintain in the long run – and with far fewer power outages, too.
Each residence sold in Crown land release zones should be required to install a minimum 10,000 L rainwater storage tank, enough to supply the average household with irrigation water during dry periods of up to 21 days – and provide emergency water in case of wildfires. This is a standard requirement in many parts of Australia.
If cell towers are placed in land release areas they should be placed on a 'common carrier' basis, and they should be camouflaged. Common carrier means that instead of each cellular provider erecting their own separate tower, usually in a cluster, just one tower is erected, to be cohabited by all cellular providers. In addition, camouflaged cellular towers are used in many regions, greatly reducing visual pollution. Here's a montage of photos of typical BC cell towers juxtapositioned with camouflaged ones. Travelling in many regions of the world one rarely spots a cell tower because they are camouflaged.
Here are some additional green innovations that would greatly enhance and modernize the Crown land release developments:
Only the BC government is capable of releasing crown land. If the current government balks at the idea of releasing a bit of it to ease the housing crisis it might take a change of government to achieve the objective. Or a new political party that adopted the release of crown land as a part of its platform. But first there needs to be an expression of strong interest in the idea from the public.
It is likely that most British Columbians will be totally unaware that 95% of BC is made up of vacant crown land and that there's so much of it right here in the Lower Mainland. It will take people time to acclimatize to that fact and begin pressing for the judicious release of crown land for urgently needed housing.
And of course there will the an inevitable conflict between those who are perfectly happy with the status quo and those who are shut out of the housing market. In a reasonable world there shouldn't be any conflict because those who do have homes should realize that the next time they need a doctor, a nurse, a firefighter, or any other trades person and can't find them because astronomical housing prices have run them out of town, it would have been in their own best interest to ensure affordable housing for everyone.
Avoiding Crashing the Housing Market
It is important that the release of crown land doesn't crash the existing housing market, so the best approach is to create a new and separate land base. Those wishing to speculate in the buying and selling of houses can remain in the existing market. Those simply wishing a place to live for themselves and their families can turn to the crown land release market.
We live in an area where just about every initiative, irrespective of whether it is good or bad, generates howls of protest. Remember the construction of the new Highway 99 across the bluffs above Horseshoe Bay? People chained to equipment; camped high in the trees? Failure to build the highway would have condemned the area to perpetual gridlock and made us look third-world to the 2010 Olympics crowd. Well, we're up against it again, with North America's most expensive housing, where doctors, nurses, police, fire, ambulance and other workers essential to the proper functioning of a city simply cannot afford to live. There is currently a doctor shortage in Vancouver. The reason? Doctors cannot afford to live in Vancouver.
We can, of course – and we may – do nothing about this historic crisis, or we may simply continue to make meaningless cosmetic adjustments in a futile attempt to solve the housing crisis. If we do, things will continue to deteriorate; the quality of life in the region will continue to degrade. The only practical solution is to release just a little bit of the vast pool of vacant crown land sitting right on our doorstep.
Here are some of the possible objections:
Below is a montage of photos of houses built on land terrain far more challenging than our north shore mountains. There are many subdivisions in Switzerland that have no roads to them at all. Entire villages are accessed in a variety of unique ways. Near Adelboden, just north of Frutigen in the Bernese Oberland, a suspension footbridge across a raging river provides access to one subdivision. Just down the road toward Frutigen access to another village is via a 24 hour a day day gondola. The town of Grimmelwald, Switzerland is accessible only by gondola and Wengen, also in Switzerland, is accessible only by a cog railway that climbs 30 degree incline. Here are photos of Wengen and Grimmelwald in Switzerland. Notice too the visual benefit of underground power lines.
Dispossessed Kelowna residents push out into Armstrong, Lumby, Peachland and beyond, in turn driving housing prices upward in those communities, dispossessing residents in those small towns. It's the classic ripple effect.
Here are land status maps for areas outside of Vancouver. Again, crown land is pink (sometimes coral) plus green. Private land is marked in yellow.
Hope BC Crown Land Map
Kelowna BC Crown Land Map
Princeton BC Crown Land Map
Naramata & Penticton BC Crown Land Map
The conditional release of crown land could, throughout the entire province, make home ownership possible for disenfranchised British Columbians.
The Many Benefits of the Crown Land Release Initiative
A recent report noted that Lower Mainland residents in the 24 – 35 age range had the lowest discretionary income of Canada's ten main cities, and the paramount reason for that is the tremendously high cost of housing, either to purchase or to rent. People with low discretionary income, by definition, have little money to spend and so the entire economy suffers as a result. They don't have money to invest in the creation of new businesses, products, or services. Or to allow a spouse to have children – and stay home to raise those children, thereby avoiding a host of well documented troubles as well as the first small step toward reversing the long slide into demographic inversion and all of its accompanying collapse of our pension and health care systems.
As of May 2016, we have reached the point where it takes 14 average incomes to qualify for a single mortgage on a house in Vancouver. Correction: It's now 16 average incomes, up from 14 earlier in the month. Clearly a non-workable arrangement and one that is leading to socioeconomic disaster. The judicious release of just a small amount of the vast crown land holdings in the region offer a perfect solution to the problem. Provided of course we do in fact want a solution and are willing to work together to achieve a solution.
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