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Editorial: It is costly to go back to Squamish’s single-family home past

Squamish’s value is no longer a local secret and private landholders are allowed to build on their land.
freehandz/Squamish Housing
What are your solutions to housing? What are you looking to hear from candidates this fall? Let us know with a letter to the editor: editor@squamishchief.com.

Imagine going to the doctor, and when she asks what ails you, you say, “All of it, Doctor.”

“It is all just rotten to the core,” you add, motioning up and down your body.

“I want it the way it used to be!” you shout.

The doctor would raise an eyebrow, trying hard not to roll her eyes.

This is, hopefully, a ridiculous scenario in real life.

Yet this is how some of us talk about the current council and the future of Squamish.

“Throw the lot of them out and make the town the way it used to be!”

Be careful what you wish for. Sometimes the prescription comes with side effects.

It is vital for Squamish voters and those who aim to run for a seat in chambers this fall to pinpoint what it is they oppose and what they would do instead.

One common refrain is that there are too many developments and too much density.

Some would like to go back to when Squamish was mainly a town of single-family homes. (Truth be told, who wouldn’t want that? Let’s bring back an empty parking lot at Brohm Lake and the outdoor swimming pool, too, please!)

But Squamish’s value is no longer a local secret, and private landholders are allowed to build on their land.

What can be opposed and changed is the density on the land — zoning.

But if candidates promise to focus on creating more single-family homes, for example, there will be consequences.

We know this by looking at other places in the world.

First, let’s look at Silicon Valley, which sits between San Francisco and San Jose.

Its leaders have created, over time, a place that is today a car-oriented community with relatively low density.

Perfect, right?

Not so much.

Like Squamish, though, many want to live in Silicon Valley.

Harvard professor Ed Glaeser, who teaches the online course “CitiesX: The Past, Present and Future of Urban Life,” and who is also the chairman of the Department of Economics at the university, warns against taking the less dense path.

“For all the valley’s creative strength, it has one great failure. It is ridiculously expensive,” Glaeser said in an online course video.

“It just does not supply anywhere near the number of homes needed to keep pace with demand.

If the region chooses to remain low-density, its housing prices will stay high, and it will never provide welcoming space for middle-income people...Silicon Valley’s restrictiveness and high prices may make it a paradise for some of the smartest Americans. But by restricting the growth of density, it fails to provide more widespread opportunity.”

Housing un-affordability is not a uniquely Squamish or even North American problem; a study by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy found of 200 global cities, 90% were considered unaffordable, meaning the average house prices were more than three times median income.

A few years ago, the World Economic Forum produced the report, “Making Affordable Housing a Reality for Cities.” There are many recommendations in the report that make for good reading. But at the core of these recommendations is creating more supply.

In other words, if it wants to be affordable in the future, Squamish can’t go back to the low-density model of the past.

Be wary of any candidate who promises otherwise.

Of course, density can’t be the only answer to our affordability crisis.

Let’s look at Somerville, Massachusetts, which is seeing the second highest rate of gentrification in the U.S. (The first is the San Francisco area). The Somerville region needs to add 435,000 units of housing by 2040 to keep up, its mayor says.

Wow.

Former Somerville mayor Joe Curtatone notes, in an interview with professor Glaeser for the same Harvard course, that to make a community truly affordable takes more than producing more housing.

There have to be jobs with good wages and solid public transportation options, for example. If transportation options are efficient, folks can ditch the car and afford more for housing, he says.

And local government can’t solve affordability on its own.  

“We can’t build a firewall around one city and expect the market forces not to impact us one way or the other,” Curtatone said in the course video interview.

Other levels of government — the province and the federal government in our case — have roles to play.

And the community has to buy into the shared affordability future.

“You can’t legislate that,” Curtatone said. "And you can’t proclaim that. It’s going to be a…larger community-based effort to make that happen.”

 

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