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It Seems Density Doesn't Exactly Equal Affordability In Vancouver

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Brian Stablyk via Getty Images

Written by Stephanie MacDonald

For such a smart, friendly, funny person, Bob Rennie has experienced more than his share of being vilified by the public. He's often seen as the face of the development industry (despite not being a developer) in a city with a very limited amount of land, and a reputation as one of the most desirable, and expensive, places in the world to live.

Rennie has been a vocal cheerleader for the city, writing open letters to the newspaper in favour of the 2010 Olympics, and was instrumental in creating the global demand for land and condominiums we're seeing today. He's one of the most phenomenally successful and visible businesspeople the city has ever seen.

But in this year's highly anticipated speech for the Urban Development Institute he made one thing clear -- he's pretty much over talking about real estate. In fact, he announced that this would be his last speech; despite the over 1,000 enthusiastic listeners gathered at the Hotel Vancouver to hear what he had to say. Last year at the 2015 UDI luncheon, Rennie spoke extensively about the issue of affordability in the city and the 19 factors he believes contribute to the crisis of affordability we're experiencing.

He bravely said what everyone else was thinking: without an adequate supply of housing types, prices will continue to go up, and in order to create this supply we will have to sacrifice single-family neighbourhoods. Rennie himself lives in a condo, preferring to spend his considerable wealth on philanthropic causes and his contemporary art gallery, so he is walking the walk when he's talking about the benefits of densification.

But now many people are thinking: Vancouver embraced density, so where's the affordability?

If last year's speech was controversial for being blunt about how we need to change our housing expectations to live in the city, this year's speech was surprising for another reason -- Rennie insinuated that Vancouver was inevitably going to get too expensive for middle-class people and they should just be resigned to moving out into the suburbs.

The prices are so high that the middle-class consumer cannot even afford the multi-family units created.

It seems a bit defeatist compared to his statements only a year ago, though it was good news for the many companies creating housing in the Fraser Valley. He mentioned the millennials' increasing penchant for working from home, the acceptance of densification around suburban transit centres, and the fact that in cities like New York, the population doubles every work day with commuters from the 'burbs.

It did seem a bit odd that in one year we're supposed to go from "densification is the answer" to "urban sprawl is inevitable, so we better get used to it."

He seems visibly weary of talking about the huge market demand for condos which he helped to create. He also passed on really discussing the issue of foreign ownership, saying that it only affects the single-family home market. But if single-family homes need to go by the wayside to make room for more density, all the foreign speculation is just driving up the prices so that developers cannot even afford to assemble the land, and if they can, the prices are so high that the middle-class consumer cannot even afford the multi-family units created (see the Cambie Corridor).

Being the "condo king" (a title he hates) is clearly not where Rennie's heart is anymore -- and it has been several years since he has really been at the helm of Rennie Marketing Systems. What he does obviously feel passion about is the Rennie Gallery, where his collection of contemporary art is considered one of the most carefully curated in North America.

He's also on the acquisitions board of the Tate London and various other galleries. His focus is on art that explores difference, race, exploitation and social justice issues -- issues that are often the result of the financial inequity we're experiencing right now in the world and, ironically, in our housing market. Certainly his considerable talent and energy will enliven the important conversations around these topics, and the contemporary art world in general, in the future.

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