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SF housing activist Sonja Trauss will be speaking at the Playhouse
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American housing activist looks to shake up Vancouver audience
Kent Spencer (Vancouver Sun)
Published: March 25, 2017
Updated: March 27, 2017 1:38 PM
The Province > News > Local News
New group urges single family neighbourhood be turned into apartment blocks
San Francisco housing activist Sonja Trauss figures to shake up a Vancouver audience this week with an "in-your-face" approach to the housing crisis which doesn't take no for an answer.
"I'm a 35-year-old millennial. We don't have access to the housing we expected in the U.S., and it's totally frustrating," said Trauss, president of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters' Federation.
She will address the third annual Real Estate Development Talks at the Playhouse on Thursday, March 30, a speaker-styled meeting sponsored by developer Wesgroup.
When it comes to creating more places for people to live, Trauss doesn't abide delays, red tape and sticking to form. She doesn't care if units are orange or blue, low-income or luxury, she just wants to increase the supply as quickly as possible so people can find homes and places to rent.
"We have a horrible housing shortage in San Francisco after failing to keep pace for decades. Property owners freaked out when people wanted to tear down single family homes and build small apartment buildings," she said.
"My philosophy is that people should use their existing land to increase density. As far as renters are concerned, there's no such thing as building too many units," she said.
Trauss cites the case of a male friend, recently divorced, who lived for an entire year in a van.
"It's not supposed to be like that. He worked full-time. San Francisco is a rich city," she said.
Published figures in 2016 show San Francisco's median home price is $1.1. million U.S.; average monthly rents are $3,500 U.S., the highest in America.
She said the environment needn't trump housing needs: saving a few trees shouldn't take precedence over housing for 150.
"We shouldn't allow a few individuals to veto housing for a lot," she said.
Trauss' in-your-face, confrontational style shows itself in several ways: she sued a California city for rezoning a parcel of land from high density to low density; and she once infiltrated a meeting called to oppose low-income housing, handing out flyers to unsuspecting people which essentially said 'I don't support affordable housing.'
"The point was to embarrass our opponents," she said.
The acronym for her organization is another example of non-compliance with existing conventions: SF BARF.
"It's a hilarious name. You can get involved in politics without taking it too seriously," Trauss said, adding the group has a mailing list of 600 and meets for social events.
The contrast couldn't be greater with respectful mainstream types in the development industry who usually espouse densification. Trauss said developers' contributions to her organization have been slow despite the obvious lift she is giving their businesses.
Trauss' sentiments find a like-minded individual in Daniel Oleksiuk, a 32-year-old lawyer who co-founded Abundant Housing Vancouver last summer after grousing about rental shortages to friends. He believes it is important to speak to city hall.
"People can't afford to own a house in Vancouver — West Side properties are priced at $3 million, and very little rental housing is available," Oleksiuk said.
His solution is to open up single family neighbourhoods for high density development by permitting four-to-six storey apartment buildings.
"The main cost is land. When a bunch of people are sharing the cost, prices will come down. Our group's main focus is on building to get us out of this mess," he said.
Rezoning single family neighbourhoods has always been opposed by local property owners, as well as politicians who fear repercussions at the ballot box.
On the positive side, more money is coming from Ottawa for affordable housing. Last week's federal budget earmarked as much as $233 million for B.C.
But red tape — complex permitting rules which set out requirements as small as double-bulbed ceiling fixtures — are also holding up the completion of new residences. The provincial government reported in 2016 that 69,500 housing units in a half-dozen Metro Vancouver municipalities were being held up at the permitting stage.
Trauss said people are angry, and those affected should attend planning meetings to impress their views on decision makers.
"It's on all of us," she said.
• Tickets are sold out for Trauss' talk. For more information go to redtalks.ca.