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Vancouver needs "more housing created in the low-to middle-income range," he said.

Roberston has appointed a task force on housing affordability, which includes social housing for the homeless, and he said he expects an initial report this spring.

The experts will look at solutions based on zoning, density and different ownership models that work elsewhere, he said.

Because it's not the city's role to become a developer or interfere in the free market, Robertson said, there is "a limited ability to affect the market."

But he said the city does have some tools and incentives to encourage higher density and mixed-income developments.

Housing experts say the ship may have sailed for affordable housing in Vancouver proper, or on the North Shore, where there are only eight two-bedroom suites under $300,000 listed with MLS, but numbers increase marginally elsewhere, with 70 such properties in Burnaby, 77 in Richmond and 42 in New Westminster.

Further east, there are 465 $300,000 or cheaper two-bedroom suites in Surrey and White Rock, 159 in Langley and 272 in the Tri-Cities, for a total in Metro Vancouver of more than 1,100, with an additional 325 in Mission and Chilliwack.

"Buyers have to ask themselves what kind of house they want and in what location" before deciding if they can stay in this area or leave for another province, said University of B.C. business professor Tsur Somerville.

"They might say, 'I have to buy a condo in Surrey but what I really want is a house on the west side of Vancouver.' If I had to live in New Westminister instead of Vancouver, that for me isn't a huge affordability issue."

But while he said some low-income earners who have trouble even affording to rent may never at that income level be able to own, the government does have a role to play to ensure there are decent apartments available for reasonable prices. He said that includes zoning restrictions, limiting development costs and removing red tape for developers.

Cameron Muir, a senior housing analyst with the B.C. Real Estate Association, said one-third of all home sales last year were to first-time homebuyers and 70 per cent of all new housing starts were for multi-family developments, which provides more affordable housing.

But Vancouver's geography, with the Georgia Strait to the west, mountains to the north and agricultural reserve land to the east, puts pressure on land prices, Muir said.

The government's job is to improve the supply of housing by encouraging density with bonuses and to use various planning tactics and strategies, including reducing the "onerous" taxation on real estate, including the provincial transfer tax, and development costs. These keep prices high, he said.

And, he said, first-timers have to lower their expectations if they want to stay here.

"If you want to live in this day and age in a single detached house on the west side of Vancouver, it's not likely," he said.

Young families may be choosing to live in the inner city, according to numbers from the Vancouver School Board, which says that, after stable kindergarten enrolment for years in downtown schools, it has seen an increased demand. It recently added four classrooms to the elementary school in Yaletown to accommodate the increase and has begun plans to build a second inner-city elementary school downtown, said spokesman Kurt Heinrich.

"This signals that many more people are living longer in smaller and more costly urban environment, even with children," he said.

slazaruk@theprovince.com


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