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Column: A tale of two densities in New Westminster

People talk a lot about housing in New Westminster. Indeed, one need spend but a little time anywhere in public to overhear snippets of conversation about the price of houses and the cost of rent.
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People talk a lot about housing in New Westminster. Indeed, one need spend but a little time anywhere in public to overhear snippets of conversation about the price of houses and the cost of rent. In talking about this subject, it is worth making a distinction between two ways of thinking about the value of housing, especially in light of the affordability and density pressures facing the city.

Housing has a productive value, which represents the various uses we make of it in our day-to-day lives. A home is a place that provides shelter, security, and a sense of place in the community. Housing also has a speculative value, which consists in its monetary value and potential as an investment to provide future returns. The problem is that these two types of value can be in tension with one another.

A recent letter to The Record plaintively describes the experience of visiting presentation centres for new highrise developments in New Westminster and wistfully imagining the experience of cooking meals, entertaining friends, and enjoying vistas in the units being marketed, but coming to the realization that these units are ultimately out of reach because of their unaffordability. The letter is a poignant reminder that what we need in this city is the development of genuinely affordable housing that provides productive value to the residents who live here.

New Westminster will need to add about 16,000 units to its housing stock over the next couple of decades to accommodate future population growth. One proposed way of dealing with these density pressures is to take a market-dominant approach, which involves an unrestrictive attitude to development that allows the market to create more supply in response to the demand for housing.

While it is true that markets can be an efficient mechanism for allocating various resources, the basic problem with this approach is that markets must be moderated to ensure the provision of public goods like affordable housing. When carte blanche is given to market-driven development, it increases the tendency to see housing as a commodity to be bought and sold for as much profit as possible. This orients development toward speculators and makes housing more unaffordable, which pushes low- and medium-income residents out of the community.

The right approach to deal with density pressures is not to oppose any and all development, but rather to hold that the primary standard by which we should measure development is the productive value that it provides to the community in the form of housing that is accessible, affordable, and family-friendly. Development should not lead to the displacement of those who already reside in the community. It is thus especially important to protect those most at risk of displacement – seniors on fixed incomes, the disabled, the poor, and those who are homeless.

The city has a number of tools that it can use to promote this type of development through policies like social housing, inclusionary zoning, and incentives for projects that benefit the community. In the end, however, the character of the city we live in is not the sole responsibility of the government or the market in the abstract, but rather the result of our collective day-to-day activities, decisions, and attitudes.

While it is important to support good public policies concerning housing, we also have a responsibility to think about how our private decisions around buying, selling, and investing affect the flourishing of the community around us. For development to be just and beneficial to New Westminster as a whole, we should always remember that the productive value of housing is ultimately more important than its speculative value.

Elliot Rossiter works in the department of philosophy and humanities at Douglas College in New Westminster.