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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Book Review – The Affordable City

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As Vancouver’s renowned housing crisis continues to deepen and grow, so too do the conversations about just what exactly we should do about it. Zoning, parking minimums, and density bonuses are no longer just talking points for planning policy wonks, they have become increasingly mainstream conversation topics for many Vancouverites concerned about the city’s housing future. Shane Phillips, whose book The Affordable City focuses on pragmatic policy solutions for housing affordability in the United States, seems keenly aware that these types of policy conversations are becoming more commonplace and pitches his book to both the professionals and advocates who are engaging in them.

Brevity is key in Phillip’s approach, and he packs 54 policy recommendations into just slightly over 200 pages. If you are looking for a deep dive into the roots of the housing crisis or a philosophical consideration of the ethics of housing delivery, this isn’t where you’ll find it. Instead, Phillips adopts an almost field guide style and uses what he calls the Three S’s to categorize his recommendations, the S’s being Supply, Stability, and Subsidy.

The Three S’s are key to Phillips’ thesis, and he repeatedly emphasizes that all three of these organizing principles must intersect if we are to create true affordability. It’s a useful and memorable device, but at times the Three S approach can feel a little jarringly simplistic, especially considering the depths of the problems under discussion. Phillips acknowledges that most people lean towards one of the S’s more than others (for example the abundant housing YIMBY crowd versus anti-gentrification advocates) but pleads that true housing affordability can only happen if all groups committed to ensuring everyone has access to decent housing work together collaboratively.

As someone who went into reading The Affordable City highly skeptical of supply-side arguments, I was a good test case for Phillips’ rallying cry for collaboration. Many statements set my teeth on edge, such as Phillips’ description of developers as “the goose that lays the golden egg”, but I certainly came out the other end, while not a full convert, much more sympathetic to the case for supply. This is because Phillips frames his supply arguments alongside a very unequivocal argument against homeownership as a form of wealth accumulation, stating clearly that “ever-growing property values are completely incompatible with long-term housing affordability.”

Phillips, however, fails to extend his critique of wealth accumulation to developers and often frames his policy recommendations in terms of finding the sweet spot for them. While I found this unpalatable, I also recognize that Phillips is presenting pragmatic solutions that can be implemented for the world as it is.

In this spirit, Phillips draws from a variety of states and cities’ existing policy solutions and makes the case for their wider deployment. Vancouver’s laneway homes policy and empty homes tax receive mention, as does San Francisco’s progressive Transfer Tax on the sale of property, Los Angeles’s Systematic Code Enforcement Program, and New York’s Right To Counsel (RTC) programs for renters facing the threat of eviction. All of these cities are, of course, at the sharp end of housing crises, but this emphasizes the point that discrete solutions are insufficient and that, instead, the implementation of a whole suite of intersecting and complementary policies is necessary if we want to see tangible change.

Phillips states early on in The Affordable City that he recognizes that as a white straight man, he does not represent those who have, and continue to be, most hurt and marginalized by housing policy in America. He acknowledges that he may receive criticism for the historical wrongs he does not address, groups he’s failed to include, or how his language may take agency away from those he’s writing about and welcomes such critique.

While many of the policies Phillips advocates for would create much more equitable housing outcomes—considering that we can never overstate how drastically racism has shaped housing outcomes in the U.S. (and here in Canada)— there is a clear need to evaluate the recommendations of The Affordable City through an anti-racist lens to ensure these policies do not end up reproducing the same inequities they are attempting to address.

Despite its U.S focus, there are many ideas in The Affordable City that are especially pertinent for Vancouver’s policymakers and advocates, and some of Phillips’ recommendations could undoubtedly be implemented to great effect here. With that being said, there were many statements and policy recommendations within the book I found myself disagreeing with, but I think that this demonstrates the very purpose of this book. Phillips recognizes that “Housing policy is too important, and too complex, for anyone to have all the answers”, and I see The Affordable City as an excellent jumping-off point for nuanced, difficult, and hopefully, constructive conversations about how we can use policy to create a housing system that meets everyone’s need for a safe, clean and stable home.


For more information on The Affordable City, visit the Island Press website.


Claire Adams is a settler living in Vancouver, on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil Waututh peoples. She is currently pursuing her Master of Urban Studies at Simon Fraser University.