Unleashing Creativity within a City

By Mukhtar Latif

As Chief Housing Officer, Mukhtar is responsible for developing and implementing housing strategies and policies to enable more housing affordability within the City of Vancouver. Working with developers, not-for-profits, provincial and federal agencies to meet housing needs and help implement the recommendations of the Mayor's Task Force in providing an array of housing types. Mukhtar is also the Chief Executive of the newly formed Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency which has been tasked to develop 2,500 new affordable homes by 2021.

Oct 19, 2015 | Smart Cities | 0 comments


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Vancouver is extremely unique as a relatively small city with a large international reputation. The people of our city are passionate about local issues and highly engaged, while our local government is pushing Vancouver to compete on a global scale. As a leader in the environment, with a goal of being the greenest city in the world by 2020, to diversifying the economy and addressing public health, this city has many extraordinary goals. However, with all the good also come the challenges, one of which is creating affordable housing for our growing population.

To help solve some of the key issues Vancouver is facing, the City of Vancouver has been working on initiatives to engage its citizens. One special initiative, the Engaged City Task Force provides access for citizens to engage with the wider city agenda and to provide different perspectives and ideas. When THNK School of Leadership came to town, expanding their network to Vancouver, the City of Vancouver was excited to partner with them, as a way to put an emphasis on solving real life problems with scalable, self-sustaining solutions. Tapping into the innovation methodologies and diverse global network that THNK offers was an innovative way of releasing creativity within the city.

By joining the THNK Challenge on the Future of Capitalism as an Innovation Partner, the City found another way that we could engage citizens and tap into the entrepreneurial energy that is so evident in Vancouver. We helped shape the brief, focusing the lens on ways in which alternative and digital currencies might increase access to affordable low-carbon housing for those in need – mashing up classic business approaches with human-centered design and disruptive financial technology was definitely a moonshot approach!

Teams of THNK participants – accomplished intrapreneurs, social entrepreneurs, and changemakers from across the world – were set to take on this challenge and tasked with interpreting the question based on their life experiences, through listening to communities, scrubbing data for weak signals, and engaging with master practitioners and experts in these fields. I was fascinated in the way this approach developed over the course of six months to generate some fantastic ideas, which will have a great impact on the city and its citizens.

Opportunities and Insights for Vancouver and Beyond

One team, which included a social entrepreneur who has launched a successful food token program in the Downtown Eastside and an early adopter of time banking systems, worked towards refining an innovative way in which those on low or no incomes are able to earn or have digital tokens donated to them. As well as donations, people could earn tokens through work or even, for example, attending medical appointments on time as this leads to efficiencies in health costs. The digital transfer of the token makes it a secure way of helping someone in a positive way. The person paying or donating the token is confident that the use of the digital money will be for food, accommodation or other services that will improve the person’s wellness.

Our fellow Innovation Partner, the Digital Finance Institute, was instrumental in helping this team shape the solution around user needs and the future of financial technology, as co-founder Christine Duhaime explains in her blog about how Bitcoin and the blockchain might save lives. Over time, there is the potential ability to use data analytics to monitor, which services are being used more frequently and resources can be targeted appropriately. This can potentially have a big impact on people’s lives, as well as improve utilization of limited civic resources.

One of the areas that the City has been grappling with is how we might enable the homeless population to improve their income so they are not solely reliant on income assistance as means of supporting their housing and day-to-day living. A digital currency such as this is an exciting new way to empower people on low incomes – and we look forward to sharing more at our Digital Finance, Alternative Currencies and Housing in Vancouver panel at 2:25pm on Thursday, October 22nd at Meeting of the Minds (or check out the live webcast).

Protecting and Increasing Rental Housing Supply

With limited new rental supply, Vancouver is facing a very low 0.5% vacancy rate in the rental stock. There is a downward pressure as people move down the housing ladder to secure affordable housing. This leads to increasing rents as more people chase fewer rental units. The City has used its regulatory and policy tools to help increase supply and encourage more affordable rental units to be developed through incentive programs such as Rental 100 or encouraging different forms of housing such as laneway housing and secondary suites.

Nearly 10,000 new affordable rental units have been approved over the past five years, but they take time to build and are only now starting to come through the construction phase to completion. However, while this supply is being created, the existing low income housing, such as the Single Room Occupancy Hotels, where tenants were paying rents at income assistance levels, are becoming more expensive, leaving those on income assistance with fewer options. Digital currencies might help people on low incomes earn through positive actions and improve their quality of life, as even $200 a month can make a huge difference in the potential affordable housing options for someone on income assistance.

Another promising concept turned social impact investing and investment banking on their heads – using existing models such as crowd funding to deliver social impact investments. Family housing, especially affordable family housing is in short supply. By raising low interest finance and encouraging homeowners to build more laneway housing (homes that are built at the back of single family dwellings), economies of scale could be achieved. With volume driving down the cost of these homes as well as low interest costs, it is possible to rent these homes at lower rates.

Vancouver has over 67,000 secured market rental units, many of which have been protected by the City’s Rate of Change bylaw that requires one-for-one replacement of existing rental stock, if redeveloped. These properties were developed mainly in the 1970’s, are ageing and require renovations to bring them up to current day standards, including energy efficiency measures to reduce the carbon footprint. However, many landlords do not have the resources to fund retrofit energy measures or the capacity to manage the renovations. Working with these landlords and tenants became the focus of yet another challenge team – seeking to improve energy efficiency and share the benefits, which would enable lower carbon emissions while saving money for both landlords and tenants.

These are just a hint at the exciting ideas that have come from participating in the THNK Innovation Challenge process, with more details on projects and findings forthcoming in a milestone report out from THNK Vancouver. The greatest value that I have seen is the way cities can engage with entrepreneurs and academia to generate creative ideas and change the paradigm in and out of City Hall! We hope to see you at our panel so that we can share more details on ways to support these efforts and build on them in your city.

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