Worth Saving

City Councillor Jonathan Cote has been busy this past little while up at SFU learning about Urban Studies. He’s recently completed a report on rental housing, and it’s an interesting read. Although I have owned a home for about a decade now, I was a tenant for a long time, and the availability and pricing of rental housing in the 90s is what drew me to New West when I left Vancouver Island in the first place.

I asked Cote how he chose to write a term paper about saving purpose built rental housing.

“Finding inspiration for my term paper on housing was not a difficult task,” he said.

“All I needed to do was look out my living room window to see a purpose built rental building being torn down on Royal Avenue. I am not trying to single out the developer on this project; given the economic situation, the property owner made a very rational development decision. The existing rental building was aging and facing expensive maintenance issues and the market was ready for a condo project in this neighbourhood.”

I lived in the very apartment Cote refers to. In its place a six storey wood frame building has been approved for construction. This is significant for a few reasons – six storey wood frame buildings were previously not permitted within the BC Building Code, but the code was altered in 2009 to allow for it after studies demonstrated they were safe in earthquakes. Secondly, this is the first one to be approved for construction in New Westminster and I think it is a sign of things to come.

New Westminster is such a tight, dense, and compact city. This is great for walkability (except someone really needs to do something about the hills) and for getting around without a car. We have lots of transit access points with five Skytrain stations in the city. But we’re out of land, and if you can’t build out, the only place to build is up.

By comparison, I visited Calgary about five years ago, and my brother and I checked out a new housing subdivision on the very outskirts of town. I went back only few years later, and discovered the City of Calgary had crept another 100 kilometers from the centre of the city with another 20 new subdivisions with made up names and cookie cutter houses. What had been sold as “on the edge of it all” was now billed as “easy commute to downtown”.

I don’t recall how many units exactly were in the now-demolished Royal Avenue apartments. I want to say about 40-50 altogether. The new building is approved for 118 units, which no matter how poorly I’ve estimated, is at least double. But here’s the big difference – these units will be individually owned as a strata building, and although the strata bylaws will likely allow for owners to rent out some of the units, this still represents a loss of rental housing.

Councillor Cote says this is a concern. “As I began to research the challenges facing purpose built rental units it became very clear that market rental developments cannot compete with market condo projects. Given the important role rental housing plays in housing low and moderate income earners in our region, this should be cause for concern. Our rental stock is aging and the economics simply do not work for the development of new purpose built rental buildings.”

With the recent news that New Westminster has been selected as a community the provincial government with pilot a poverty reduction program, Cote’s report is timely.

“As I continued my research I realized that there was no easy solution and a variety of policy tools would need to be implemented to change the economics of rental housing.”

So what does Cote suggest?

“We need to create incentives for developers to consider rental housing as a sound investment, and parallel that with more restrictive land use policies. We need to create an entirely separate housing market for rental housing. Only by addressing this issue will the region be able to ensure that low and moderate income earners have a place in Metro Vancouver’s housing system.”

Cote plans to present his term paper to City Council and also other municipalities. You can read the full report here.

 

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3 thoughts on “Worth Saving”

  1. I completely agree, we need to protect rental stock in the city (and around Metro Vancouver), some municipalities have put in place strata conversion by-laws, preventing existing buildings to be stratafied (yes, I know, that word is completely incorrect in that context, you know that I mean… ;) but they don't protect existing rental units from being converted to condos via a rebuild like this project.

    What is desperately needed, and something I've advocated for in every single election I've ever run in, is for the province to allow municipalities to designate "rental" zoning. We have residential, commercial, industrial, municipalities can even designate the size and type of buildings, and to some degree the type of usage for various commercial purposes, what they desperately need the power to do is zone sections of multi-family residential land to be exclusively used for rental property. And we need this soon before more rental stock gets rebuilt as strata. We think we have a housing crisis and a lack of affordability for the working class now? Just wait until all those who are already on the margins of society can't afford somewhere to live in Metro Vancouver.

    Unfortunately when you have a provincial government led for a decade by a former developer… you know where their priorities will be. Big new roads to the valley, sprawling sub-divisions on prime agricultural land, towers to the stars affordable only to the rich, not a government that stands up for the average citizen or that makes issues such as sustainability a priority.

  2. Interesting idea, Matt. The province doesn't matter, Cities have a huge amount of freedom under the LGA to create any type of zoning they wish. It is really their only unlimited power. I suspect, however, that desingating "rental zoning" or even a form of higher-density residential that requires some % designated as rental will have to come with a reduction in property tax revenue.

  3. I think Matt’s idea is a sound one. Although I understand the financial impetus for a developer to go with what will be profitable, that is (as history has proven) is not the whole picture when you’re creating a healthy community. The community itself needs checks and balances in place to keep that in proportion to other important aspects of modern living; accessibility, affordability, and even a bit of visual and stylistic variation that makes a community look like a place you’d like to spend your life.

    Besides all that, I’m a supporter of mixed zoning in any case. In our 21st century, where the need to live closer to the things we need will become more and more evident, I think we need to think about planning for density, as Jen suggested in the article. In addition to sustainable and affordable rental properties, I think walkability, carless lifestyles, and a fight against sprawl, which is just one of the ways we’ve decided to create isolated existences in suburban locations, are going to be vital to healthy living in cities and suburbs. To me, it’s a question of what we as a civilization will be able to afford as our century progresses in all kinds of ways. And building condos while not replenishing rental properties will eventually turn sour in terms of profitability as well in any case. We all need to think long-term, developers included.

    Thanks for the article! I look forward to more discussion!

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