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.”
“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.