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In­de­pen­dent may­oral can­di­date Sean Cas­sidy wants long-term ten­ants to have first ac­cess to any rental ac­com­mo­da­tion that’s avail­able rather than al­low­ing Airbnb to op­er­ate in the city.

The Georgia Straight - - Opinion -

he prov­ince of B.C.’S re­cently an­nounced de­ci­sion to ad­just the rental-rate for­mula down to in­fla­tion was a wel­come move for renters. How­ever, with “de­movic­tions” across the city, es­ca­lat­ing rental rates, and a low va­cancy rate, ac­cu­mu­lated un­der a dis­as­trous decade of Vi­sion Van­cou­ver, the next Van­cou­ver mayor will need to be a strong ad­vo­cate for renters to undo this dam­age.

Un­for­tu­nately, the plat­forms of the two cur­rent lead­ing may­oral can­di­dates—in­de­pen­dent Kennedy Ste­wart and the NPA’S Ken Sim—have no sub­stance for renters. Let’s ex­am­ine their plans and pro­pose some real al­ter­na­tives.

Kennedy Ste­wart sat on the side­lines as an MP in Burn­aby while his con­stituents were de­movicted left, right, and cen­tre. It is there­fore not sur­pris­ing that Ste­wart’s renters’ plat­form par­rots Vi­sion Van­cou­ver’s ex­ist­ing renter pro­tec­tion poli­cies, of­fer­ing no new ideas. Con­tin­u­ing the sta­tus quo with­out any rad­i­cal ideas will not help renters in the cur­rent mar­ket con­di­tions.

For ex­am­ple, Ste­wart prom­ises to work with for-profit de­vel­op­ers to build thou­sands and thou­sands of units of laneway houses and pur­pose­built mar­ket rentals, but men­tions no measures that will en­sure those rentals are af­ford­able.

On the other hand, Sim’s plat­form for renters is to “re­duce mu­nic­i­pal taxes, fees, and charges for laneway homes and new secondary suites that house long-term renters”. This amounts to minute sav­ings for small pri­vate de­vel­op­ers and home­own­ers, which he hopes will trans­late to “trick­le­down af­ford­abil­ity” for renters in pre­car­i­ous un­se­cured hous­ing.

Renters need a strong mayor who will cre­ate a renter-friendly en­vi­ron­ment and ad­vo­cate for them. As a for­mer se­nior gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial at CMHC who co­fi­nanced bil­lions of dol­lars of pur­pose-built rentals across Canada, fi­nanced real-es­tate de­vel­op­ment projects for Royal Trust (now Royal Bank), did con­sumer mort­gage fi­nanc­ing, and worked for a de­vel­oper man­ag­ing rental prop­erty, I un­der­stand what renters need.

First, the next city coun­cil should ex­er­cise its abil­ity un­der the Van­cou­ver Char­ter to set and reg­u­late mar­ket rents and the rates at which they in­crease for projects they ap­prove. Cur­rently, de­vel­op­ers sub­mit an ap­pli­ca­tion for a project that lays out the rental rate they plan to charge, but that rate ap­plies right at the time of coun­cil ap­proval, not oc­cu­pancy.

There­fore, by the time the project is built and oc­cu­pied, the re­sult­ing rents have in­flated mas­sively from the ini­tial com­mit­ment. Mar­ket rental rates are now at as­tro­nom­i­cal prices, reach­ing al­most $2,000 for a one-bed­room unit and over $3,000 for three bed­rooms. This is un­sus­tain­able in a city where in­comes have stag­nated com­pared to ris­ing hous­ing costs.

The past city coun­cil com­posed of mostly Vi­sion Van­cou­ver and NPA coun­cil­lors was un­will­ing to use its abil­ity to reg­u­late mar­ket rental rates. When the mar­ket is fail­ing a sig­nif­i­cant pop­u­la­tion of cit­i­zens who are renters, we need a mayor and coun­cil that are will­ing to reg­u­late rents for af­ford­abil­ity.

At the same time, if we start reg­u­lat­ing rents in a time of ris­ing project fi­nanc­ing costs due to in­creas­ing in­ter­est rates, we also need to en­sure that de­vel­op­ers are still en­cour­aged to build se­cured mar­ket rental hous­ing in­stead of con­dos that are more quickly prof­itable. On top of that, rental projects are harder to finance com­pared to condo projects, which ben­e­fit from con­struc­tion loans se­cured by pre­sales.

The city al­ready pro­vides some in­cen­tives through park­ing re­lax­ations and de­vel­op­ment-cost-levy waivers for projects meet­ing cer­tain re­quire­ments, but more can be done. The next mayor and coun­cil need to ac­tively lobby higher lev­els of gov­ern­ment to pro­vide tax in­cen­tives for rental projects.

An ex­am­ple is the U.S. hous­ing-tax model, which helped in­cen­tivize the cre­ation of the Col­well rental apart­ment build­ing in down­town Seat­tle, among oth­ers. If Van­cou­ver is to be a renter-friendly city, all lev­els of gov­ern­ment need to work to­gether to align in­cen­tives for builders, but pro­tect renters at the same time.

Se­condly, with low va­cancy rates, we must en­sure that any ex­ist­ing hous­ing sup­ply should be used to house longterm renters first. Short-term rental (STR) ser­vices like Airbnb have turned hous­ing into at­trac­tive cash-flow mod­els in­stead of homes for peo­ple. Van­cou­ver should ban all STR op­er­a­tions un­til the city and STR providers can im­ple­ment stronger data-shar­ing tools to re­move cur­rently over a thou­sand il­le­gal STR op­er­a­tions in the city.

If STR ser­vices fail to com­ply, then the city must hold them re­spon­si­ble and fine them heav­ily. This move will likely im­me­di­ately free up long-term rental sup­ply to the mar­ket.

Lastly, we need to stop ren­ovic­tions. Ren­ovic­tion is also a form of spec­u­la­tion where land­lords ren­o­vate to push up rents—some­times even triple the orig­i­nal rent. Of­ten, the ren­o­va­tions are mi­nor in na­ture be­cause their pri­mary pur­pose is to gen­er­ate more in­come for the land­lord, not to im­prove the build­ing.

A timely ren­ovic­tion ex­am­ple is Berkeley Tower in the West End, where the new owner, Re­liance Prop­er­ties, is con­vert­ing al­most 60 units of ex­ist­ing af­ford­able hous­ing into high­end mar­ket rentals, push­ing long­time ten­ants out as a re­sult. In or­der to stop such ren­ovic­tions, we need to ad­vo­cate for rent in­creases to be tied to the unit, not the ten­ant.

Should land­lords choose to ren­o­vate, they need to lay out why the ren­o­va­tions are oc­cur­ring, and the fu­ture rent they plan to charge, be­fore the city is­sues their per­mits.

It is time for Van­cou­ver renters to have a mayor who has a strong hous­ing back­ground and is un­afraid to ad­vo­cate for bold renter poli­cies. I am that mayor.

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