The Georgia Straight
Council split over rental rules in commercial zones
Among many voters, there’s a tendency to look at Vancouver city council through the lens of a right-left ideological divide. But a vote on the evening of April 1—going into the Easter long weekend—revealed that things aren’t quite that straightforward.
Six members of council from four parties voted to amend the Rental Housing Stock Official Development Plan so that it now applies to four commercial zoning categories. This affects 3,050 rental units in 380 purpose-built rental buildings. Most of these units were built before 1975 and rent at substantially lower amounts than units in new rental buildings, according to a city staff report.
Green councillors Adriane Carr, Pete Fry, and Michael Wiebe joined OneCity Vancouver’s Christine Boyle, COPE’s Jean Swanson, and the NPA’s Colleen Hardwick in voting in favour of requiring one-to-one replacements for any rental units demolished for redevelopment in these areas.
The five who voted against this motion included three NPA councillors—Melissa De Genova, Lisa Dominato, and Sarah KirbyYung—along with independent councillor Rebecca Bligh and Mayor Kennedy Stewart.
The plan to extend the one-to-one replacement in commercial zones was opposed by the banking and development industries. They warned that this would amount to a mass downzoning, which would cause property values to decline in these areas.
The chair of the Urban Development Institute, Beau Jarvis, told council last month that the amendments to C-2, C-2B, C-2C, and C-2C1 zones could wipe out $500 million in equity, forcing major chartered banks to adjust lending practices in Vancouver.
He based this figure on a figure in a report for the city by Coriolis Consulting.
A city staff report noted that 81 units have been lost in these areas over the past decade without the one-to-one replacement rule. That contrasts with 691 new rentals being constructed over the same period in the four commercial zones.
That led the staff to argue that although there would be fewer evictions as a result of the amendments, there would also be fewer total rental units built in these zones in strata projects if the motion were approved.
The views of developers, landowners, and bankers did not sway the majority.
“This is one of those ‘whose side are we on?’ moments,” Swanson said during the debate. “Should C-2 tenants have the same protection as other tenants? Or should we prioritize the wants of developers to keep
their property values escalating—unearned escalating—year over year over year?”
Swanson answered her own questions by declaring: “Tenants need to have stability more than banks need to have stability and developers need to have stability.”
Moreover, she added: “There is no stability for tenants and we need to do everything we can to create it.”
The NPA’s Hardwick noted that most “affordable housing” is that which has already been built. She added that this one-to-one replacement rule has existed for decades in apartment-oriented zones without any problems.
“I highly question whether this will have a large effect on land values,” the NPA councillor said. “This is a modest rental protection that we owe existing rentals.”
Opponents raised several concerns.
Bligh noted in the debate that she wasn’t seeing any “hyperfocus” on redeveloping commercial zones and evicting tenants.
“Revaluing land and downsizing these sites, I think, is a much bigger risk to the city as a whole,” she said.
De Genova and Kirby-Yung talked about unintended consequences. For De Genova, this concerned the financial ramifications of financing social housing on 14 sites owned by the city.
Kirby-Yung said that it was important to make room for new renters. She insisted that it was false to suggest that about 3,000 people would lose their homes if the amendments weren’t approved.
“That is a red herring,” Kirby-Yung said. The apartments are in commercial zones in many areas of the city, including along most of Kingsway and parts of West 4th Avenue, West Broadway, Victoria Drive, 41st Avenue, and East Hastings, Main, Fraser, and Alma streets.
A majority of council also voted in favour of an amendment by Fry directing staff to report back on methods to allow for the transfer of density to another site or density offsets in the four commercial zones. These, he stated, would be intended “to support rental replacement” and could include “requesting a change to the Vancouver Charter as necessary”.
In advancing this idea, Fry pointed out that Burnaby “has embarked on this exact same process”.
“What’s happening is the developers are relocating tenants into similarly priced units elsewhere because they’re being given an offset of density that they can then move from that existing location to another location close by,” Fry said.