Metro Vancouver remains one of the toughest housing markets in Canada for renters, with high rents, low vacancy rates and increasing pressure to redevelop neighbourhoods where affordable rental housing does exist.
The stories told earlier this month by Metro renters through the Tyee's Generation Rent storytelling night and panel discussion leave no doubt: tenants face a continuing crisis of affordability, insecurity and poor building maintenance. But unacknowledged in much of the debate are the very significant efforts under way across Metro to change that reality, efforts that are producing thousands of new units of market rental housing and new tools to protect tenants from bad landlords.
In Vancouver, these changes have included a crackdown on slumlords, the creation of a renters' database to allow tenants to track buildings with building violations, and a very successful rent bank, run by a non-profit society, to offer small crisis loans to tenants facing eviction.
A crisis as profound and long-lasting as the one facing Metro renters can't be resolved overnight, but the new pro-rental policies emerging in Vancouver -- along with the hundreds of new homes they are generating -- are proof that change can come, particularly if senior levels of government take up their responsibilities.
Slide in rentals, and city's response
Construction of rental housing largely died in Canada in the 1980s when Ottawa cancelled tax benefits that had sparked a wave of multi-unit construction.
Although about half of Vancouver's residents are tenants, the number of new rental units built each year in the city seldom exceeded 200, a tiny fraction of the thousands of new condo units thrown on the market. In 2008 and 2009 there were no new private sector rental apartments committed for construction at all. Zero.
A wave of renovictions highlighted the problems facing renters and their issues became a big part of the 2008 civic election, which focused on homelessness.
Mayor Gregor Robertson soon delivered on an election pledge to encourage new rental construction with his Short Term Incentives for Rental program, later replaced with Rental 100. Both were seen as a crucial step to increase supply across the housing continuum, from shelters to social housing to rental.
By increasing housing available and affordable to families earning between $20,000 and $86,000, which is just above the median family income in the city, city housing planners believed we could tap some private sector investment to provide stepping stones for residents for whom home ownership was an elusive goal.
By relaxing some city requirements, like parking, and expediting rental proposals, Vancouver sought to encourage new rental construction without offering rent subsidies, which were far beyond the city's financial capacity in any case.
But the new units would improve affordability overall in the city's housing stock by expanding and renewing the supply of rental units, which become more affordable over time because rents have tended to increase much more slowly than new home prices.
The results have been dramatic. More than 1,000 units were approved in Vancouver in 2012 alone, a four or five-fold increase over the annual average in the previous three years. They are expected to rent at a range of market rates equivalent to about 30 per cent of the household income of families in the target income group. (These numbers are drawn from city housing branch analysis included in the 2013 budget documents.)
A project generating a further 87 units was sent to public hearing this week. If approved, that building will put Vancouver 1,917 rental units ahead of where the city's Affordable Housing Plan proposed to get us by this date.
Aims for 2021
The goal for 2021 is 5,000 rental units, with 1,500 completed by 2014. In fact, 374 are complete, 880 under construction, 1,245 are approved and 918 currently in the rezoning process, not all of which may be approved. This is, by any standard, a dramatic transformation in the housing market.
Under city rules, developers must undertake covenants ensuring the homes remain rental for 60 years or the life of the building, whichever is longer.
Now New Westminster has launched its own version of Rental 100 with its Secured Market Rental Policy, a strategy intended to encourage "retaining, renewing and enhancing the supply of secured rental housing."
In Burnaby, council is considering a proposal for two high-rise rental apartment towers, in a much larger complex of condo towers adjacent to a SkyTrain station, which would have parking requirements eased because of the proximity to transit. Pension fund financing is driving these new projects, ensuring the housing will remain rental for the foreseeable future.
At the regional level, the Metro Vancouver Housing Committee has sponsored the creation of a Canada Rental Housing Coalition, including business groups, municipalities, construction firms, tenant groups and others, in a national effort to win renewed federal tax incentives for rental housing.
The stories told by four speakers at the Tyee's recent renters' forum were diverse and compelling. For Joe Thompson, who now lives in affordable housing at City Gate, finding stable, long-term housing enabled him to turn around his life.
Video from Tyee's Generation Rent storytelling night in Vancouver earlier this month.
Two of the other tenants had stories with less certain happy endings: a Mount Pleasant couple fearful the discovery of their chihuahua would trigger eviction from their perfect apartment; an artist and mother of two, with a husband in high tech, determined to raise her children in the city, now in a lovely home but with a uniquely progressive and supportive landlord who might someday sell.
The most unusual story: Jocelyn Wagner's tale of renting a seven-bedroom house with five roommates, all professionals, who joined together in a social media strategy to land a $3,500 shared rental in West Point Grey that met their needs.
Speak up, renters
The recent revival of rental housing construction in Metro is an encouraging sign, but we need to turn this ripple of hope into a wave. That will take provincial and federal action, as well as continuing pressure on municipalities to do what they can.
What's happened since 2008 is a good beginning. To go further, faster, all levels of government have to hear the voices of renters, loud and clear: build rental housing!