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Panel debates solutions to BC rental insecurity at housing conference

While the rain poured outside today, planners, developers, municipal politicians, and academics from across B.C. gathered in Richmond for the third-annual Housing Affordability Symposium, a two-day conference co-presented by BC Housing, the Canadian Home Builders' Association, and the Province of B.C.

With an election just two months away, no B.C. provincial leaders or election hopefuls were in attendance, though housing matters related to provincial jurisdiction, such as rental housing, were widely discussed.

In an afternoon panel on housing affordability for families, Lisa Moffatt relayed her experiences struggling to find affordable, appropriate rental housing for her and her daughter after moving to Vancouver for grad school in the early 2000s.

She and her daughter moved multiple times and weathered virtually every renter's conundrum. They competed against equally-deserving families and couples for rental units by presenting landlords with carefully curated resumes, life histories, and charisma; faced the scrutiny of several landlords unwilling to rent to a single-parent family; lived with a rotating cast of roommates to offset housing costs; weathered the storm of two employment lay-offs, and, most recently, were evicted early this year by a landlord who wanted to move into their suite.

Moffatt, who now works as a planner for the Township of Langley, has since found a new rental home in the same catchment area of her daughter's school. She's moving there with her new partner, her roommate, and her daughter at the end of the month.

She's glad to have found a new place to live, but like many renters who experience the shaky murk of Vancouver's rental market, all she wants now is to stay put. "We're tired of moving around," Moffatt told the symposium audience today. "I guess what I really want is security."

While many of the solutions presented at the Housing Affordability Symposium so far suggest increasing the rental housing stock and accepting renting as a long-term, rather than transitional, mode of housing, the success of renting long-term in B.C. relies largely on the security of tenure that many renters don't have, and which people like Moffatt certainly have not experienced.

"One of the problems is when you tinker with rentals to make them more secure for tenants, it makes developers less likely to want to build rentals," Nathanael Lauster told Tyee Solutions Society. "The more the province limits what they can do with rental suites, the less likely market actors are going to really want to build them."

The assistant professor in UBC's sociology department presented at the symposium alongside Moffatt. He conducted a 2011 study on discrimination against single-parent families and same-sex couples in the Metro Vancouver rental market. He found that same-sex male couples and single-parent families faced significant discrimination when it came to finding a place to rent compared to straight couples.

Lauster would like to see more intensive exploration of non-market housing options suitable for families. "I think co-ops are this fascinating thing that have just dropped," he said. 
In Lauster's panel presentation at the housing symposium, he questioned the popular notion that families need single detached homes to thrive. His research findings suggest that more than half of Vancouver families are already living in urban alternatives to the house, including row houses, low-rises, and duplexes.

Lauster's suggestions for leveraging density for affordability include building up the rental housing stock, building cooperative housing stock, and building social housing stock.

"Do families actually need houses? Over time, this has moved from a sales pitch to becoming a living standard," Lauster told the audience. Finally, pressing for more progressive income distribution, he said, is key to addressing the affordability crisis. "The more we rely just on housing policies," he said, "The more we're going to be missing that big picture."

The Housing Affordability Symposium continues at the Delta Vancouver Airport Hotel Friday, March 15.

Jackie Wong reports on affordable housing for The Tyee Solutions Society.

This series was produced by Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives Society. This series was made possible through the support of Real Estate Foundation, Vancity, and BC Non-Profit Housing Association. Support for this project does not necessarily imply Vancity's endorsement of the findings or contents of this report. TSS funders and Tides Canada Initiatives neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS' reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other Tyee Solutions Society-produced articles, please see this website for contacts and information.

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