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Vancouver Housing Report Mostly 'A's, but Look Closer, Critics Say

Absence of detail, too broad a focus among faults found in city’s renter strategy.

By Katie Hyslop 18 May 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop reports on affordable housing for Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop, or read her previous reporting published on The Tyee .

This series is produced by Tyee Solutions Society. TSS funders neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other TSS produced articles, please visit www.tyeesolutions.org for contacts and information.

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Despite achieving goals, Vancouver's latest city report only confirms persistent difficulties facing renters. Photo by dons project in Your BC: The Tyee's Photo Pool.

Four years into the City of Vancouver's decade-long Housing and Homelessness Strategy, the news it has to report so far is all good.

Counting approved and under-construction as well as finished purpose-built rentals, the city has doubled its five-year goal of 2,500 new units, with 5,000 actually occupied or under way. It's seen 3,500 new secondary suites added or approved instead of the 3,000 it promised.

But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details -- and the good news in the 2015 Housing and Homelessness Strategy Report Card, released on Friday and presented to city council yesterday, is pretty selective.

Vancouver achieved only 81 per cent of its target for adding supportive housing and 67 per cent of the target for social housing. And the report card leaves out too many subjects, said urban planner Andy Yan, acting director of Simon Fraser's City program.

"It's just a lot of assumptions here," Yan said, noting that the report glosses over a lot of factors that determine how useful the new housing really is, such as its affordability, suitability, and how many other affordable units were lost as tenants wait for new ones to open.

Yan found echoes in the latest document of the 12 (later updated to 14) social housing sites that the province promised in 2007 would be part of Vancouver's Olympic legacy. The penultimate site opened only last year, and ground still has yet to be broken on the final site.

A more useful document, the urban planner said, would have provided a detailed housing survey or census breaking down the nature of housing stock in every Vancouver neighbourhood, as cities like Calgary and San Francisco do.

"It's important to look at how many doors are opened, versus doors that are promised," Yan said.

Misguided support

And despite the goals achieved, the City's latest report only confirms the persistent difficulties facing renters in Vancouver.

The median income for households renting in the city in 2011 was $41,433 -- among the lowest of all major Canadian cities -- while rental housing costs were and are among the highest. Almost 35 per cent of median-income renters were forced to spend more than 30 per cent of their income on housing in 2011, by the most common measure meaning that they couldn't afford to be paying what they were for shelter.

The report card talks vaguely about the City's still-in-development plans to launch its own Affordable Home Ownership program. But more than half of Vancouverites rent. And as the cost of buying continues to skyrocket further out of reach for most, Yan said the City would be better off securing renters' tenure where they are, rather than trying to turn them into homeowners.

"In Germany you can rent for your entire life and not have that fear of being evicted," he said. "You can move around in your 20s, but I think when you're in your 60s and moving into that stage of life, that is a huge issue."

The City does have a few initiatives for struggling renters, including a "rent bank" that provides short-term loans to those at risk of eviction or utility shut-offs, a rental standards database, and better protection from renovictions than anywhere else in the province.

Uploading blame, lack of focus

But city staff said that otherwise, most rental policy is up to the province, while the failure to meet goals for social and supportive housing is mainly down to the federal government not yet releasing its purse-strings for a promised infusion of funds into those sectors.

In response to The Tyee's questions, the province said that it couldn't comment on individual stalled projects, since the report doesn't specify which require funding, but a spokesperson noted that it has invested $300 million so far to build 1,500 of the supportive housing units.

Public-interest lawyer DJ Larkin, who works on housing issues with the Pivot Legal Society, said it's clear that some of the hold-up on new social and supportive housing is out of the City's hands.

But Larkin, who won a B.C. Supreme Court decision overturning a Lower Mainland municipality's right to dismantle a tent city where no suitable, affordable housing was available, said even Vancouver's efforts on behalf of renters are spread too thin.

If it wants to make a real difference, she said, city hall should focus exclusively on social and supportive housing.

"A lot of the housing initiatives that the city's looking at right now risk becoming unaffordable in just one generation of renters," Larkin said, thanks to a provincial law that allows landlords to exceed the two per cent annual cap on rent increases once a tenant moves out.

While affordable housing never seems to trickle down, she added, it might trickle up. That is: creating more social and supportive housing units would free up lower-end market rentals for (relatively) higher income earners.

Of course, those units too would also be susceptible to rent increases once tenants left them for social housing units.

It's a tough dilemma that for Yan raises the question of whether rental housing should be left to the marketplace at all.

Something to consider in Vancouver, where high land prices, foreign capital investments, and the popularity of short-term rentals through sites like Air BnB, all create higher returns for market landlords than a long-term tenant whose rents may only rise by two per cent a year.  [Tyee]

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