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Urban Planning + Architecture

It’s Possible to Develop New Housing Without Displacing Tons of Renters. Why Don’t We?

A look at a map and data with solutions.

By Christopher Cheung 25 Feb 2019 |

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

Is it possible to build more housing without pushing renters from their homes?

Metro Vancouver is mostly built out, and there are policies in place to protect important agricultural, industrial and natural land from being turned into residential.

So if developers want to build new homes, they’ll likely have to destroy old ones.

But while displacement is a reality of development in a maturing region, it shouldn’t always be vulnerable people who bear the brunt of change, say two urban professionals.

That’s what happened in Burnaby’s Metrotown, where a 2011 policy sped up development and a massive displacement of renters — all backed by the strategy of “transit-oriented growth.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. Data analyst Jens von Bergmann and transportation planner Denis Agar created visualizations of census data and found that many residential areas already served by frequent transit could handle more density with less displacement.

Currently, growth is often targeted around already dense areas of renters. Agar describes it as a “dark game of musical chairs” as renters are displaced and forced to find new homes.

Here are the areas covered by frequent transit:


And this is what it looks like when the number of renters per acre is mapped out on that network:

“We’ve been doing the thing that’s politically easy,” explains von Bergmann.

He understands that change in a neighbourhood can be a frightening thing, but argues that homeowners, compared to renters, are much less vulnerable.

Displacement for homeowners is voluntary, he said. “You don’t have to sell in a land assembly, but if you do so, typically, you’re well compensated for that inconvenience. From that perspective, the homeowner that’s facing displacement has a lot of tools to deal with it.”

Renters, on the other hand, don’t have that choice to stay.

“If they’re renters that have lived in an older building for a long time and rely on the affordable rent that the building grants, when they’re displaced, there’s nothing in the neighbourhood they could afford to move into. These events can be very traumatic and devastating for a household.”

Von Bergmann believes that transit-oriented development is a good growth strategy — it’s greener than car-oriented sprawl and contributes to a better quality of urban life — but wants to see the execution be less harmful.

UBC geographers have documented the existence of a corridor of low-income renters along the SkyTrain line, who depend on the rapid transit as an affordable alternative to driving. They’ve been gradually displaced by condo development.

This isn’t new. After legislation allowed condominiums in B.C. in 1966 and developers warmed up to building them, rental neighbourhoods in Vancouver like Kitsilano and Fairview — popular areas with low rental vacancy rates in the early 1970s — were hit with “demovictions.”

This urban transformation was most famously documented by Vancouver geographer David Ley. His 1996 book opens with the story of Mrs. Edna Shakel, a widow in her 70s on a fixed pension, who lived in a Fairview rooming house shared with other senior women. Her friends, church and familiar services were only a walk away.

But when the market tipped into favouring condos, Shakel was demovicted. The newcomers who bought in the condo building that replaced her home included company presidents and business managers.

Demovictions in Metrotown and Burquitlam continue this tradition. Many of the renters there are low-income newcomers, including refugees.

Demovictions mean renters are pushed away from the core needs and conveniences their neighbourhoods provided.

Von Bergmann noted that Metrotown has areas of houses with one or two renters per acre. And yet the city has incentivized development in the areas with 20 to 40 renters per acre.

“One can’t help but think that renters are being directly targeted, despite how much more vulnerable they are to eviction,” he said.

It’s something that the activists of Stop Displacement also noted in their People’s Plan for Metrotown in 2017.

“The land under these houses is overvalued and awaiting redevelopment, but Burnaby’s zoning laws limit the possible redevelopments to new single family homes,” it read. “This is a wasted opportunity [for a] much greater density gain.”

The activists’ plan doesn’t flat-out reject the redevelopment of Metrotown’s old walk-up apartments, but suggests that displaced renters be placed in non-market housing nearby before doing so.

(There is currently a moratorium on development in the area. One real estate agent specializing in apartment buildings says the situation is “confusing as hell.”)

Von Bergmann and Agar’s hope is that conversation around growth also examines how to reduce the growing pains.

“Each municipality has some idea of how to grow,” said von Bergmann. “But the one thing that seems to be missing from the debate is talking about displacement.”

You can read Jens von Bergmann and Denis Agar’s thoughts on development and displacement on their blogs here and here.

Have a different idea of where you think new homes should go? Chime in below.  [Tyee]

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