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A Burnaby Housing Corporation? ‘Everything’s On the Table,’ Says Mayor

Metro Van’s third-biggest city considers building a housing corp from scratch.

Christopher Cheung 24 Jun 2022TheTyee.ca

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

Burnaby is considering a bold solution: the creation of its own housing corporation.

It’s a rare move as the bulk of municipal housing corporations in B.C. were formed during the 1960s, when federal funding flowed. Most of their housing was developed up until 1993, when the Chrétien Liberals pulled the federal government out of their responsibility for funding social housing.

If it goes ahead, Burnaby’s municipal housing corporation will be the newest after Tofino’s, which was created five years ago.

Burnaby may not be a vacation destination struggling with affordability for locals like Tofino, but there are increasing concerns that the Metro Vancouver region itself is becoming home to “resort” cities for the wealthy.

As a result, Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley says “unusual times” need unusual solutions: “Everything has to be on the table.”

“I think we wouldn’t be doing our due diligence if we didn’t look at every opportunity we may have to deliver the housing we need,” he said.

The idea of Burnaby’s own municipal housing corporation was raised by city councillors and staff last November. Staff are now studying different models that would be feasible for the city. They are expected to present them around September for a council vote.

“It’s still got a ways to go,” said Hurley. “But we’re looking at every option. My big concern is that we’re going to lose a generation of people from Burnaby if we don’t start cracking that nut open.”

At least 2,000 new homes

The city’s director of community planning, Carl Isaak, told The Tyee that staff are on the hunt for the “right model.” There are many roles that a municipal housing corporation could play: acquiring land, getting financing, developing projects, managing units and seeking partnerships.

Tofino, for example, recently offered land to a non-profit developer to build, own and operate the actual housing. This project will offer 35 homes for low-to-middle-income people, due to be completed next year.

Whatever model emerges, Hurley’s hope is for at least 2,000 new homes. He envisions homes for low-income people, for people who work in Burnaby and for young families — maybe “ground-oriented” units with a door that opens right onto a street or courtyard.

For context, about 5,000 tenant households in Burnaby currently live in some form of subsidized housing.

Hurley wants to see homes for those who earn average incomes in addition to those for low-income people.

“I hear from businesses every day that they cannot keep their workforce close to work,” he said, adding that if people live a tiring commute away, there isn’t much incentive to come into Burnaby to work even if they’re paid a little bit more.

As affordable as possible

The whole point of a municipal housing corporation is to get homes as affordable as possible. It helps that an entity without a profit motive, like private landlords, would be able to opt for a break-even model or aim to make a reasonable profit that could be be reinvested back into housing provision. But partnerships are crucial too.

Hurley gives the example of the empty lot at 6857-6875 Royal Oak Ave., which has been sitting “shovel ready” for over a year.

The city gave a land lease to a non-profit to develop the project, which would include 134 rental homes. Almost half of them have two or three bedrooms, to ensure that the rentals can accommodate families.

But even with the city offering public land and another $20 million in funding, Hurley says that’s only enough to get the homes renting at market rates.

“That doesn’t make any sense for us,” said Hurley, adding that he’s still hoping the province will chip in to get those rents even lower.

So far, he’s been told that BC Housing has been “oversubscribed” with funding requests.

“It’s an incredible location,” he said, noting the SkyTrain station that’s just steps away. “We’re baffled ourselves as to why it hasn’t got funding.”

There are four other sites in the city just like this one — with permits all ready to go — that are sitting around because they weren’t approved for provincial funding.

Having an entity like its own municipal housing corporation might make it easier for Burnaby to secure funding.

“To get to the affordable levels that we need, you still need partnerships,” said Hurley.

That’s how most municipalities in B.C. have been creating new affordable units: through partnerships with non-profits and the co-op sector, says Jill Atkey, the CEO of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association.

On the left, tall wild grass and an invasive blackberry bush are spilling through a chain-link fence. In the background, a SkyTrain passes by on overhead tracks. It’s a dark, cloudy day.
In the 2010s, Burnaby experienced a condo boom around its four town centres, all near SkyTrain stations. One decade and one mayor later, the fact that the city is waiting for funders to chip in — to push rents below market levels for this development on its empty lot — signals a new housing direction. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Burnaby is also looking beyond affordable rentals. One of the models being explored is like Whistler’s, which offers ownership options the city is “very interested” in, said Hurley. Whistler has developed condos that can only be sold to people who work there.

Burnaby, like most densifying cities, has its share of Not-In-My-Back-Yard protesters.

Earlier this year, “NIMBYs” who live nearby came out to criticize a union-developed housing proposal they said was too dense for the city’s official development plan, which was created back in 1999. The proposal included 292 rentals — 146 of them restricted to below-market rents — along with a café, offices and an affordable child-care centre.

Burnaby’s council ultimately voted in favour of the proposal.

If a municipal housing corporation is created, Hurley isn’t worried about residents’ pushback on the housing it develops.

“That usually changes a bit when you have a conversation, and say, ‘Well, where do you want your kids to live? Where do you want your grandkids to live?’” he said.

“And then they start to think about it, [and say,] ‘It would be great to have my grandkids be able to stay in the city.’”

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Hot, Hot Housing is a reported column on the housing crisis in Vancouver and beyond, published in The Tyee every Friday. Got housing stories of your own? Whether it’s market hijinks, tenancy horrors or survival tips, you can email us at housing@thetyee.ca.  [Tyee]

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