Opinion

Five Policies That Would Have Helped Me Stay in Vancouver

Rent control, affordable child care and a relaxation of pet bans for renters would address affordability in the short term.

By Jessica Barrett 20 Nov 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Formerly with Vancouver Magazine and a Webster-winning columnist who’s been widely published, Jessica Barrett lives in Alberta.

The weeks since my essay on leaving Vancouver came out have been surreal and humbling. I’ve been asked to recount my story in numerous interviews, received countless messages of commiseration and support (as well as a few snarky comments) and I’ve been written about in columns portraying me as the ultimate poster child for a city that has developed a troubling habit of “eating its young.” All of this came as a great surprise to me, considering the genre had been done nearly to death.

The scope and scale of the reaction to my story has really got me thinking. People in Vancouver — and beyond — aren’t just embroiled in crisis due to unaffordable housing. They’re clearly in a lot of pain. Few things in life leave you feeling as defeated and hopeless as realizing you no longer have a place to call home. If there’s a silver lining to all this, it’s that the piece seems to have reinvigorated demands for solutions to the problem of escalating housing costs and the collateral damage it continues to cause.

Suggested remedies I have seen go from everything from banning foreign ownership outright, to gearing property taxes to income, to building more non-market housing. And while I agree with some of them (yes to housing!) and not others (a ban is a bit rich for a country of immigrants) the fact is any steps taken to bring the price of real estate back down to earth — provided governments choose to actively pursue this aim — will take time to have substantial effect. We’re talking decades, at least. People in the do-or-die stages of building a career, a family and a secure future simply can’t wait that long. I certainly couldn’t.

Long-term strategies to make Vancouver more affordable for people who live and work there should be aggressively pursued, but there needs to be greater focus on what can happen in the meantime to make life easier for those struggling to hold on. Too often, the conversation about affordability comes down to the fact that young people can’t buy houses. But this is not about that. It’s about the fact that all kinds of people can’t find, settle into, or hold onto a home. Here are a few policies that would have helped me do just that, and could help others currently deciding whether a brighter future in Vancouver is worth the wait.

1) Ending the unnecessary war on pets

I realize not everyone will see the significance of this issue. After all, housing for pets seems like a low priority in a city where so many humans are struggling to find homes. But for me, it shoots to the top of the list.

The need for a pet-friendly place is what propelled me out of stable, affordable housing and into the wild rental market in the first place, thus marking the beginning of the end of my life in Vancouver. And when my boyfriend announced he and his dog (to whom I am very attached) were headed back to Alberta, I seriously considered staying and starting again on my own. But if I was going to do that, I wanted — needed — companionship to get me through what was sure to be a very tough time. The difficulty in finding affordable, pet-friendly housing was a nail in the coffin.

The way I see it is this: staying in Vancouver was going to mean a lot of sacrifice. I would sacrifice living space, I would sacrifice homeownership, I would sacrifice earning potential. Very likely that would also mean sacrificing having kids. Knowing it would be next to impossible to find an affordable place that would also allow me the small but significant comfort of having a cat or a dog was, for me, one sacrifice too many.

I’m not alone. Last week, the group Pets OK BC presented a 10,000-signature petition to the provincial housing minister calling to prohibit landlords from arbitrarily banning pets in lease agreements, as the vast majority do. It’s no coincidence pro-pet groups are gaining steam at a time when residents in the province’s biggest cities are more stressed and isolated than ever. The benefits of pet ownership on mental and physical health — everything from lowering blood pressure to reducing stress, anxiety and depression — are well documented. If there was ever a city that needed a collective cuddle from a furry friend, Vancouver is it.

B.C. should follow Ontario’s model, which prohibits landlords from banning pets unless the unit is in a condo building with an explicit no-pets declaration, and protects tenants who acquire a pet from getting evicted unless the landlord can prove the animal has damaged the suite, disturbed other tenants, or is a safety or health threat to others.

2) Real rent control

The provincial government’s recent move to end fixed-term leases — a loophole that allowed landlords to jack the rent on existing tenants, or evict them — should be applauded. The next step is to amend rent control measures so they apply to units, not tenure of occupancy.

Right now, the maximum annual increase for rent is capped at inflation plus two per cent. But that is void as soon as there’s a change in tenancy and so is no help to long-term renters thrust back into the market due to changes in family structure, work, or, increasingly, the sale of their long-term rental homes for redevelopment.

It’s this policy that allowed average rent for a one-bedroom apartment to increase by more than $200 in the six months between moving into my last place and deciding to leave the city. It’s what allowed my former landlord to raise the rent for her incoming tenant by $100 a month — without doing any repairs, renovations or upgrades.

Many people are happy to rent long term. I was. But without a cap on how much empty units can increase in value, the rental market has become just as divorced from local incomes as real estate.

3) Affordable child care

Remember how the NDP campaigned on bringing in a $10-a-day child care plan? We sure haven’t heard much about that since the election. The lack of affordable child care in Vancouver is a crisis all on its own. Families are forced to come up with the equivalent of another month’s rent or mortgage payment to cover daycare — if they’re lucky enough to find space in one. It’s a major reason we’re seeing an exodus of young professionals in their 30s and 40s, myself included. The $10-a-day program was one of the NDP’s most publicized and ambitious campaign promises, and it won them a lot of votes, but it appears to have been relegated to the back burner. A concrete plan to deliver affordable child care within a set timeline would have given me hope that I could actually afford to have a family in Vancouver within the time I have left to make that possible. Without it, young families will continue to flee.

4) Design for liveability, not profitability

This one’s not so much a policy as a rant: this city does not need any more luxury shoeboxes.

My last apartment search in Vancouver revealed an epidemic of new condo units clearly designed to appeal to investors, not to people looking for a home. We encountered countless “junior one-bedrooms” and “microsuites” commanding nearly $2,000 a month for less than 500 square feet, many with “extras” such as a “flex space” (read: a windowless sliver in the back of a closet) or high-end finishes like solid granite countertops and state-of-the-art appliances. While those features add to the resale value of a suite, they are absurd add-ons in a space so small you’d have to make an executive decision between having a couch or a kitchen table. A top-of-the-line kitchen is useless when you literally don’t have enough space to sit down for dinner.

The majority of new or renovated condos are painfully impractical for couples, much less families, and utterly unaffordable for singles. The really frustrating part is it wouldn’t take much to fix that. The difference between 500 and 700-square-feet when it comes to liveability is huge. Many people would happily take Ikea countertops and basic, functional appliances if it meant they’d also have room to breathe.

Perhaps the city needs some sort of liveability standard for new developments that would determine a minimum square footage (and a maximum price) that is realistic for an average family, couple or single person to occupy long term. Developers could then be tasked to stay between the lines — think of it as a fun design challenge. Or they could simply ask themselves: would I want to live in that?

5) Remove the roadblocks to alternative housing

My mantra for as long as I lived in Vancouver was: I don’t need a house, just part of one. All you need to do is look at the years’ long waitlists for co-ops, a.k.a. the holy grail of stable housing in Vancouver, to see how many people feel the same. Shared living and collective ownership are fast becoming the only means of making life work in Vancouver, and many people are more than happy to give up equity for stability. It’s incredibly unfortunate that the federal government stopped funding new co-ops in the 1990s, but at least the provincial government has announced plans to add several thousand new co-op units over the next decade. But again, that’s a long time to wait.

Cohousing is a private alternative to shared homeownership that is ostensibly a faster way to get good homes built. But the logistics of navigating unfamiliar legal, financing and zoning territory adds considerable time and cost to the process, making it prohibitive for many. A streamlined template for navigating the bureaucracies involved in collective ownership and support from governments and financial institutions in creating them, could make this model a viable alternative for the many people who would be happy to make owning a home, or part of one, a group effort.

And while I’m at it, here are a few policies that won’t help:

 [Tyee]

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