Opinion: Renters should hold elected municipal officials to account for more affordable housing

Feb 3 2023, 9:19 pm

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Gul Gulsen, a 29-year-old woman working in the governmental affairs and public policy space. She holds a Master of Public Policy from the London School of Economics and a Double Major in Political Science and Sociology from the University of British Columbia.

Without fail, in daily news reports British Columbians hear about “[insert city]’s housing crisis.” Still, I don’t believe residents can fully grasp how dire the situation is until they themselves have been on the housing frontlines.

I have moved within Metro Vancouver almost every other year for the last decade. Each time it has been increasingly more difficult to find rental housing. My latest move back to Richmond was the most alarming to date. I replied to nearly 60 ads on various online platforms from late December 2021 to January 2022, and heard back from a total of three places.

In that time, I began to panic.

I tried to retract my notice-to-end-tenancy, but within days of issuing it, the unit was of course already rented out for the following month.

Things became further complicated when I went to view each of the three locations. The first was a condominium in Steveston. I was lucky to arrive early, as a block-long line formed behind me, for what turned out to be more of an open-house than a one-on-one viewing. There was also heavy downpour, and I couldn’t help but liken it to a despondent lineup for food and water following a natural disaster.

It was a crowded and speedy tour, with few opportunities to pause, take pictures or ask questions. The property manager didn’t even have time to distribute rental applications; interested viewers were instead asked to request an application via email. I followed these instructions but never heard back.

My lucky break in all of this was that I was the first viewer at the second location. Although it was listed two weeks prior, the landlord didn’t have time to host viewings since advertising it. As soon as I learned this, I knew I had to express interest quickly or a second viewer would take it off the market. I agreed to proceed with the application within moments of arriving and, luckily, secured the rental a few days later.

In the meantime, I still went to view the third location in case a “better” tenant came along in the landlord’s view, or illegal clauses were included in the rental agreement — both circumstances other renters know well. However, this last location was not livable in terms of size or rent. Thankfully, I did not need to fall back on it.

Following my unbelievable experience trying to find housing, I started to think about the severity of the problem and what possible solutions might look like. I knew my story wasn’t unique, and that many others had not been as lucky in the end.

I met with two Richmond city councillors on April 23, 2022, and raised the idea of bringing a “rent-to-own” program to the city, which already exists in Vancouver, Langley, Squamish, and Surrey. By May 3, the councillors had passed a motion “that staff examine and provide analysis to the Planning Committee regarding the feasibility of rent-to-own developments in Richmond within the Official Community Plan (OCP) review.”

Unfortunately, this motion was exploratory at best and fell short of being executed in the way I had anticipated. It can take years for City Hall to produce research for motions like this, and unfortunately, there’s just no more time to waste.

While the councillors were skeptical of the idea when I proposed it, I certainly didn’t expect the action that was taken (or basically non-action).

I am disheartened that an otherwise promising housing scheme for Richmond has been punted down the road along with all the other housing solutions.

Following the Richmond rent-to-own motion, on May 11, Maple Ridge City Councillor Ahmed Yousef announced he would also be putting forward a motion on rent-to-own. His motion offered concrete direction in removing barriers by directing “staff to review the housing policy and bring forward amendments to allow a rent-to-own scheme focusing primarily on townhouses and apartments in the City of Maple Ridge.” Although this motion, unfortunately, did not receive traction as Maple Ridge City Council tragically deferred to senior governments to deal with it (as often happens), a motion that more closely resembles this would have better served Richmond — if there was true intention of bringing the rent-to-own model to the city.

Of course, the housing crisis won’t be magically solved by rent-to-own or any other policy in isolation. They are just pieces of a larger puzzle, with the core issue being an overall lack of the right housing supply.

That being said, if we are to ever see an end to the crisis, we need a collection of forward-looking ideas — save for the bureaucratic backlog. For instance, the City of Port Moody illustrates the urgency of this well, as it finally has a rent-to-own program underway, but only after 14 years of hold-ups. Decision time is now and luckily, all we have to do is reference existing research and projects in adjacent municipalities. This goes for all housing policy solutions — not just rent-to-own. Simply put, we need to stop reinventing the wheel.

Following the recent municipal elections, it is now more important than ever for citizens to hold municipal governments to account to ensure real action is finally taken on housing. Although a wave of change swept the Lower Mainland’s city councils in October, that was only the first step of many needed changes to make the region livable again.

Citizens need to be alert to what promises are and are not actioned. This is particularly important for Richmond, where many of the same city council members who served during the inception of the housing crisis were re-elected again (somehow).

The best way to hold elected municipal officials to account is by tuning into their weekly meetings (in-person, or online), when developments are voted on.

Better yet, attendees can sign up to speak on different housing proposals — via phone or in-person, and thereby influence City Council decisions directly. All in all, it is imperative that citizens begin to engage in municipal deliberations on a large scale, so they stop trying to get away with elementary research projects and finally do what they were elected to do — build communities.

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