Opinion: Vancouver City Council needs to prioritize new rentals, not condos and houses

Dec 7 2021, 10:50 pm

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Daniel Ingrid, a renter who says he is frustrated by the inability of Vancouver City Council to focus on the housing needs of middle-class households. 

Currently, single-family detached and duplex zoned properties make up 81% of our city’s land mass, but their prices are completely out of reach for most Vancouverites who work here.

Benchmark detached house pricing in Vancouver West now exceeds $3.4 million, and Vancouver East tops $1.7 million. This is completely unattainable pricing, which is pushing regular renters like me out of Vancouver.

Anyone who cares about this issue needs to be aware of the vital Vancouver City Council public hearing vote scheduled for Tuesday, December 14, 2021, as the culmination of the five-day public hearing last month on the “Streamlining Rental Around Local Shopping Areas” policy, affecting C-2, C-2B, C-2C, and C-2C1 zones and creating new rental zones for use in surrounding low-density areas under the Secured Rental Policy (SRP). Roughly 125 public speakers out of Vancouver’s approximate population base of 630,000+ people — a whopping 0.02% and totally insignificant representation of our city’s population — gave their two cents on the matter during the marathon public hearing.

For over two years, the Vancouver City Council has deferred, delayed, and continued to shut off the taps on rental apartment development in most areas of the city.

In the meantime, renters have been competing in bidding war-esque environments with dozens of other renters when rental apartments (rarely) become available. Our vacancy rate is the lowest in North America, our population continues to grow, and over 55% of new entrants to Vancouver are renters, yet our city council has dragged its feet for over two years on the SRP Policy, which in turn has frozen new additions to our rental stock.

Unfortunately, our housing crisis has been intensified for nearly 750 days as city council has either asked city planners to tweak subtleties of the SRP or has deferred its vote on the matter. In principle, the policy was passed by city council on November 26, 2019, an exhausting 749 days ago. It has since been kicked down the road, tweaked, adjusted, and refined almost to death, while closing off rental apartment development across our growing city.

This city council is one more public hearing delay away from being known forever as the city council defined by the “missing decision” instead of delivering housing for the “missing middle.”

As an analogy for the last two-plus long years of delays, imagine if this city council were instead the board of directors of a food bank for a city with chronic food shortages. Under their watch, there are thousands of people lined up outside the food bank’s doors for meals, desperately wanting to eat, but the powers that be are debating about not having enough data on whether they should serve turkey or ham sandwiches to those who are hungry.

City council has way over scrutinized city staff and planners, sent them back for months-long refinements, and delayed decisions for several months at a time since November 2019. A decision later this month to approve the policy would allow rental apartments to get built again for the tens of thousands of renters who desperately need them.

This is my plea to city council: please give renters more rental apartment options by passing this two-plus-year delayed, wildly overdue policy.

vancouver secure rental housing policy

Map of zoning districts along and near arterial routes under the Secured Rental Policy, outside of community plans. (City of Vancouver)

Now, to bring anyone quickly up to speed on the SRP, there are two main parts, from what I can gather.

The first part of the SRP is to remove rezonings in commercial C-2 zones (retail corridors like Main Street from East 7th Avenue to East 33rd Avenue, or Fraser Street from East 16th Avenue to East 20th Avenue) and speed up the development permitting process by up to 2.5 years.

Currently, six-storey rental apartment rezonings are allowed in these areas, which apparently can take 24 to 30 months to receive rezoning approval (in addition to the 12 to 18 months afterwards to receive development permits and building permits). This horrendously slow process is followed by a construction timeline of about 18 to 24 months, depending on the size of the building.

The SRP for these commercial/retail zones is not even proposing any additional density from what is currently allowed today, but simply removing what would be a nice long section of red tape in the development process so more rental units can be provided sooner.

Rezonings add an unnecessary two to 2.5 years to a rental project’s timeline, while condominium developments within the existing zoning take one-third less time and will continue to be the majority of what gets built in these C-2 zoned corridors.

To distill this part of the SRP into its simplest form, it would simply let rental apartments get built on a level playing field with condominium development in C-2 zones, as rental projects would no longer have to go through the burdensome years of rezoning that condominium developments bypass.

If our city council actually wants to help the renter community, they will vote Yes for the SRP to remove this rezoning hurdle in C-2 zones, which prevents more rental units from being delivered. However, if their inaction or indecision leads them to vote No for this SRP, they will continue to give preferential treatment to condominium developments, whose end units are priced out of reach for many local residents like myself.

vancouver secure rental housing policy

Example commercial district rental building on a shopping street. (City of Vancouver)

vancouver secure rental housing policy

Example rental buildings on and near an arterial street. (City of Vancouver)

vancouver secure rental housing policy

Example rental buildings options on an arterial (top), and example rental buildings options on a local street (bottom). (City of Vancouver)

Now for the second part of the SRP, the Low Transition Zones. This part of the SRP would allow either five-storey rental apartments or six-storeys of 80% rental apartments and 20% below-market rental apartments to be built along certain arterial streets near transit stops, retail, and parks — currently occupied by multimillion-dollar detached houses.

After inquiring to several industry consultants, developers, and appraisers, it is likely that 95% of the houses encompassed within the dark blue strips on the SRP map (the arterial streets) are unlikely to get redeveloped into rental apartments as most lot sizes in the SRP Policy Low Transition Zones are too small to provide any economic lift to the existing homeowners. Furthermore, many think that next to no rental development will occur in the light-blue-shaded areas (one block off arterial streets), as those areas only get four storeys of rental density, which is worth less than the value of the houses currently situated on those lots.

Astonishingly, the arterial streets within the SRP Policy Low Transition Areas only make up roughly 1.25% of Vancouver’s 93.1 square km of single-family detached/duplex zoned area. This two-plus-year delay and over-scrutinization of the SRP revolves around projects that will likely only affect 0.06%-0.12% of Vancouver’s single-family detached/duplex zoned lots (5% to 10% of the 1.25% of eligible single-family detached lots within the rezonable areas of the SRP).

Simply put, it sounds very likely only 0.06% to 0.12% of Vancouver’s vast single-family detached/duplex zoned areas are going to change uses into multi-storey rental apartments over the coming years, as the highest and best use of small- to mid-sized lots (33 ft to 50 ft frontage lots) on arterial streets and basically all off-arterial lots within the SRP will likely remain occupied with detached houses.

With that said, the old, decrepit houses on large lots that would change uses into multi-family rental apartments would provide a desperately needed and way overdue injection of more housing options for local renters who live and work in Vancouver. The very oldest, worst-conditioned houses within the SRP on large 50 ft and 60-plus ft frontage lots would be utilized similar to what is outlined in the following real-world example of three actual houses encompassed in the SRP eligibility map:

  • Our example is based on an assembly of three large 90 ft frontage x 190 ft deep, 17,100 sq ft (0.40-acre) lots along West 41st Avenue that currently have assessed values of $3.95 million, $4.4 million, and $3.7 million each. Respectively, these standalone detached houses were built in 1950, 1949, and 1953, and have four, seven, and four-bedrooms each, housing an estimated 20 people in total. To summarize, currently three large 1950s-built houses occupy this 1.2-acre site.
  • These properties, due to their very large lot size and unusually high underutilization, are the types of lots that would make up the small fraction, likely no more than 5% to 10% of the houses falling under the SRP eligibility map, that will get redeveloped into low-rise multi-family rental apartments over the coming years.
  • Any of these three houses, if the SRP is not passed, will be left undeveloped and would require a future Vancouver resident/family to, if putting 20% down (an almost unfathomable $800,000 down payment), service a mortgage equating to $216,000 per year ($18,000 per month) based on a 25-year amortization and a 2.54%, five-year fixed mortgage rate. The carrying costs, without even factoring in property tax, house insurance, or repairs would total $18,000 per month after a nearly $1 million down payment.
  • However, if the SRP gets enacted, these three large, very under-utilized single-family lots could get redeveloped into two slender five-storey rental apartment buildings fronting the arterial street separated by a landscaped courtyard housing 115 rental units, with at least 35%, or 40+ units being dedicated to suites with at least two bedrooms — suitable for families.
  • In the back of these deep 190 ft lots would be three separate, small rental townhouse buildings housing roughly 15 rental townhouse units. These smaller townhouse buildings in the rear of the property would be setback from the mid-rise rental buildings fronting the arterial and provide a nice transition to the thousands of single-family homes on the inner, off arterial streets.

To summarize this example, the SRP, if enacted, would allow approximately 130 units of rental housing ranging from a mix of studios to three-bedroom apartments to two-or-more-bedroom rental townhouses that would cost occupants on average roughly 12% to 13% of what it would take to cover a mortgage of one of these existing, astronomically priced single-family houses on their under-utilized, large lots. To boot, these rental units would not require any occupants to scrounge up the near $1 million down payment to live there also.

These rental units would not only be a much lower cost solution for future Vancouver residents, but would also be an eco-friendly, green solution, allowing renters to live closer to their employers and local shops, effectively minimizing commute times and reliance on cars.

While our city council has shown an amazing ability to delay, defer, and over scrutinize a rental housing situation that is worsening with every additional month that we do not provide renters with more rental housing options, I desperately hope they stop freezing the addition of rental housing units in our city by finally voting Yes to enact the now 749-day delayed, tremendously overdue Secured Rental Policy.

A vote for Yes to the SRP is a vote for adding rental housing that regular Vancourites like myself can afford, while a vote for No to the SRP will keep encouraging luxury condominium development over rental development in C-2 zones. This will keep limiting future Vancouver occupants to those who are multi-millionaires acquiring multi-million-dollar houses.

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