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Opinion: Housing "pace-of-change" decision pivotal for Vancouver

Vancouver council needs to move ahead, and not slowly, on development
A major decision looms for Mayor Ken Sim and Vancouver council on the pace of change in development.

One of the city of Vancouver’s most important rental districts has a vacancy rate of just 0.5% – a negative result of our citywide crisis of housing affordability. On March 29th, Vancouver Council will consider a new policy to address the “pace of change” in the Broadway area. Regrettably, city bureaucrats are recommending a slowdown on the provision of new rental housing when every indicator points to a strong need for acceleration.

Here’s the scoop.

Pressure has been building in the Broadway corridor for a half-decade or more. That area is already considered Vancouver’s “second downtown,” with the highest concentration of employers and rental homes outside the city centre. Municipal, federal and provincial governments have also been spending billions of dollars to upgrade transit with the new subway extension. That represents an enormous commitment from every level of government and an indication that this area is a regional priority for development and intensification.

Instead of encouraging the development of new housing in this corridor, so much-needed rental would be ready when the subway extension opens in 2026, the city launched an extensive public consultation for a new Broadway Area Plan many years ago and imposed a de facto moratorium in 2018. To be fair, it’s an important area; it made sense to proceed thoughtfully, but these actions have consequences, including the increased shortage of available options for renters today.

Through the planning process, even as the city halted all but a few exceptional projects, Staff and previous council continued making decisions that eroded feasibility and made development more difficult. Through several iterations, they made the following amendments:

  • Reduced allowable building heights by five storeys in the mid- to high-rise and high-rise residential apartment areas;
  • increased requirements for long frontages complicating land assembly and further inflating costs (which was partially rectified); and
  • increased the restrictions in a Tenant Relocation Plan (TRP) designed to protect people who might be dislocated by a (much overdue) building boom.

Then, last year when the Broadway Plan was finally voted through, the last council immediately acted to delay its implementation, sending staff away with a long list of new requests, including a policy on what might be an appropriate “pace of change.”

City staff recently presented the first recommendations from their pace-of-change review, and it appears the question they were addressing was not, “How fast?” It was, “How slow?”

One might opine that caution was understandable – the 500 city blocks within the Broadway Plan contain a huge number of the city’s older, more-affordable rental apartments. It could be a problem if most of those buildings were redeveloped at once, causing the dislocation of tenants, some of whom may find it difficult to find alternative accommodations at a rate they could afford. That, presumably, was the rationale for the TRP, which then-mayor Kennedy Stewart described as the strongest in Canada when it was implemented last year. The plan forces anyone redeveloping an existing rental building to find temporary homes for every tenant (topping up their rent if necessary) and then welcoming those same tenants back into brand-new buildings at their old rent once the project is completed. That’s an incredibly good deal for tenants, and one that will drive up project costs, compromise project feasibility, and slow the pace on its own.

With this new protection in place, however, it’s unclear why city staff are also proposing an obstructionist new “pace of change” policy with a recommendation to allow only 5 new proposals per year. We are just recovering from an effective, five-year moratorium, during which demand built up to the degree that city staff say they now have 100 Rezoning Enquiry applications on file, with an estimated 50 of these in existing rental zones. On one hand, that should be fantastic news. It represents thousands of new homes, perhaps tens of thousands of jobs, millions in new taxes and an appropriate private-sector investment to match (and make worthwhile) the tri-government SkyTrain infrastructure upgrade. A supportive administration might seize this influx as an opportunity to fight for greater housing availability while addressing crucial social issues like climate change.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. Even if council gets out of its own way, these new projects are unlikely to proceed at the pace that we need – or that anyone in the neighbourhood will find overwhelming. Interest rates and uncertainty are up, and a huge number of complicated and time-consuming city restrictions, conditions and charges still apply. Developers will move cautiously in a landscape that continues to increase in complexity and expense.

To review, Vancouver has a critical rental shortage. CMHC shows a city-wide vacancy rate of 0.9% in purpose-built rental, a full point below the national rate of 1.9%, which is the lowest since 2001. Meanwhile, just released population figures from Statistics Canada show population grew by over 1,000,000 nationally in 2022, the highest increase on record, including close to 150,000 new residents in B.C. Extrapolating from those numbers, RBC economists are warning that the rental housing shortage will quadruple in the next three years without a significant boost in stock. Renters, already desperate, need new supply. And homebuilders in B.C. who are ready and willing to assist, can’t help if the city continues to block new construction, only to protect a small number who already have an apartment.

Perhaps the pace of change will be affected by the winds of change. New Mayor Ken Sim and the members of his ABC council majority campaigned on removing red tape at City Hall and getting these processes moving. This is their opportunity to make good on that promise. The need is extreme, renters are protected. It’s time to decide: will we have change with pace, or years more of frustration, restriction, and housing cost inflation?

We’re cautiously optimistic.

Cynthia Jagger and Mark Goodman are principals of Goodman Commercial Inc, and publishers of The Goodman Report.