Housing affordability is a key issue in a Vancouver rezoning application that goes to public hearing before city council on Tuesday (February 5).
The project is an in-fill development at Beach Towers, four all-rental buildings that overlook English Bay in the city’s West End. Beach Towers Investments Inc. plans to build more buildings, including a nine-storey structure, to accommodate 133 additional units at the property’s two adjoining sites at 1600 Beach Avenue and 1651 Harwood Street.
The proposal is being considered by council under the Short-Term Incentives for Rental Housing program, which provided incentives for developers to create new market rental housing. One of the stated objectives of the STIR program, which ended in December 2011, was to achieve affordable rents.
Christine Ackermann doesn’t agree with the way city staff has addressed the affordability aspect of the Beach Towers project. The president of the West End Residents Association considers as a “misnomer” the comparison made by staff between the anticipated monthly rents to the costs of home ownership for average properties in the West End.
“We should be talking about affordability in terms of the percentage of your income, and not a renter’s income compared to an owner’s income,” Ackermann told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
In a report to council, staff asserted that the new rental units will be an “affordable alternative” to home ownership. “Monthly costs of ownership are about 50 percent higher than the anticipated rents for studio and one-bedroom units and about 75 percent for two-bedroom units,” staff explained.
According to the report, a studio unit may rent from $1,125 to $1,310, while a one-bedroom home could go for $1,390 to $2,600. A two-bedroom may fetch between $1,900 to $2,720 a month.
Staff acknowledged that the anticipated rents for the new Beach Towers units are higher than the existing stock in the West End and downtown by 21 percent for studios, 27 percent for one-bedroom units, and 18 percent for two bedrooms. However, the report argued that this “can be expected given the exceptional location of this site and the fact that the comparables include rental stock of all ages and conditions, the vast majority of which was built prior to 1975”.
Based on figures compiled by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, average rent in the Vancouver metropolitan area for October 2012 was $864 a month for a studio apartment, $982 for a one-bedroom unit, and $1,261 for two bedrooms.
Brent Granby, a long-time West End resident, noted that affordability could have been improved had the developer reduced the number of parking stalls in the project. Instead, the plan exceeds the city’s bylaw requirement of a total of 329, with 416 parking spaces proposed for the sites at Beach Avenue and Harwood Street.
“Given that we know that that area is very well served by transit, why would they have to put in more parking than what they already have in there?” Granby, a former COPE park board candidate, asked in a phone interview with the Straight. “They should be reducing the amount of parking there.”
Beach Towers owner Devonshire Properties Inc. didn’t grant the Straight an interview.
Randy Helten is a director of another local organization, the West End Neighbours. The former Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver mayoral candidate said that he expects a “well-articulated voice of opposition from the community” at the public hearing.
“These would be rental units that would go on the market at the highest price,” Helten told the Straight by phone. “In return for that, the community is taking a major hit in additional density and other negative implications.”
The city’s STIR program has been replaced by a similar initiative called “Rental 100: Secured Market Rental Housing Policy”, and it’s evident that the ruling Vision Vancouver civic party is determined to push on with enabling the creation of market rental homes.
A January 27 news release from city hall quotes Mayor Gregor Robertson as saying that getting new housing built is a “way to address our city’s affordable housing challenge”.