Beach Towers rezoning application raises rental debate in Vancouver

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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”.

Comments (7) Add New Comment
Ken Lawson
I had a studio there some time ago, the rent was $450.00 the only rule I would make, is that a washer and dryer must in the suite, it not that expensive to include washer and dryer in the suite this outside in hall is b.s.
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Jiff
"One of the stated objectives of the STIR program, which ended in December 2011, was to achieve affordable rents."

Well done!

So is this a case of pricing renters right out of the equation so that they can sell those units off eventually? I've seen more than one (renovated/renovicting) building in the West End with ridiculous rents and clearly they have empty suites.
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Rating: +19
Westender
In April of 2010, the City of Vancouver Planning Department responded negatively on the Beach Towers rezoning proposal with the memo available at the link below:

http://www.francesbula.com/developer-world/beach-towers-a-no-go/

(Any connection to the firing of the previous Director of Planning?)

Now, we see that the Planning Department is supporting a proposal that is essentially unchanged, and that does little more than add density to an already dense block to create some of the most expensive rental housing in the West End.

The Planning Department's support for the addition of expensive townhouses on the site at 1651 Harwood Street is particularly surprising - a proposal that damages heritage features and includes the creation of a new driveway crossing the Harwood Street sidewalk - a project element summarized by the Planning Department as "an improvement to the streetscape."

It would appear that the directive from the offices of Vision Vancouver has been to create rental units of any type, at all costs. Neighbourhood livability be damned.
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Bob Smith
I think the rent for that building is such a rip-off as is the rest of Vancouver's rent.

How is STIR actually affordable for renters. I see like 6 people rent one place because they cannot afford it.

Make it affordable.
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Rating: +13
Rich City
It would be one thing if these STIR/Rental 100 units were an anomaly in how expensive they will be for lower and moderate income rental households in the West End, but this developer subsidy program is giving density bonuses to developers, tax breaks (elimination of the collection of the Development Cost Levies), and then delivering expensive rental units. We get much of the same with the nearly 40% of condo units that are rented out – and we're giving up a whole heck of a lot of public dollars for these units. Those dollars by the way could then actually go towards creating some real affordable rental units.

And arguing that these units are much cheaper than homeownership in an overwhelmingly renter-occupied household neighbourhood is bizarre. They'll try to dupe the public any way they can.

Oh, but Vision is getting rental units built, don't you know? But they seem to always leave out the crucial part: tax breaks to their developer buddies. You would think the NPA would have come up with this program. Brilliant.
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Nelson100
It is very suspicious that rental buildings are being pushed through on the downtown waterfront, seems like a very strange way to bring affordability into the rental market. What obligations does the developer have to manage these as rental buildings after they are built? Answer: watch these waterfront rental buildings mysteriously morph into luxury condos for overseas buyers somewhere “along the way.” Keep in mind the Qmunity center that mysteriously vanished from 1401 Comox or the artist studios that vanished from the RIZE project “along the way.” While Vision beats their chest about adding rentals, keep in mind that they are also quite comfortable letting their developer supporters convert West End rental buildings into condos (1265 Barclay). What is to prevent that from happening to this project?
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Amy Spencer
The figures for projected rental housing demand, for both market rental and social rental, are staggering. BC Non-Profit Housing Association and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities have both recently produced some compelling reports about the need for rental housing for all types of households. Both reports are available on the Rental Housing Council website, www.rentalhousingcouncil.com/Research_Issues.html.

Adding new rental supply will serve two purposes - it allows professionals and families access to rental housing near their work, as Canadians (and especially Vancouverites) continue to be priced out of home ownership. It also frees up demand of existing, more affordable rental stock.
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