How to get more rental housing in Vancouver

Recently, a Vancouver Sun article revealed that the working poor are now moving into the most decent of the Downtown Eastside housing, leaving the truly abysmal rooms to the nonworking poor. According to a community worker, even the "crappiest" rooms have people in them. And according to a city official, the "renovated" rooming houses are attracting low-income service workers who in the past might have rented a bachelor suite in the West End.

A report from the city's housing centre noted a slight net gain in the number of housing units downtown, but on the other hand, rents have risen along with the provincial government's increase in the shelter part of a single person's welfare cheque from $325 to $375 per month. The average rent of a room is now $382.

Our mayor managed, as usual, to put a positive spin on this appalling state of our lower-income rental market by welcoming the decrease in the vacancy rate (presumably now that people are forced into taking the "crappiest" rooms).

However, there are two notable, and substantial, problems.

The lack of decent rental units is a problem not just for the homeless but for all of our low-income service workers: the workers who pour our coffees, serve fast food, clean offices, and do all of the various low-paid jobs that support our economy and our lifestyle in the city.

Increasing welfare rates just facilitates slum landlords increasing their rents, because they are not forced (as they would be in a healthy rental market) to keep up their units, as there is no competition.

Both of these problems are functions of the lack of government programs in both British Columbia and the city of Vancouver to induce private-sector companies to build affordable rental housing. Such housing is necessary to allow lower-income working people to live in dignity rather than take up the precious spaces in the single-room-occupancy buildings that traditionally cater to the unemployable. When lower-income working people are forced to take the worst of our housing, the previous occupants "fall out the bottom" of the rental market and become homeless.

Accordingly, I suggest that British Columbia and Vancouver should follow the lead of Ontario, other provinces in Canada, and some U.S. states and enact affordable-housing forgivable-loan inducement programs for the private sector requiring the developer to rent at certain rents to people of certain incomes.

These programs are working and working well. For some reason, there is a reluctance here in Vancouver to look east or south, lest we admit that we are not the "best" city after all, at least not for our lower-income working people. It is a simple matter of social justice that lower-income working people ought to be able to find housing within a few kilometres of their employment rather than commuting for hours from distant suburbs. It is time for all "progressive" people in Vancouver to accept the shared burden of allowing such workers to live among us. NIMBYism and progressive politics are irreconcilable.

In Ontario, it is possible for developers to submit proposals for government-funded private-sector rental projects, with forgivable funding of up to $70,000 per unit to offset the high cost of building. In an expensive city like Vancouver, the amount might have to be even higher.

The private-sector developer enters into a 20-year agreement with the municipality (which administers the program on behalf of the federal and provincial governments, which give the greater part of the funding) obliging the developer to charge a certain maximum rent based on the number of bedrooms in the unit, and to rent only to people making less than a certain income, again varying with the number of bedrooms. For each year that the developer keeps the unit in the program, one-twentieth of the loan is forgiven.

The sad thing about British Columbia is not only that we refuse to implement such programs but that we are "world class" in our funnelling of much-needed housing dollars to those who actually need them the least. B.C. allows wealthy people over 55 to defer their property tax until their death or the sale of their property–at only three percent interest and without any means test. We are all for helping needy seniors, but to use the money on wealthy seniors when there is such a critical shortage of workers' housing is a double insult to our younger working people. In addition, the provincial property-tax grant, popularly known as the homeowners' grant, is channelling money to rich property owners as long as their homes are worth less than $900,000. This should be removed from families whose income is more than $130,000 or some such figure.

The provincial and federal affordable-housing programs in Ontario are complemented by municipal programs granting back development costs, building-permit fees, and other charges. There are also tax-assistance programs that allow developers to clean up derelict, contaminated sites and offset their costs against future property-tax payments.

The models are there. The only question is whether or not the people of Vancouver want their elected leaders, provincially and municipally, to implement these programs. Or shall we continue to offload the problems to the distant suburbs? Then we can continue to lord it over our suburban neighbours about how "beautiful" and "progressive" the city of Vancouver is, at least in the eyes of the rich, property-owning classes who form the majority of the people living here.

There is a price to everything. If we fail to give our younger generations and our working-class immigrants a fair chance to have decent housing in the city of Vancouver, and if we fail to treat our entire lower-income working classes fairly, we shall surely face decreasing social stability and increasing social tensions in the future. The choice is ours.