Vancouver city council failing to fully use power to regulate rents: municipal lawyer Nathalie Baker

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      Vancouver city council actually has the ability to set and regulate rents, according to a local lawyer.

      Why councillors aren’t wielding the full extent of the authority they have under the Vancouver Charter is something that stumps Nathalie Baker, an attorney who specializes in municipal law.

      “They should use the powers that they have to ensure that we get affordable housing, not expensive rental housing,” Baker told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.

      Since 2009, the city has been granting financial subsidies and other incentives for developers of what is called affordable for-profit rental housing. Incentives include extra buildable density, permission to build smaller units, and relaxation of parking requirements.

      The rental incentives policy is a major program introduced by Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Vision Vancouver caucus in council.

      Developers are required to enter into a housing agreement with the city, and this is where Baker said powers under the Vancouver Charter are relevant.

      Section 565.2 of the charter provides that council can enter into housing agreements whose terms include “rents that may be charged and the rates at which rents may be increased over time”.

      Baker noted that what is happening is that rents start high, and these rates apply only to the first tenant.

      Moreover, the starting rents become effective on the day of the public hearing for the project, allowing developers to increase rents per year during construction.

      “By the time it goes to market, the developer gets to charge the current rents, not the ones that were reviewed by council,” Baker said.

      Baker cited as example The Duke, a project on Kingsway that was approved by council in 2015 under the Secured Market Rental Housing Policy, or Rental 100.

      A city-staff report to council stated that the developer “estimates” to rent a studio unit for $1,050 a month, a one-bedroom unit for $1,200, and a two-bedroom unit for $1,725.

      Baker noted that a studio unit at The Duke now rents for $1,702.

      An enquiry with The Duke revealed that rent for a one bedroom is currently $1,979, and a two-bedroom goes for $2,494.

      Green councillor Adriane Carr has called for an audit of the rental-incentives program.

      A staff report is expected next spring about Carr’s motion to compare starting and current rents in Rental 100 projects as well as those approved under the program’s predecessor, which is the Short Term Incentives for Rental (STIR).

      “The public needs the information,” Carr told the Straight by phone, “and I think councillors need that information to make the best possible decisions on how to support the building of rental housing in the future in a way that actually delivers affordability, because it’s not delivering affordability right now.”