Jean Swanson: A brief moment of sanity at city hall—why my tiny amendment could have made big difference for renters

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      Last week, I tried to amend a rezoning proposed for a new rental building in Kitsilano by adding to it that “rents should be capped at the Residential Tenancy Act annual allowable increase, regardless of turnover."

      Much to my surprise, the amendment actually passed with the Greens, OneCity, NPA councillor Colleen Hardwick, and me voting for it. But then legal questions were raised, and the city manager stepped in to warn council that my amendment could jeopardize the financial viability of a project and scare off future applicants.

      A new vote was taken, and my amendment was soundly defeated, with only councillors Pete Fry and Hardwick still with me.

      The project was for a five-storey building with 32 units of rental housing. Developed under the Rental 100 program, which is currently under review by city staff, the building must remain rental for 60 years and rents must start at current market rates at time of first occupancy.

      Though labelled as “affordable”, a bachelor unit would start at $1,646 and a three-bedroom for $3,702 if the building were occupied today. (If people paid under 30 percent of their income for rent—the common definition of affordability—only those earning $66,000 a year or more would be able to rent the bachelor suite.)

      When the original tenants move out, rents are allowed to increase as much as the market will bear.

      In exchange for these dubious benefits, the city waives the development cost levy charges of almost $800,000 that would usually help pay for water, sewer, and other amenities that we won’t get now. 

      Let’s be clear: I didn’t propose to slash the rents so the new units would actually be affordable for the majority of the city’s residents. All my amendment would have done is require that the rents be allowed to increase on an annual basis only. They wouldn’t be able to increase as much as the owner might want between tenancies.

      There were two reasons people didn’t like the motion. First, the city manager said the developer could back out and not build it. I don’t think that would be the end of the world. Only the richest half of Vancouver households, and a much smaller percent of renter households, earn $66,000 and up.  

      Ah, my critics argue, but lower-income people would benefit from the “trickle-down effect” that says that if you build new expensive apartments, people will move out of cheaper apartments, freeing them for others. But there is a big BUT. Because landlords are allowed to raise rents as much as they like when a tenant moves out, the low-rent apartment doesn’t stay low rent. It becomes a market-rent apartment, and our city loses units that really are affordable. 

      Making matters worse is when tenants are demovicted so a new building can be built.

      The other reason was that people didn’t think my amendment was fair to developers. I was trying to change the rules at the very end of a long, expensive process. This is fair comment—to an extent. At the same time, people should know that when developers apply for a public benefit such as a rezoning, there are no guarantees. City councils do not rubber stamp rezoning applications before them. And councillors are well within their rights to add conditions to any approval.

      This city just had an election in which the voters refused to re-elect even one member of the party that ushered in the Rental 100 program. I think it’s important to stand up strongly for renter protection and send a message that a program that gives subsidies to people who already have a lot of money to build housing for people who aren’t the neediest should be changed—ASAP.

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      Jean Swanson is a Coalition of Progressive Electors city councillor in Vancouver.

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