By Jennifer Maiko Bradshaw
Until late last year, I was living in a mid-1960s three-storey walk up in Hastings Sunrise, for $1,375 per month for a one-bedroom suite. It had no dishwasher, washer, or dryer, and no elevators or ramps. The old appliances were serviceable and the landlord professional, but the upper floors were clearly inaccessible for seniors and disabled folks and the hallways smelled of old cigarette smoke. It would no doubt fare badly in a middling earthquake. Recently, I moved to a new pet-friendly unit in the River District for $1,800/month, which is affordable at my household income of $85,000. It’s wonderful—there are puppies being walked by friendly neighbours all the time. Imagine if someone making $30,000 could do the same?
Indeed, there’s a city policy for that.
It rhymes with “burp,” and it’s the most ambitious city program yet that could be bringing desperately needed new rental units guaranteed for low to moderate income households throughout the city.
The Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program—MIRHPP, or my preferred nickname for it, Murp—is a pilot project aimed at producing rental housing that’s affordable to low-to-medium-income households.
Murp offers incentives—up to double the allowed floor space and reduced parking minimums, in particular—to developers in exchange for at least 20 percent of their new rental buildings to be reserved for households making $30,000 to $80,000. These lower-income units have to stay that way for their lifetime, and their rents cannot be raised beyond the maximum allowable rent increase set by the province, even when there is a change in tenancy. These are the kinds of homes that would help a single parent, teacher, or a new entrant to the trades or two seniors on pensions. My wonderful new apartment could have such great neighbours, if only the four-storey rental building had fewer underused parking spaces and more floors!
As the 2019 Housing Data Book has shown, while there has been some new purpose-built rentals completed in recent years after decades of no rental construction, most new units have gone to households that make $50,000 or more.
That means rental households making less than that have had little choice but to rent older, deteriorating rental homes that are not as accessible or seismically safe as more modern construction is required to be.
There is an abysmally low vacancy rate in Vancouver that has hurt lower-income rental households most. A vacancy rate under five percent is thought to be critical; Vancouver’s is one percent. Many renters, including myself, have seen hundreds of people line up with the landlord for a desirable unit. If you have kids or a pet and have to move, it’s almost guaranteed to be a long, frustrating battle to find a suitable home, even if you’re making the median household income, and much worse if you’re not. Heartbreaking stories abound of people having to give up beloved pets, or leave Vancouver, or stay in mouldy, dark basements with asbestos in the walls to keep a roof (well, a landlord’s floor) over their heads.
It’s financially difficult to build new rental units for households making less than $50,000 because of the cost of land and construction. However, with enough floor space bonusing—meaning higher buildings—it’s possible. We can trade allowable density for affordability for a wider range of incomes, even for brand new rental units, as long as we can overcome the opposition. This opposition, much like in public hearings for social and nonprofit housing hearings, is saying similar things. The building is “too tall” and doesn’t “fit in” the neighbourhood.
"You're dropping the ghetto in Kitsilano."
These words ring ominously in my ears. It’s clear to me that aesthetic concerns must not be prioritized in a housing crisis, and if higher buildings can be traded for greater affordability, that’s absolutely the priority.
That said, there is room for improvement for MIRHPP. To mitigate the risk of rejection, projects approved under the program could be expedited straight to the development permitting process.
It could go even farther to trade more density for affordability—perhaps including units for people making under $30k, for example—and zero the minimum parking requirements (there’s a climate emergency, after all).
MIRHPP could be expanded to apply to single-family lots, and that's very important because that land—currently using up 70 percent-plus of land in the city of Vancouver—is extremely underutilized. Because these zones have previously banned multifamily rental and social housing, new buildings won’t need to replace older rental buildings, meaning no displacement of existing renters.
More people living a little closer together within a more walkable and rollable Vancouver, closer to their jobs, means lower transportation emissions. Less sprawl also means more people can use public transit infrastructure, which can run more frequently and efficiently. It also means more vibrant, happy communities with workers able to live close to their jobs and young people able to raise families in the same communities where their parents live. Let’s embrace Murp as one step toward that kind of city.
Please write in here to support the MIRHPP rental project on Larch Street.
Please write in here to express support to city council for more MIRHPP projects in the future!