Vancouver council declares homelessness emergency, allowing for "targeted" vacancy-control recommendations

In 2018 the B.C. Rental Housing Task Force stopped short of recommending vacancy control after hearing vehement opposition from Landlord B.C. and the Urban Development Institute

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      Ever since COPE councillor Jean Swanson was elected in 2018, she's been a fierce advocate for "vacancy control".

      On Wednesday (February 26), she won a partial victory when Vancouver council unanimously approved her motion declaring a homelessness emergency.

      Swanson's initial motion called for council to urge all levels of governments to create a homelessness-emergency plan that included "recommendations for implementing vacancy control as a tool to preserve existing lower rent accommodation".

      Under vacancy control, rents cannot be increased beyond the allowable provincial rate even after a tenant moves out.

      Council amended Swanson's motion to call for a homelessness-emergency plan with recommendations for "targeted" vacancy control.

      This part of the motion passed over the opposition of Mayor Kennedy Stewart and NPA councillors Melissa De Genova and Sarah Kirby-Yung. Two other NPA councillors, Lisa Dominato and Colleen Hardwick, abstained.

      Green councillors Adriane Carr, Pete Fry, and Michael Wiebe, along with independent Rebecca Bligh, OneCity's Christine Boyle, and Swanson ensured that it passed.

      "Mushed down homeless emergency motion passed," Swanson wrote on her Facebook page. "Vacancy control in low income apartments survived but council refused to have our own staff adopt the targets in the plan. The mayor tried to have the whole thing ruled out of order."

      Jean Swanson (left, opposite housing activist Chrissy Brett) has dropped by the Oppenheimer Park tent city on many occasions to hear directly from residents and their advocates.
      Charlie Smith

      Province has rejected vacancy control

      In 2018 the B.C. Rental Housing Task Force stopped short of recommending vacancy control after hearing vehement opposition from Landlord B.C. and the Urban Development Institute.

      UDI president and CEO Anne McMullin claimed at the time that permitting vacancy control would be "the death knell for rental home construction".

      Antipoverty groups, on the other hand, have supported vacancy control. They include Acorn B.C., the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition, the New Westminster Tenants Union, Pivot Legal Society, Renters United Kelowna, Together Against Poverty Society, the Victoria Tenant Action Group, and the Vancouver Tenants Union.

      "Without vacancy control, any investments made in public housing, financial supports for tenants, and new supply will not keep pace with the loss of affordable rental stock," the Vancouver Tenants Union stated in 2018. "Across B.C. average rents are rising two to three times higher than the allowed amount set by government every year, eroding the purchasing power of tenants, with affordable units being lost every month to renoviction and tenant turnover."

      Council's February 26 motion also urged regional and local government, along with their partners, "to build or find dignified affordable housing for at least 80 percent of counted homeless people within three years".

      In the preamble, Swanson noted that at least 2,223 Vancouver residents and 7,655 B.C. residents were counted as homeless in 2019.

      "Numerous academic studies have established that providing secure housing is a more cost-effective solution to homelessness than maintaining temporary shelters and incurring additional policing, mental health service, and health care cost," the motion stated.

      Even though Mayor Kennedy Stewart and NPA councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung oppose vacancy control, they still voted in favour of declaring a homelessness emergency.
      Jean Swanson Facebook