Will any B.C. political party get serious about solving Vancouver's rental housing crisis?
Every week, the Georgia Straight's Kate Wilson tells the personal story of a Vancouver tenant.
Her series, Renters of Vancouver, regularly reveals the anguish that local residents face finding and keeping an affordable roof over their heads.
Nothing in life is as basic as food and shelter.
If Vancouverites had as much trouble finding food as they have finding a decent apartment, it would create headlines around the world.
And if there were a food shortage comparable to the current rental-housing shortage, relief efforts would focus on bringing in more food to address the problem. That's how you deal with famines over the short term. Otherwise, people start rioting.
But for some reason, many people have difficulty recognizing that a similar dynamic applies to rental dwellings.
When there aren't enough of them, the price goes up sharply. And those who can't afford these higher prices are left starving for accommodation. They'll take whatever they can get.
People hit hardest are those who don't have the capacity to pay higher rents, including students, the elderly, and people with disabilities.
Recently, B.C. NDP housing critic David Eby and the media have been devoting a fair amount of attention to B.C. Housing's decision to grant loans at one percent to two development companies, Brenhill Developments and Wall Financial, to provide social housing units in Yaletown and the Downtown Eastside, respectively.
Brenhill built a 162-unit project to replace the dilapidated Jubilee House, providing new homes to 89 residents living on the shelter allowance. For these low-income Vancouverites, it was like winning the lottery.
The one percent loan has been repaid. But Eby keeps hammering away at this because it fits into the NDP's meme that everything the B.C. Liberal government does is smelly, particularly when it comes to the development industry. The social housing project was completed before Brenhill's nearby market-housing condo tower has gone up.
In the case of Wall, it's building a 12-storey project at the corner of Gore and East Hastings street that will include 68 market-rental units and 34 units of social housing for those who will pay the shelter allowance. That's another 34 people who otherwise couldn't afford to rent an apartment. Try to imagine how their lives will improve as a result of this.
In both instances, there was serious opposition in the neighbourhoods to these projects being built. They were backed by Vision Vancouver councillors who felt that they could be justified to help address the city's housing crisis. B.C. Housing invested a great deal of time and energy to bring them about.
Municipal politicians concluded that it was worth proceeding in the face of complaints from Yaletown residents about views and complaints from Chinatown-preservation advocates about a new building with tenants in their midst. That's because these projects were in walkable neighbourhoods with good access to transit.
The Wall building also met the requirements of the city's Downtown Eastside neighbourhood plan, which was hammered out over a long period of time.
Meanwhile, one of the biggest advocates of the Brenhill project was former NDP federal candidate Constance Barnes. That's because she witnessed the atrocious living conditions endured by low-income residents of the old Jubilee House.
Barnes has been an advocate for low-income people for most of her life. This was demonstrated when she voted against her own party's park-board budget because it included fee increases for poor people.
Vision Vancouver councillors and Mayor Gregor Robertson, who support the new social-housing units on East Hastings and in Yaletown, have remained silent in the face of the B.C. NDP's criticism.
It's probably because these local politicians feel they've invested enough political capital in these projects already and there's no point leaving themselves exposed to more criticism for ripping into the B.C. NDP's star MLA on the eve of an election.
Frankly, I wish Eby and some of his colleagues in the B.C. NDP caucus would spend more time focusing on a bigger problem, which is the lack of rental dwellings for the growing Metro Vancouver population.
Globally, there's a massive movement of people from rural to urban areas. It's taking place across borders and within countries, including Canada. This was chronicled in Globe and Mail reporter Doug Saunders's amazing 2010 book, Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World.
This migration is not going to stop in B.C. as automation continues reducing employment in rural resource industries, and the victims of this trend keep flocking to Vancouver. Governments must get serious about housing all these newcomers. And the reality is that developers build housing, so governments are going to have to work with them to get this job done.
Hundreds of thousands in Vancouver alone have no choice but to rent. If rents reach levels in New York City, it's going to have serious economic repercussions for a range of other industries. Young people aren't going to be able to do much beyond sitting in their shitty apartments watching TV or going to the library. That will hurt the entertainment, food and beverage, and retail sectors.
Already, we're seeing low-income people pushed to the outer suburbs where they have to live in food deserts devoid of grocery stores offering healthy eating options. They're being kicked out of their homes in the Metrotown area and forced to scrounge for accommodation farther away from good transit service.
The B.C. Liberal government rightly deserves condemnation for how it's dealt with the rental-housing situation. It's permitted unfair renovictions in which tenants have been callously tossed out for dubious reasons. Kudos to NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert for keeping this issue in the spotlight for so many years.
The B.C. Liberal government also closed a Residential Tenancy Office in Vancouver, forcing tenants to travel to another city, Burnaby, to fight for something as basic as a damage deposit. And perhaps worst of all, Christy Clark and her friends have permitted a time-bomb clause in the Residential Tenancy Act.
It allows landlords to suddenly jack up rents if they can demonstrate that market conditions have changed in the neighbourhood around their building. It's unprecedented in Canada and demonstrates the extent to which the B.C. Liberals are in the back pocket of apartment building owners.
But the B.C. NDP and the B.C. Greens have yet to bring forward enough far-reaching real solutions to help real people looking for real places to live. Sure, amending the Residential Tenancy Act to stop renovictions and to stop massive rent-gouging will help existing tenants enormously. Using government funds to build more social-housing units will help, too.
However, that's not going to be nearly enough to provide reasonable accommodation to all the new people coming to town, including students.
Why can't there be more rental apartments along major transit routes like East and West Broadway, in the huge alleys of the West End, along Kingsway from Nanaimo to Fraser streets, or where there are 50-foot frontages filled with empty retail spaces or failing restaurants?
Take the Number 9 bus from Boundary to Alma and just look out the window at all the space where rental dwellings could go. You'll be surprised by what you see.
Here's another housing issue that's rarely raised: what can be done to encourage construction of more student housing on university and college campuses? Can innovative solutions be brought forward to allow student housing above Vancouver Community College's King Edward campus, for example? Is it feasible to add housing to Kwantlen's major campus in Surrey? Has the time arrived to build student housing on the large parking lot at the British Columbia Institute of Technology's Burnaby campus?
And why do people who want to build housing in Vancouver have to include so many expensive parking spots that add to the cost when so many tenants nowadays use car-sharing services or take transit?
One of the most senior bureaucrats in the last NDP government, SFU school of public policy director and professor Doug McArthur, has spent a great deal of time thinking about solutions to the housing crisis. He knows that building more homes provides employment to huge numbers of people and has the potential to deliver more affordable housing to low-income people.
For the sake of tenants featured in our Renters of Vancouver series and for all the new tenants who will be moving to Vancouver in the coming years, let's hope that whoever is the next housing minister seeks McArthur's advice on this issue.
Because as things stand now, tenants will continue to be hooped if all the media can focus on is the high cost of homeownership and one percent interest on B.C. Housing loans to a couple of developers who built homes for some of the city's poorest residents.
Homeownership is already beyond the reach of many people under the age of 30 who aren't getting help with a down payment from their families. Their only option is to rent. They need imaginative and courageous solutions before the rental famine results in the average one-bedroom unit costing $2,500 or $3,000 per month.