Tim Louis: End sweetheart deals for Vancouver developers

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      I have long been concerned about the sweetheart deals a majority of Vancouver city council has given developers when approving developer rezoning applications.

      Two of Vancouver's best councillors, Jean Swanson and Pete Fry, kindly took time out of their busy schedules to assist me with researching the policy details involved. Here is what I learned:

      With a typical garden-variety rezoning, a developer must pay development cost levies (DCLs) and community amenity contributions (CACs).

      DCLs help the city pay for facilities made necessary by growth, such as parks, childcare facilities, replacement housing (social/nonprofit housing), and engineering infrastructure.

      CACs are paid by developers as in-kind or cash contributions when council grants additional development rights through the enactment of rezonings.

      So, what does this have to do with my concern about sweetheart deals?

      It began with Vision Vancouver, the most developer-friendly party in our city’s history. Vision Vancouver initiated a program specially designed to save developers literally millions of dollars —the Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program (MIRHPP). This program allowed council to waive a number of fees and restrictions on developments.

      Under the MIRHPP program, developers were not required to pay any DCLs or CACs. They were also not required to provide any social housing, as that term used to be understood. Only 20 percent of units in an approved project had to be secured for those earning “moderate” incomes from $30,000 to $80,000. The developer was permitted to rent out 80 percent of the new units at rents as high as the market would bear. Even the remaining 20 percent of the units secured for “moderate rents” were only tied to unit size, not income. Rents began at $950 per month for a studio unit and rose from there.

      I referred to the term “social housing". We must not forget that in 2014 Vision Vancouver changed our city’s definition of social housing to mean housing that someone—anyone—can afford. This, of course, literally means market housing, not social housing, and in a town like Vancouver the market is notoriously unaffordable.

      Swanson calls Vision’s definition “Orwellian”; Fry points out that in the rest of the world, social housing refers to nonmarket housing.

      Attempts have been made to fight for this traditional definition, in the courts, community, and on council—though Vision’s legacy keeps hammering more nails in the coffin of real nonmarket social housing in Vancouver.

      Former Vision councillor Andrea Reimer’s 2015 motion enshrined the meaningless doublespeak definition, thanks to a Vision council majority at the time. Then last year, Fry’s promising motion directed staff to review the definition passed, opening the door to reform. But sadly, on March 5, the Vision-hired Vancouver chief planner Gil Kelley quashed all changes as part of his swan song before his resignation 10 days later.

      If I sound a little bitter, it’s because I am.

      MIRHPP has since been replaced by the Below Market Secured Rental Housing Policy, which, with a new moniker, is virtually the same.

      Now that Vancouver’s developer party, Vision Vancouver, has disappeared from council, it is time for this council to significantly change or altogether get rid of MIRHPP’s sequel, the Below Market Secured Rental Housing Policy. If developers are to be exempt from DCLs and CACs, then in return more than one-third of the units in the new development should be affordable and the tenants in these units should never be required to pay more than one-third of their income in rent.

      I will concede that perhaps it would be unfair to make this a requirement for a developer proposing a small structure, say five stories or less. However, above a certain number of stories, this requirement should be mandatory if the developer wishes to be exempt from DCLs and CACs.

      It’s time our Vancouver city council brought an end to the taxpayer-funded developer gravy train, no matter what they call it.

      Daily atmospheric CO2 [Courtesy of CO2.Earth]

      Latest daily total (May 7, 2021): 418.48 ppm

      One year ago (May 7, 2020): 416.41 ppm

      Tim Louis is a Vancouver lawyer and former city councillor and park commissioner. This article first appeared on his blog, which lists the daily carbon dioxide count in parts per million in the atmosphere at the end of every post. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.