Vancouver city council's vote on tenant protection illustrates divide over redevelopment of commercial zones

Six councillors from four parties voted in favour of the move, despite vehement opposition from bankers, developers, and landowners

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      (Warning: this is a longer read because it addresses an important issue for Vancouver residents.)

      Among many voters, there's a tendency to look at Vancouver city council through the lens of a right-left ideological divide.

      But a vote on the evening of April 1 revealed that things aren't quite that straightforward.

      Six members of council from four parties voted to amend the Rental Housing Stock Official Development Plan so that it now applies to four commercial zoning categories. This will affect 3,050 rental units in 380 purpose-built rental buildings 

      Most of these units were built before 1975 and rent at substantially lower amounts than units in new rental buildings, according to a city staff report.

      Green councillors Adriane Carr, Pete Fry, and Michael Wiebe joined OneCity Vancouver's Christine Boyle, COPE's Jean Swanson, and the NPA's Colleen Hardwick in voting in favour of requiring one-to-one replacements for any rental units demolished for redevelopment in these areas.

      The five who voted against this motion included three NPA councillors—Melissa De Genova, Lisa Dominato, and Sarah Kirby-Yung—along with independent councillor Rebecca Bligh and Mayor Kennedy Stewart.

      It took place after 8:30 p.m. on the Thursday evening going into the Easter long weekend.

      The plan to extend the one-to-one replacement in commercial zones was opposed by the banking and development industries. They warned that this would amount to a mass downzoning, which would cause property values to decline in these areas.

      The chair of the Urban Development Institute, Beau Jarvis, told council last month that the amendments to C-2, C-2B, C-2C, and C-2C1 zones could wipe out $500 million in equity, forcing major chartered banks to adjust lending practices in Vancouver. He based this figure on a report for the city by Coriolus Consulting.

      A city staff report noted that 81 units have been lost in these areas over the past decade without the one-to-one replacement rule. That contrasts with 691 new rentals being constructed over the same period in the four commercial zones.

      That led the staff to argue that while there would be fewer evictions as a result of the amendments, there would also be fewer total rental units built in these zones in strata projects if the motion were approved.

      The views of developers, landowners, and bankers did not sway the majority.

      “This is one of those 'whose side are we on?' moments," Swanson said during the debate. "Should C-2 tenants have the same protection as other tenants? Or should we prioritize the wants of developers to keep their property values escalating—unearned escalating—year over year over year?”

      Swanson answered her own questions by declaring: "Tenants need to have stability more than banks need to have stability and developers need to have stability."

      Moreover, she added: “There is no stability for tenants and we need to do everything we can to create it.”

      The NPA's Hardwick noted that most "affordable housing" is that which has already been built. 

      "I highly question whether this will have a large effect on land values," the NPA councillor said. "This is a modest rental protection that we owe existing rentals."

      The NPA councillor added that this one-to-one replacement rule has existed for decades in apartment-oriented zones without any problems.

      "This is the least that we can do," Hardwick continued.

      OneCity's Boyle emphasized that she supports the development of more rental housing. But she added that by opposing the extension of tenant protections to commercial zones, it could lead to the "loss of existing rental and new strata".

      Mayor Kennedy Stewart did not explain at the April 1 council meeting why he voted in favour of an amendment to extend the Rental Housing Stock Official Development Plan to commercial zones next April, but voted against extending the plan immediately.

      Opponents raised several concerns

      Stewart was the only member of council to vote in favour of proceeding with the extension of tenant protection beginning on April 1, 2022 to give landowners an opportunity to figure out what they wanted to do with their sites.

      That amendment, proposed by Carr, was defeated in a 10-1 vote following a council debate. So in the end, Stewart voted with three NPA councillors and Bligh in opposing the amendments.

      Bligh noted in the debate that she isn't seeing any "hyperfocus" on redeveloping commercial zones and evicting tenants. 

      "Revaluing land and downsizing these sites, I think, is a much bigger risk to the city as a whole," she said.

      She also claimed that by imposing this one-to-one replacement rule in commercial zones, it could result in a "significant impact" on rental buildings elsewhere in the city.

      De Genova and Kirby-Yung both expressed their deep concerns for tenants as they voted against the motion. Both talked about its unintended consequences.

      For De Genova, it concerned the financial ramifications of financing social housing on 14 sites owned by the city.

      Kirby-Yung said that it was important to make room for new renters.

      In addition, Kirby-Yung warned council about the potential impacts of going against the professional advice of staff, which initially opposed the idea, and a third party, Coriolis Consulting. She insisted that it was false to suggest that about 3,000 people will lose their homes if the amendments weren't approved.

      "That is a red herring," Kirby-Yung said.

      The apartments are in commercial zones in many areas of the city, including along most of Kingsway and parts of West 4th Avenue, West Broadway, East Hastings, Main, Fraser, Alma, Victoria Drive, and 41st Avenue.

      The areas marked in red show where apartments exist in commercial zones.

      Staff will examine density transfers

      A majority of council also voted in favour of amending strata title and cooperative conversion guidelines in the four commercial districts.

      Applications to council that are "in-stream"—i.e. a development permit or rezoning application has already been made or the city has responded in writing positively to a rezoning inquiry—are grandfathered.

      Every member of council with the exception of Hardwick voted in favour of an amendment by Fry directing staff to "undertake comprehensive engagement with landowners, residential tenants, and business tenants". This would be to explore solutions to address council's concerns about retaining affordable rental stock for residents and businesses.

      Kirby-Yung, Hardwick, and Swanson were the only ones to oppose a second amendment by Fry directing staff to report back on methods to allow for the transfer of density to another site or density offsets in the four commercial zones.

      These would be intended "to support rental replacement" and could include "requesting a change to the Vancouver Charter as necessary".

      In advancing this idea, Fry pointed out that Burnaby "has embarked on this exact same process".

      "What's happening is the developers are relocating tenants into similarly priced units elsewhere because they're being given an offset of density that they can then move from that existing location to another location close by," Fry said.

      He argued that this is "worth a more fulsome look" in Vancouver, even though this direction wasn't given to staff prior to the original motion. Fry mentioned that the city wants to protect its credit rating.

      "I think it's really important to look at what tools are available to protect everybody," he stated.

      Swanson, however, declared that this would have nothing to do with the city's credit rating. And Hardwick expressed her adamant opposition to creating another density-transfer program in Vancouver.

      Kirby-Yung advanced procedural arguments, highlighting concerns about motions being amended on the council floor. She argued that referring the matter back to staff to write a report would be a more thoughtful way to go.

      "I think in general, off the floor is off the cuff and doesn't lead to good policy," Kirby-Yung said.

      Boarded-up shops, like this former Starbucks outlet in South Granville, are becoming more common sights in Vancouver during the pandemic.

      Boyle signals a new direction

      Between the time that council heard from the public on March 11 and council's vote on April 1, the city announced that the general manager of planning, urban design and sustainability, Gil Kelley, had left his position.

      There's been no public acknowledgement that the vote on extending tenant protections to commercial areas was a factor in his departure.

      Kelley brought forward the original report to council. It noted that staff had "previously recommended" against extending the Rental Housing Stock Official Development Plan to the four commercial zones.

      During the April 1 debate, Boyle quoted former NPA councillor Gordon Price's observation that the city had made a "grand bargain" over the years to encourage and incentivize development along arterial roads.

      She suggested that this is contributing to the diminishment of commercial neighbourhoods because business tenants are getting squeezed out by speculative pressure.

      "This has had a significant effect on our small businesses on those stretches and on the land values," Boyle said. "We need to shift."

      When Boyle ran for council for the first time in 2018, she stressed the importance of retaining local businesses that are touchstones for the community.

      "We mourn the loss of already rare local arts spaces and the memories of how they shaped us: films at the Ridge Theatre, live music at Richard’s on Richards, events at W2," she declared at the time. "And we lament news of long-time Vancouverites who’ve been evicted, priced out, or departed in search of a home and a life with more financial breathing room than was possible here.

      "Each one of these stories is compelling because of the individual personal details," Boyle continued back in 2018. "But the truth is that these stories represent a massive collective loss."