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Vancouver’s Comma Properties aims to ‘build rentals that are no longer seen as the lessor to home ownership.’Rize Alliance

As a changing market landscape and government incentives propel a surge in rental-housing developments, some Vancouver-based developers are determined to give apartment buildings a makeover.

“We want to shift the perception of what rental housing can be,” says Steven Cox, vice-president, brand and design at development company Rize Alliance.

Well-planned rental projects can address gaps left behind by the condo market, Mr. Cox says.

“Rental is usually a utilitarian product that caters to the widest demographic. Frankly, it’s pretty uninspiring stuff. There’s a trend to build rental that is no longer seen as the lesser to home ownership.”

Comma Properties, a new division launched by the company, will “focus on building better rental communities,” according to a news release.

Interior rendering of kitchen in a Comma rental development in Vancouver.Rize Alliance

Branding

With four rental projects already under way and more in planning stages across Metro Vancouver and Los Angeles, Comma “is approaching rental development more like a hotel brand,” Mr. Cox says.

“Every site will have similar approaches to design, shared space, curated retail and tech-enabled services but you might end up in a four-storey building or a 40-storey building.”

The ideal Comma building will “facilitate social interaction,” he explains. Architecture will prioritize shared space and building managers will act as “community-building concierges” as well as plumbers.

A Comma app will allow tenants to promote an event on the rooftop deck or access discount or specialty services. “So, maybe the whole building only uses Skip the Dishes. Who knows?

There’s a trend to build rental that is no longer seen as the lesser to home ownership.

Steven Cox, Rize Alliance

“Why are there 105 different WiFi accounts in a rental building?” he asks, when a unified WiFi service could mean a cost reduction? “I think as building operators, we can make life easier by facilitating community.”

The first Comma project, located in Vancouver’s trendy Fraserhood, broke ground in 2020 with completion expected by 2023. Like all Comma rentals, the six-storey building will feature ground-floor retail geared toward locally owned businesses.

Retail

“Retail can be a powerful social catalyst,” Mr. Cox says. When it’s savvily curated, “it can become part of your residential culture, whereas a chain store will make no impact at all.”

Before joining Rize four years ago, Mr. Cox co-owned marketing agency Cause+Affect, renowned for producing scores of sold-out events involving Vancouver’s top talent in food, fashion, design, conscious business and other areas.

Curating retail “that adds to the vibrancy of the neighbourhood,” he says, is a task for which his rolodex is primed.

“And if I want to be a scary developer, or I’m talking to the bank, I’ll say, that adding relevant businesses” adds value to the building and “can increase the rent.”

Bosa Development’s rental tower in Calgary was 25 per cent leased before a marketing campaign for sales began.Bosa Development

Co-living

Another project under the Comma banner, in Los Angeles, is a premium co-living building, with 80 bedrooms in 18 units.

“Co-living is a substantial trend in the States,” Mr. Cox explains. Comma plans to introduce a similar concept in Canada, with four or five people sharing an apartment with equal-size bedrooms and attractive shared space.

In Calgary, Vancouver-based developer Bosa Development just broke ground on a 42-storey rental tower, by far the city’s tallest rental building.

The skyscraper features three firsts for a downtown rental building: a major grocer anchoring a retail podium; larger-than-usual floor plans; and extravagant amenities, including a fitness centre, indoor pool, hot tub, steam room, sauna, multiple lounges and media rooms.

The luxury building is the second of a two-tower development, originally conceived as condos, company president Ryan Bosa says. But with no presales, Bosa pivoted to rental.

“It was a bit of a gamble, but we also figured nobody has delivered larger rentals.”

The project’s first tower was 25 per cent leased before the marketing campaign even began.

Density

In Metro Vancouver, where rental buildings are typically 25 to 100 units, top condo developers are also planning new rentals that aim high and large.

At Oakridge, Westbank Corp. has swapped a luxury condo for an all-rental high-rise – which, at 52 storeys, will be Western Canada’s tallest rental building. In Burnaby, Starlight Developments plans to transform a seven-acre site into “the largest rental development in Metro Vancouver,” according to a statement, with 1,728 suites. Concert Properties is set to build Coquitlam’s tallest rental, at 31 storeys.

In downtown Vancouver, Bosa Properties Inc. has revised plans for twin condo towers to two rental high-rises, at 34 storeys each, for a total of 575 suites.

“The scale we are building at allows us to really expand the amenities and services we can offer customers,” says Colin Bosa, chief executive officer of Bosa Properties.

Developers are taking advantage of government incentives supporting rentals, including the federal government’s Rental Construction Financing initiative, BC Housing’s Community Housing Fund and partnerships at municipal levels.

“We were able to get an amendment to allow us to put more density on the site with the choice to build rental, which is one way we can make the math work,” Mr. Bosa says. “Financing options like CHMC are also important to enable us to take on a project of this scale.”

Investors are taking keen interest in Vancouver’s rental buildings with record transactions. Usual annual sales of about $1.3-billion have already been surpassed, with year-end sales potentially hitting $3-billion, according to CBRE. Transactions have set new pricing benchmarks as institutional investors like REITs enter the market.

Average asking rent for a one-bedroom in Vancouver in August was $2,185, according to rentals.ca. Despite a pandemic-imposed freeze on rent increases, that’s an increase of 14.4 per cent compared to last year.

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