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The only way Vancouver is going to get new affordable housing for lower-income working people is if council is willing to approve projects under a new controversial rental program, the city’s mayor says.

That means giving the go-ahead to buildings such as the one proposed at Broadway and Birch, which developer Tony Pappajohn has asked to increase from 16 to 28 storeys in order to provide the cheap rentals that Vancouver planners are trying to encourage.

But that building, along with a couple of others in Kitsilano, are being proposed under the city’s experimental “moderate-income-rental” program, which has already generated very vocal resident opposition.

“It is our challenge: Are we going to do this?” Mayor Kennedy Stewart said recently. “I really don’t see any other way forward to building this kind of housing.” Not shying away from the reality of what will be needed, he showed a crowd of developers, local politicians and community groups a visualization of the very tall tower being proposed next to low-rise apartments in the Broadway-Granville area.

Vancouver’s city manager Sadhu Johnston is delivering the same message when asked.

“We think the [moderate-income-rental program] is the way to go,” Mr. Johnston said. “Now it’s whether the public and council are ready to support the density. If we can’t get any of these through, obviously we can’t expand the program.”

The moderate-income-rental initiative was announced almost two years ago as a pilot program that would allow 20 projects to go forward. Successful bidders had to show that they could provide one-fifth of the units at below-market rates − to moderate-income households earning $30,000 to $80,000 a year.

The city has set the rates at $950 for a studio, $1,200 for a one bedroom, $1,600 for a two, and $2,000 for a three. That’s significantly lower than the rates mandated in the city’s 10-year-old Rental 100 program, where builders are allowed to charge up to $3,700 for a three-bedroom unit. That program has generated a lot of controversy because of the city’s assertion that it is providing “affordable” units.

As well, under the new experimental program, the rents on the affordable units are locked in permanently. They can’t be increased by more than the rate of inflation when tenants turn over, which is not the case with any other type of apartment in the province.

But, in order to get those kinds of rents, the buildings that the developers are putting forward go beyond what current zoning laws allow − they are considerably taller, or take up the entire lot. Developers say this is necessary to make the overall finances work.

And that is upsetting many, even the kind of liberal voters that Mr. Stewart would want on his side in the next city election.

In Kitsilano, one proposal (also by Mr. Pappajohn’s company, Jameson Developments), for a five-storey apartment building on a site that is currently a church, has generated neighbourhood mobilization against it.

Among those leading the protest are people such as artists Judy Osborn and Chris Dikeakos, neighbours and long-time residents of Kits from the days when it was still considered a kind of hippie haven in the city. The area, close to Kitsilano Beach, is filled with a mix of historic houses, small apartment buildings and the very occasional tower that was built before the city councils of the 1970s killed off high-rise development in the area.

Ms. Osborn generated media buzz when she called the proposed building a “ghetto” to one reporter last week, though she says now that she wasn’t talking about the residents but simply the bulk of the building and its tiny apartments.

“There are all kinds of renters in this neighbourhood in the houses and basement suites. I’m not against renters,” Ms. Osborn said.

But she and Mr. Dikeakos are continuing to make their argument that the building proposed near them is simply too big, even though the developer reduced it from six to five storeys based on earlier community feedback.

It sits on a corner that has a three-storey, a four-storey and a five-storey apartment across the street, though none takes up as much of the land on their sites as the new proposal.

Near Broadway and Birch, another opposition resident group has formed, with people there saying the building is out of scale and will require jamming in far too many people when there already aren’t enough parks, schools or other services in the area.