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Condos in the Gilmore area of Burnaby are seen in the distance behind houses in east Vancouver, B.C., on Sept. 20, 2015. The new rental policy is meant to help the city catch up on the at least 700 affordable apartments that were lost to demolition since 2010, as well as add to supply with a steady stream including permanent new units.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

A major Vancouver suburb with a reputation for ignoring the plight of renters displaced by high-priced condos is proposing a radical approach that would put the city ahead of all others in B.C. when it comes to strong rental protections.

Burnaby’s proposed policy would use a provision by the province to permanently classify about 375 existing apartments as rental only. That will mean they can’t be redeveloped as strata condos, according to a council report provided to The Globe and Mail in advance.

As well, developers who tear down existing rentals to build new ones would be required to rehouse tenants in the new buildings at their previous rates. The policy also says that about 20 per cent of units in new projects will be dedicated to rentals. The staff proposal says this can be funded by providing builders with an increase in density above the current limits set for condos. And developers of commercial property would be allowed to use half of their allotted building space for residential rental.

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The move – which dramatically changes the financial equation for developers working in Burnaby – comes as many city councils are trying to figure out ways to protect and develop low-cost housing in the midst of an unprecedented crisis of low vacancy, soaring rents and stratospheric house prices.

“There’s still a lot more that has to be done but, now, everyone’s going to know the rules of the game,” Mayor Mike Hurley said. “[Developers are] out to make the biggest profit they can. This might eat into their profit a bit but life changes."

The big shift comes less than a year after Burnaby’s long-time previous mayor, Derek Corrigan, was ousted because of increasing public opposition to his policies that saw hundreds of affordable apartments lost to redevelopment around Metrotown.

Burnaby was routinely criticized by housing activists and B.C. Liberal politicians for that, as well as its refusal to allow permanent shelters for homeless people and its weak support for social-housing projects. Mr. Corrigan continued with those policies until just months before the election, while cities such as Vancouver and New Westminster, as well as the provincial government, were scrambling to find ways to tackle the region’s red-hot housing problems.

Mr. Corrigan went down to defeat in October to newcomer Mr. Hurley, a former firefighter who promised to tackle housing problems differently.

The new rental policy, if approved by council Monday, is meant to help the city catch up on the at least 700 affordable apartments that were lost to demolition since 2010, as well as add to supply with a steady stream including permanent new units.

“We want to ensure this is the same as the rental buildings of the 1950s, 60s and 70s,” said Johannes Schumann, the assistant director of current planning in Burnaby. “We’re building a new rental stock.”

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He said planners worked to ensure that there was a comprehensive new policy, one that took full advantage of the new possibility in the rental-only zoning that the provincial government made legal for cities last year.

“Some other proposals [from other cities] are myopic, they only solve one thing. A lot of policies sound good but sit on the shelf. This is comprehensive and broad reaching,” Mr. Schumann said.

The proposed new rental plan goes further than Vancouver’s current rental-protection and rental-incentive policies, particularly in the way that it would permanently safeguard units designated for lower-than-market rents. As well, it puts limits on the amount of density a developer gets in return for rental, which Vancouver policy doesn’t.

A developer who builds a new rental apartment will need to find a place for tenants to live during construction and, if a tenant was renting for $800 before, rent the same type of unit to that tenant for $800 again, plus the provincial rent increase that would normally have been added during the construction years. That unit will continue to be rented at that rate, plus allowable increases, even if the once-displaced tenant moves on.

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