Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs.
Last week, city housing staff released a plan that promises to resolve one of council’s most vexing problems: how to break the stalemate over lease renewal negotiations with co-ops on city land. The plan seeks a middle ground by offering co-ops renewal options at lower rates than in previous negotiations.
However, the city is still determined to increase its return on municipally owned land. It wants to collect more from its leases to serve greater numbers of Vancouverites struggling to get by in a pinched and expensive housing market. The co-op lease renewal problem stumped the previous Vision Vancouver council, became an election issue in 2018 and now sits with Mayor Kennedy Stewart and his council.
It won’t be easy.
Vision’s initial hardball approach put the co-ops into fighting mode, with some members claiming it would force them from their homes. The city’s most recent plan softens the deal. Instead of basing renewals on market-value appraisals for the land, the city has permanently earmarked the land for social housing. This lowers its value, which means leases renewed under any of the options will not be as high as Vision had originally proposed. But they will still be far higher than the original leases, most of which were paid off long ago.
Once the new leases take effect, all co-ops that have long enjoyed a sweet deal will have to collect far more from their members to make the payments. They will be asked to choose from one of two options. First, those that don’t want to provide information on member incomes or reveal their rents will be allowed to renew if they collect enough from their members to meet the new, higher lease payments.
A second option will be offered to co-ops willing to open their books. They will be eligible for lease discounts as long as they agree to income-test their members and share the information with the city. The discounts will vary; members with higher incomes will have to pay close to market rents, although no one will be asked to pay more than 30 per cent of their household income.
If a co-op rejects both options, the plan includes a strong-arm provision. The city will refuse to renew the lease and instead lease the land to a non-profit, essentially placing control in someone else’s hands. Existing residents would be able to stay, paying the new operator what they would have paid under the second option.
The new plan strikes me as both clever and fair. People are far more willing to agree to anything when there is choice, and it puts council in a good political position as well. It is harder to dismiss a plan out of hand if it offers a range of options.
There are a few middle-class co-op members whose housing costs were so modest that they were able to buy Gulf Islands properties or even homes in the South of France. I believe these cases are rare. But if co-ops don’t share financial information, no one really knows.
More than 600,000 people live in Vancouver, and only a fraction of them reside in the 57 co-ops on leased city land. We shouldn’t begrudge lucky co-op members secure housing at reasonable rates. But there are lineups to get into them, and the city must be sure they are going to those who need them.
The city is not seeking to sell off land, displace moderate or low-income members or hike leases so high that no one can afford to stay. It is asking middle-class co-op members who can afford to pay more to pony up – just like everyone else in Vancouver. Money collected from lease payments will be used to build more co-op housing, either on new sites or through the redevelopment of aging low-density co-ops. It’s hard to argue with that.
Council should approve this plan, and the co-ops should get in line to renew their leases and put to rest the worry that comes with not knowing what comes next.