Vancouver city councillors Jean Swanson and Pete Fry care deeply about the plight of renters in Vancouver. They decry our city’s sky-high rents; we are second only to Toronto in terms of median prices, the ripple effect of inflated land values and more than five years of vacancy rates that haven’t edged over 1 per cent. They are the first to admit it flat-out sucks to be someone trying to rent an apartment in our city, let alone one at an affordable price.
So why do both of these well-meaning councillors consistently vote against new rental developments?
They are waging a short-sighted protest against new rental development because they believe market rents are too high. This ignores the fact the minute these buildings go up, renters are lined up to get in them. This protest effectively robs middle-class renters of places to live and does nothing to alleviate poverty, stop gentrification or increase affordable-housing stock for low-income people.
Councillor Colleen Hardwick, it should be noted, has voted No or been absent for many of the votes as well, but had been in a car accident and couldn’t take my call to explain why.
In the case of Ms. Swanson, the sole councillor elected from the Coalition of Progressive Electors, it’s easy to understand. She’s a lifelong, anti-poverty activist who has proudly voted No on all 11 rental projects that have come before council this year because she believes gentrification is evil and the units are unaffordable to her key constituents.
One senses she won’t rest until the revolution happens, capitalism falls and the only buildings going up are for social housing. Not Soviet brutalist-style towers, of course, but “thousands of units of nice social and co-op housing,” in Ms. Swanson’s words. The middle-class folks who want to live in spiffy, new market rentals aren’t her people and she finds it difficult to care about them. “Basically, for me, my care coefficient goes up as income goes down.”
It’s a bit harder to reconcile Mr. Fry’s record; he’s voted No on seven rental projects, abstained from one, missed another and Yes to only two. On this issue, he has split with his two Green Party colleagues Adriane Carr and Michael Wiebe, who voted favourably for most of the 11 projects. Mr. Fry says his are protest votes against the city’s policy of waiving development cost levies (DCLs) for developers willing to build rental.
“I have a real problem with that,” he says, noting DCLs help pay for parks, child-care facilities, replacement housing and city infrastructure. “If it wasn’t for the DCL waiver, I probably would have voted for all of these.”
DCL waivers were introduced by the previous council to encourage developers to pass up the quick profits they can earn from condominium sales in exchange for building rentals, which offer lower returns over a longer period. The current council has carried on with the Rental 100 program as it came to be known, because it works. So far in 2019, council has approved 552 units of market rental housing.
Mayor Kennedy Stewart has supported the projects (he was absent for one vote and voted Yes to the others), saying without adequate housing for the city’s employees, Vancouver cannot grow. “Companies come to me and say, ‘Where will our employees live?’ ”
Mr. Stewart points out that 90 per cent of all housing units in Vancouver are privately owned. The most council can do to direct the type of housing built privately is “bend the market” to make rentals more attractive. DCL waivers are one way and without them it’s most likely private landholders would simply switch to building affordable condominiums instead.
I admire Ms. Swanson’s dedication to helping Vancouver’s poor.
But if she wanted to remain an activist, she shouldn’t have run for council. You ought not to be a politician if you don’t care about all your constituents. As for Mr. Fry, he’s fighting his battle the wrong way. The city’s rental-incentive programs are currently under review by city staff. Once that’s complete, he can use his persuasive powers to sway his peers if he still believes change is needed.
Until then, he should judge rental projects on all their merits – location, design, density and neighbourhood impact – and vote accordingly.
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