Not long ago, in the late sixties and seventies, the struggle of renters was as it is now, front and centre in Vancouver civic politics.
An account of those times written by Bruce Yorke, a former city councillor and co-founder of the Coalition of Progressive Electors party, paints a Dickensian picture of tenants who sometimes faced annual rent increases of as much as 25 per cent and had so little power they were not accorded full voting rights until the seventies. Until then, renters could vote for elected officials, but not on capital expenditures.
Mr. Yorke was a lifelong Communist and his recollection of the tenant movement between 1968 and 1978 published in 1981 in the Mainlander is a bit of an ideological rant. But the meat of his piece describing protests and rent strikes shows just how difficult it was for renters to win rent controls and require landlords to show just cause for eviction.
Renters’ rights have improved since then. But that doesn’t help someone in today’s market scouring Craigslist for a place to live when rents are sky-high and the vacancy rate is less than 1 per cent. Talk to anyone looking for a half-way affordable place to rent and get ready for a tale of woe.
The housing crisis made affordability the top issue in the October civic elections. Since then, this new crop of city councils across the Lower Mainland has hastened to pass regulations designed to protect existing rental buildings and deter “renovictions,” the term used when tenants are evicted by landholders who renovate solely to raise rents.
It is in the politicians’ best interests to do so. At the time of the most recent census in 2016, 53 per cent of Vancouver households rented and that percentage continues to rise. Between 2011 and 2016, 76 per cent of net new households in Vancouver were renters. It won’t be long before they overwhelmingly control the vote.
But as admirable and well meaning as this hodgepodge of new regulations are, there is reason to question how well they will work. Most impose extra costs on landholders who, as Frances Bula reported in The Globe and Mail, are already predicting “major pullbacks.” Push profits too low, and aging buildings will be left to crumble as developers wait it out. And by not working in unison, municipalities may inadvertently be playing one off against the other.
Right now, the regulations are all over the map, says Libby Davies, a former MP who closely watches city politics. This week, Vancouver upped the compensation landlords must pay tenants displaced when an existing rental building is demolished and redeveloped. Tenants who have lived in a suite for between one and five years will now receive four months’ rent. It goes up from there on a sliding scale to a maximum of 24 months for 40-year tenants.
Vancouver, New Westminster and Port Coquitlam have passed regulations giving renters greater protection from renovictions. Landholders in those municipalities must now allow displaced tenants to temporarily move out and return to their suites on the same lease and rent terms. New Westminster also took advantage of new powers granted by the provincial government and enacted rental-only zoning.
But the greatest about-face was made last month by Burnaby, a municipality that for years encouraged demolitions of old apartment buildings, forcing hundreds of low-income renters from their homes. Burnaby will now require developers to replace any rental units lost during redevelopment with the equivalent number of suites rented at 20 per cent below market rates. The city has also created rental-only zones and, in addition, will require all new developments to include a minimum 20 per cent of rental housing.
Immediately after the election, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart talked about forming housing policy alliances with Burnaby and New Westminster. But a metro-wide policy would make even more sense. It would level the playing field for developers, who now may be tempted to shop for building sites in municipalities offering renters the least protection.
Protecting existing rental stock is important and certainly helps those who already have a place to live. But it does nothing to add to the housing stock. It is far more challenging for municipalities to find ways to encourage developers to invest in new affordable housing or, failing that, build it themselves.
Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs.
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