Vancouver’s mayor says an experimental rental-incentive program that led this week to one of the city’s most controversial public hearings – and a razor-thin approval for a 28-storey rental tower – should be made permanent because council and the public have demonstrated steady support for the idea.
“This is showing that this should be a permanent fixture now. [What we’ve approved so far] shows they can fit into all neighbourhoods,” Mayor Kennedy Stewart said Wednesday, the day after the decision. It is the ninth project approved under the pilot program and, said the mayor, the one that showed where the limits of council’s willingness to approve were.
The mayor made his optimistic assessment in spite of several turbulent weeks and a vote that came close to failing for the project on Broadway near Granville, which will be one of the stations for a new subway line that is just starting construction.
The decision has added even more fuel to fierce arguments about whether the new building will set off a brush fire of gentrification or save low-cost apartments in the area.
The project, proposed by a long-time local development family, the Pappajohns, is one of 20 buildings that are part of a pilot project that the previous Vision Vancouver council created as it looked for ways to produce at least some apartments guaranteed to have below-market rental rates.
Developers were invited to pitch ideas for how to achieve lower rents, starting at $950 for studio apartments, for 20 per cent of the building’s floor space. New studios in Vancouver typically rent for $1,700 a month and up, and even older ones are considerably more than $950.
All of the development solutions involved more density on their sites.
The Pappajohn site, which had already received approval for 17 floors of straight market-rate apartments, became a flash point because of how tall it was – 14 floors higher than the tallest of eight other projects already approved in the special pilot. With that extra density, the developer promised 58 apartments out of 258 would be rented at the below-market rates.
Residents in the area, which is next to the city’s biggest medical precinct and the busy Broadway commercial corridor, worried the building would kick off a wave of higher rents in their relatively low-cost area.
Both independent councillor Rebecca Bligh and COPE’s Jean Swanson said they had heard recently that, for every one affordable apartment being built locally, three older low-cost apartments are being lost.
The tower “will create more pressure for higher rents elsewhere,” said Ms. Swanson, adding that’s what happened to the Downtown Eastside after the Woodwards project – a combination of subsidized and market housing – was built.
But those supporting the project said the new supply would actually help prevent local tenants from being evicted, because the additional apartments would give people more options than just bidding up existing units in the popular area.
University of British Columbia geography professor Elvin Wyly, who specializes in studying gentrification, said a single project such as the Broadway tower is not going to halt or spur gentrification on its own. He said the whole region is gentrifying relentlessly because of the enormous pressure for land and housing that has become a feature of the Lower Mainland.
For another housing expert, the debate took an especially baffling turn.
It was Jill Atkey’s information about the loss of affordable-housing units – 34,000 units at $750 or less disappeared in the province from 2011 to 2016 – that Ms. Swanson and Ms. Bligh cited as their reason for opposing the project.
But Ms. Atkey, the executive director of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, said she is an advocate of new supply where there is no displacement – which this project, on the site of a former Denny’s restaurant, provided.
“This one building isn’t going to solve the rental crisis,” she said. “There has to be redevelopment, but it has to be redevelopment with affordability in mind.” The Broadway tower has that, she said.
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