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Condos and apartment buildings are seen in downtown Vancouver.DARRYL DYCK

Some cities in the Vancouver region are getting ready to jump on a new provincial law that will allow them to create rental-only zones.

But mayors and planners say the rental-only zones – which were promised in Tuesday's throne speech – won't take away current developers' rights to build condos where that possibility already exists, such as those in Burnaby's Metrotown or Vancouver's Cambie corridor who have already had their properties zoned for higher-density housing. Instead, they say they're more likely to create new rental-only zones when new area plans are designed for single-family neighbourhoods that are being densified, likely by transit hubs.

"We're not doing this to downzone," said Vancouver's chief planner, Gil Kelley.

He said Vancouver will instead look at sub-areas that could be designated rental only without negatively affecting the current value of properties: areas of older low-rise apartments or single-family areas around the city's SkyTrain stations that would be good candidates for higher densities. Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said council can't now go in and take away the density defined by its approved plans for Metrotown or Brentwood.

He said that it would have been hugely helpful if the provincial government of the day in 1990 had allowed for rental-only zoning when Burnaby first asked for it. But, Mr. Corrigan said, it would be problematic legally to now tell current property owners in the city's new town centres, where area plans were developed to define exactly how much density would be allowed, that they suddenly can't build market condos.

So the ability to create rental-only zones won't change the current dynamic in Burnaby that is resulting in developers pulling down older, cheap, low-rise apartments and putting up new condos. But, Mr. Corrigan said, the city could look at designating areas of low-rise apartments as rental only outside the town centres, such as Edmonds, or single-family neighbourhoods.

"We can look at an area where we are moving out of single family to something denser," he said.

In Surrey, head planner Jean Lamontagne said rental-only zoning is something staff will explore with council as a way of ensuring affordable housing.

"We are reviewing our land use plans along the proposed LRT lines where we believe there will be an appetite for the market to support rental projects, and we also anticipate re-development of current older rental properties to re-develop to higher density over time," Mr. Lamontagne said.

B.C.'s rental-only zoning initiative is thought to be a first for the U.S. and Canada.

Cities in both countries used to have de facto rental-only zones because they had neighbourhoods zoned only for apartments. These areas became rental neighbourhoods because laws that enabled apartment ownership through a condominium system hadn't emerged yet.

However, as condos became legal and popular, developers who had been apartment builders switched to constructing strata-titled units. That led to the near death of the purpose-built apartment in Vancouver especially, and an urban phenomenon of predominantly condo ownership in downtowns. That shift, in turn, has resulted in increasingly expensive housing, as the prices of condos have soared.

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