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Burnaby condos are seen in the distance behind houses in east Vancouver in this file photo.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Local politicians in Burnaby, whose mayor has repeatedly insisted it's not the city's job to build homeless shelters, social housing or rental units, now say they are vigorously searching for solutions to protect and add to the city's rental stock.

But they claim there's still little they can do legally.

As the once low-profile council finds itself facing public protests, widespread criticism from housing advocates and even a recent occupation of an empty apartment building, it has jolted many to think twice about Burnaby's limited approach on housing issues.

Several councillors now say they are actively discussing what new policies Burnaby might adopt to preserve rentals, which amount to about 11,000 units in the city and 10 per cent of the region's supply.

"Without being specific, there is discussion and talk going on about what we can do to ameliorate this stuff," said Councillor Nick Volkow, one of the council's nine Burnaby Citizens Association members, the left-wing civic party that has held power on council since 1987.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan has been adamant for years that it's not the city's job to make up for what the province and federal government won't do.

His council has declined to allow homeless shelters, has not provided land for social housing until this year, and has not initiated programs to protect or encourage rental construction, as Vancouver and New Westminster have.

It also has no moratorium on demolitions and no requirement for one-to-one replacement of rental units, like Vancouver does.

Now, at least some of that is under reconsideration. But Mr. Volkow and others say that their options are limited, even though they are coming under fire as the demolitions of low-cost apartment buildings along the SkyTrain line near Metrotown continues to accelerate.

Burnaby saw more than 300 units demolished from 2012, when the trend started, to 2014 and many more have gone down since then, primarily in the low-income Maywood area. They are being replaced with high-rise condo buildings.

"When we ask staff, we are told that cities do not have any jurisdiction to have a moratorium [on demolition]," said Sav Dhaliwal, a veteran councillor and former president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities.

Mr. Dhaliwal said council has been told only Vancouver, with its special charter, has the power to introduce a policy prohibiting demolition of the city's older three- and four-storey apartment buildings.

The city introduced that in 2007 when developers started knocking down some of the older apartments in the Fairview area to build expensive new condos.

Other councillors also say they've been told that the city, because it's not as attractive as Vancouver for builders, has limited ability to either entice or coerce builders into preserving or creating new rentals.

"In the past, I've been told the developers won't come in if we try that," Mr. Volkow said.

And he also said Burnaby is being picked on unfairly. It has set its zoning policy to density along transit lines, which is what everyone in the region said should be done.

He also complained other municipalities aren't doing any better, yet they get little criticism. He pointed to Vancouver's failure to protect the social housing that was demolished at Little Mountain and to Coquitlam's demolition of low-cost apartment buildings along the Evergreen Line.

Colleen Jordan, the councillor who handles the city's housing file, said the city has asked the province repeatedly to give it the power to zone for only rental in some areas, which would protect rentals.

But this has always been turned down.

She blames the federal government for not having put in more conditions, when it gave tax breaks 60 years ago to builders of apartment buildings.

"They should have put an asterisk in that it has to stay rental housing."

But mayors of neighbouring cities said, while staying away from any direct criticism of Burnaby, that there are tools that cities outside Vancouver can use.

In the City of North Vancouver, which has about 7,000 units and 6 per cent of the region's supply, Mayor Darrell Mussatto said the city aggressively negotiated with developers to provide incentives – permission to build extra units, relaxation of parking requirements – to get them to keep their buildings.

New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Cote said his city council, alarmed when an older rental building was demolished across from city hall three years ago, brought in a policy that limits developers in apartment areas to only the existing height and density of the building already there.

He said that has resulted in no demolitions in the city, which has about 9,000 units of purpose-built rental.

The city has also provided strong incentives for developers to build new rentals.

He acknowledged that his council is giving benefits to developers that are "a little bit awkward."

"We're stepping into a role the province and federal government stepped out of," he said. "But I can't sit by and ignore what tools I have that are available."

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