It's nice to know that someone is looking out for the baristas.
For better or for worse, the people who make your latte in the morning have become the poster children for the opposition to Vancouver City Council's latest foray into rental housing.
The address in question is 1401 Comox St. in the city's West End. This week, it became the first development to be approved under the city's Short Term Incentive for Rental – or STIR – program, which is designed to entice developers to build for-profit rental housing that will also be affordable to, say, a barista. This is supposed to be achieved by giving developers a break on development cost levies, relaxing certain bylaws, and by limiting the size of units which, according to a city report, will be "finished modestly." The sort of thing a barista might appreciate.
Really, who needs granite countertops when they're not going to be able to spend much time there?
With a one-bedroom unit renting at $1,340, if the barista works one, $12-an-hour full-time job, they'll be left with just $580 after rent. (That's before taxes, CPP, EI and other deductions.) Clearly, they're going to need a second job.
The West End, in which roughly 80 per cent of the population rents, is in desperate need of new rental housing. This development would provide 186 new rental units. And yet neighbourhood groups and the vast majority of people who have turned out to public open houses are opposed to the project, at last count, by about a two-to-one margin. Some because of the building's height – at 22 storeys they're worried it won't fit in. Others don't like the increase in density or the lack of green space.
But mostly, it's concern about the baristas, and what they can afford.
"We want that barista who's working at Starbucks to be able to have an apartment that they can go home to, so they're not polluting the air with their car driving all the way out to Langley, or they're not having to have so huge a commute on transit from Surrey," Christine Ackermann of the West End Residents Association said this week, arguing for lower, barista-friendly West End rents.
"You should be able to work where you live, live where you work," she said.
Now, I haven't been to Langley in a while, but I'm pretty sure there's a Starbucks or two there.
Ms. Ackermann calls the approval of the building "bittersweet."
"We fully support the approval of new, purpose-built rentals in the West End."
The problem in this case, she says, is that even after three years of wrangling with city hall and residents, the developer hasn't done everything it can to make the suites as affordable as she thinks they ought to be.
"What we really want it to have is a real solution on affordability. What we want is diversity in the building."
Ms. Ackermann says starting rents for one-third of the building's units should be benchmarked to what people in the neighbourhood are already paying. She says the middle third could be rented at market rates. And the top third, she says, "could be high, plush rents. We don't really care what they charge for rents – charge $10,000 if you want, but leave us that one-third … for inclusionary zoning."
A news release issued by the mayor's office following council's approval of the development says the rent for a one-bedroom unit in the building is expected to be more than $800 less than a typical one-bedroom condo in the West End.
I've done the math, and a quick scan of Craigslist tells me that $2,140 for a one-bedroom apartment in the West End is at the very, very high end of the range.
Over the three decades I've lived in this city, I've rented apartments in the neighbourhood on three separate occasions. My very first West End apartment was directly across the street from where this 22-storey tower will be built; my old building will literally be in its shadow.
It was a different time. Eastside handyman specials weren't selling for $1-million and apartments in the West End were within reach of people earning modest wages.
I shared the rent with a roommate, and yes, I was a barista, only we didn't call ourselves that back then. A lot has changed.
What hasn't changed is the desirability of the West End as a place to live – because of its diversity, its heritage, the abundant services, and its proximity to downtown, Stanley Park and the water.
It may be heresy to say this out loud, but if you want to live in the middle of a city, in one of its best neighbourhoods, you pay a premium. Maybe you just can't afford to live there.
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One in Vancouver, 690 AM and 88.1 FM. Follow him at @cbcstephenquinn.