Vancouver residents didn't like the idea of packing more people into the city in order to save the planet when former mayor Sam Sullivan tried to sell the EcoDensity concept four years ago.
Now it appears they also don't like Mayor Gregor Robertson's idea of packing more people into the city to create what he and his councillors thought was much-desired rental housing.
In the past several months, the mayor's Vision Vancouver council has had to deal with a mounting backlash to a plan to give developers an array of breaks for a short period ending December, 2011 - less required parking, lower fees, more building space on their land - if they would build rental apartments that would stay as rentals for at least 60 years. There was no requirement to rent at low rates.
Instead of being praised for helping create rental stock, as they expected, the councillors have found themselves on the receiving end of scorn and suspicion in the city's high-density West End, where two of the first towers to be built under the new program are being proposed.
That's a part of the city where Vision Vancouver, which promised to deal with an ongoing crisis of rising rents and evictions, was the most popular in the 2008 civic election.
The picture has changed now.
West End organizer Michelle Matthias, who brought a 2,000-name petition to City Hall last week opposing the council's Short Term Incentives for Rental program, warned councillors darkly that many of the conversations she had with petition signers "were not very flattering to Vancouver politicians. They learned that STIR subsidizes developers, but not renters. Come election time, you might have some explaining to do."
That has some of them dumbfounded.
"We had a dramatic call for rental housing and we responded," said Councillor Geoff Meggs. "It's a really disturbing phenomenon to hear the view that this council has out of the blue proposed a program that no one wants."
It's a program that housing consultant Dale McClanaghan believes is one of the most comprehensive and well thought out of any Canadian city.
"It's grounded in real project economics," said Mr. McClanaghan, who has written many housing reports for various municipalities, where he has found repeatedly that developers won't build rentals under ordinary conditions because there's a 15- to 25-per-cent gap between costs and return on investment.
It's the kind of plan many other cities are contemplating, so if it doesn't work in Vancouver, that will send a message.
One message the councillors are getting is that a rental crisis can fade quickly for some.
"There is no vacancy problem," said Ms. Matthias. "The West End has so many rentals, so it's not a problem."
Another message they're getting is that, even among those who want to see more rental stock, they won't accept just any rental.
"There was too much confidence in a market-based solution," said Brent Granby of the West End Residents Association, a group pushing for the city to come up with a plan in which developers are required to build some rental as part of any project, not just given bonuses as incentives to build rental. As well, the group wants to see rents that match the local incomes.
"What they need to do is figure out more on the affordability."
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