Faced with an almost constant drumbeat of anxiety from local residents about rent and real estate costs, Vancouver is moving ahead with affordable-housing developments on four city-owned sites even before provincial or federal help is guaranteed.
"We need the housing desperately here in the city," Mayor Gregor Robertson said on Monday, as he announced that the city has selected builders and architects for four of 20 sites the city hopes to use for subsidized or lower-cost rental housing.
"If we do get partnerships, we are able to bring the rents down. We're urging everyone to take part."
Vancouver's chief housing officer, Mukhtar Latif, said about 400 units would be built on the sites, with rents ranging from $375 in the Downtown Eastside to $2,000 for three-bedroom family-sized units at other locations. Those rents could be lowered or additional units could be added if provincial and federal money is added to the projects.
The four locations include almost half a city block on Main Street near Broadway – which has boomed with tech businesses and millennial residents in recent years; and sites near Main Street and Southwest Marine Drive, West Pender Street in the Downtown Eastside, and Fraser Street.
The properties are worth almost $50-million on paper – likely much more if they were sold in today's market.
The city is contributing about $10-million for early costs, something it has not done in past social-housing developments. Mr. Latif said the projects will need to go through rezoning, but they could be approved as early as next year and built within 18 months to two years after that.
The province has promised a couple of times this year that it will put money into housing for low- and moderate-income earners.
In February, B.C. Premier Christy Clark announced a five-year, $355-million program for affordable housing. Then, in July, when the province introduced its new 15-per-cent tax on foreign residential property buyers, it said the money would go toward a new $75-million fund for affordable housing.
So far, there has been nothing announced specifically for Vancouver from either of those sources, even though the city told provincial officials last fall that it had 20 pieces of land it was willing to provide for housing projects.
The federal Liberal government has also committed to inject $20-billion into "social infrastructure" – a category that includes everything from child care and senior centres to housing – over 10 years.
Monday's announcement is the latest of several city efforts to create more rental housing – some of it subsidized – using such incentives as free land, extra density and zoning requirements. Developers are increasingly showing signs of liking the incentives for rental projects, and hundreds of units are in the pipeline. But it is taking a long time for some of those efforts to produce results.
Three years ago, the city announced it was providing four pieces of land to a consortium of non-profit and co-op housing organizations in an experiment to produce 358 units that would be internally subsidized. That meant renting out some units at high market prices in some projects so rents could be lowered for units elsewhere.
That community land-trust project has taken a long time to get under way and construction has only just started, after the city's housing department took an unusually long time to approve the details.
Mr. Robertson said on Monday that he is still waiting for news on when Vancouver's proposed new tax on vacant homes can be put in place. He said it won't be able to go ahead unless the city gets access to provincial data on rental incomes, drivers' licence information and homeowner grants for specific addresses.