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Never mind mortgage payments – even rents are out of reach for many in Vancouver

Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic issues.

At El Barbero, a new Fraser Street barbershop where Mikey Sbeih cuts hair and trims beards for a wide range of clients, there is one overriding topic of conversation: housing affordability.

"Ninety-nine per cent of my clients, they complain about the prices," Sbeih says. Not surprisingly, the city's new Rental 100 program "affordable rent" chart, circulated widely across media channels early this month, drew barber-chair remarks that echoed the howls of social media outrage.

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Sbeih says his clients did the math. "They saw the rents and started talking about salaries. They said that 30 per cent of your salary has to go for rent."

For most households, the math doesn't work. Rents range from $1,496 for a studio in East Vancouver to $3,702 for a three-bedroom on the West Side. To afford the cheapest of these (if 30 per cent of gross income goes toward rent) a household would have to earn $60,000 a year and upward of $148,080 a year for the priciest.

The most recent Statistics Canada household-income numbers are from 2015, so incomes have risen a bit since. But at that time, 23 per cent of households earned less than $30,000, so couldn't afford even the cheapest Rental 100 apartment. Another 23 per cent earned $30,000 to $60,000, an amount still not enough. Only 6 per cent of Vancouver households earned between $125,000 and $149,000, the amount needed for the West Side unit.

"The [rent] numbers are laughable," says Derrick O'Keefe, an organizer with the Tenants Rights Union, a tenants' rights group which formed last spring. "It's completely out of whack with people's incomes."

The city shifted into damage control with a statement acknowledging the rents were "significantly" higher than most people can afford.

"We absolutely do get why they freaked out," says Dan Garrison, assistant director of housing policy. But he points out they apply only to the Rental 100 program, designed to incentivize construction of rental buildings over condominiums, which are now even further out of reach for most Vancouverites. If rents were any lower, developers could not make a profit with land values and building costs where they are.

The use of the word "affordable" to describe housing out of reach for most Vancouverites is a politically unpalatable misnomer, and the city is now suffering the fallout. But the truth is, some people can afford these rents, which are based on averages in newer buildings.

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Rental accommodation at all price points is in such great demand that even Rental 100 buildings fill up quickly. Some of the tenants are people living in cheaper digs who want a nicer, newer place but cannot afford to buy. People who upgrade free up some affordable spaces, or so the trickle-down theory goes.

Mr. Garrison points out, in the city's defence, that it has also launched a moderate income rental housing pilot project designed to create about 500 affordable units for households earning between $30,000 and $80,000.

And in partnership with the federal and provincial governments, the city between 2011 and 2017 delivered 3,500 units of social housing, some at welfare and some at low income rates. Another 877 units of social housing are under construction today.

All the projects in the works will not meet the current demand for affordable rental housing in Vancouver. The city is playing catch-up after about three decades of condo mania when almost no rental housing was built.

And while the city has added some units to the truly affordable housing stock, progress has been too little and too slow to satisfy the customers at El Barbero.

There is clearly a limit to what the private marketplace can do to serve the lower half of Vancouver's household income earners. Land values are already too high. There is some optimism that the provincial government's recent efforts to cool the market may slowly bring prices down.

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But when it comes to meeting the pent-up demand for affordable housing, short of a complete market collapse (for which no one really hopes), the only answer appears to be a huge infusion of government cash for housing with rents scaled to income.

The feds have scored a lot of political points announcing a national housing strategy. It would be nice to see some money.

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