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The downtown Vancouver skyline is seen at sunset, as houses line a hillside in Burnaby, B.C., on April 17, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The battle for affordable housing in B.C. will only grow more challenging in the year ahead.

Exacerbating the problem is that rents continue to climb while household incomes stagnate, according to new data that also reveal the rise of homelessness by 33 per cent since 2022.

In response to the crisis, the provincial government passed a suite of new housing policies that promise to reduce housing costs through the upzoning of single-family and transit areas, but some experts question if it will achieve results.

Metro Vancouver released its Housing Data Book for 2023 and it shows a sizable gap between new and vacant units and occupied units. The gap will continue to devastate low-income groups. According to the Data Book, the average rent for a newly built apartment in 2022 in Metro Vancouver was $2,409 a month – 44.4-per-cent higher than the average rent for an existing occupied unit of any age.

The unit doesn’t have to be new to undergo a hefty rent hike. It just has to be empty. A newly built one-bedroom unit averaged $2,053 a month, while a vacant unit averaged $2,008 a month. An occupied one-bedroom unit averaged $1,539.

The pattern was the same for bachelor and two and three-bedroom units.

About 50 per cent of renter households can afford to pay, at most, $1,663 a month in the city of Vancouver, says Simon Fraser University’s City Program director Andy Yan. Only 30 per cent of renter households can afford rents that are $3,125 a month or higher. He used data from the Data Book for his findings.

The total median household income of a renter was $67,000 in 2020; however, that would have been temporarily impacted by the Canada Emergency Response Benefit payments at the onset of the pandemic, he says.

“The report provides a pretty sobering reality check for the province as they unroll their new housing legislation, in terms of whom they can build for, and what people can actually afford,” said Prof. Yan.

For seniors who’ve been living for decades in the same apartment, an eviction is devastating because of the new market rates and the competition to find a new place, says BC Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie.

“And then it becomes much more compelling for the landlord to get them out. … The stakes are even higher for the landlord: ‘If I can get $200 more, I might not bother, but now I can get $2,000 more and so it’s worth a little effort to figure this out.’ That is also coming into play.”

About 30 per cent of seniors in B.C. are on the guaranteed income supplement. That means they have an income below $26,000 a year, with no way to increase their income. Ms. Mackenzie has been arguing for a long-overdue increase in the Shelter Aid subsidy for elderly renters, which, she says, is doable and a far quicker fix than waiting for social housing to get built.

To address all this, at the end of 2023, the province passed broad-sweeping legislation aimed at incentivizing greater density around transit hubs, which are traditionally areas most needed by low-income renters. Prof. Yan found that about half of the residents in these areas are already renters and one in three renters in the region live in these transit areas. They will now face new levels of rental instability.

New provincial housing policy means municipalities must allow 20-storey minimum heights within 200 metres of a SkyTrain station and eight-to-12-storey buildings within 800 metres. Bus exchanges will have minimum heights of eight and 12 storeys. Another major change is mandating multiplex developments in all single-family zones throughout B.C.

After BC Green MLA Adam Olsen had called for release of the report on which the legislation had been based, the 200-page commissioned report was finally released in December.

The report offers estimates and predictions that could follow these radical reforms to B.C.’s single-family zones and transit areas, largely based on similar policies enacted in Auckland, New Zealand.

Several authors of the report are well known for their pro-development stance, and so too was a list of experts who’d helped advise on some of the legislation.

The report was prepared by data analyst Jens von Bergmann, an outspoken member of the controversial group Abundant Housing, University of B.C. real estate finance professors Tom Davidoff and Tsur Somerville, and sociology professor Nathanael Lauster, author of The Death and Life of the Single-Family House. Mr. Lauster also served as an expert witness, on behalf of the plaintiff, in a lawsuit that aimed to repeal the B.C. tax on foreign buyers.

Another author is Terra Housing’s Albert Huang, also listed as a member of Abundant Housing.

The group is Vancouver’s answer to San Francisco’s YIMBY movement, which believes strongly that the way out of the housing crisis is to build as many multi-family homes as possible as quickly as possible, no matter the price point. On social media, members of the group have aggressively confronted those who question the reliance on market-driven redevelopment to solve the crisis, and who worry about the displacement of existing residents, loss of affordable rental apartments, mountain views and heritage housing.

Their stance also puts them at odds with those concerned that the financialization of housing is driving up prices, or that there is such a thing as too many towers.

The province gave Mr. von Bergmann and his associates nearly half a million dollars in funding, according to the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer.

They estimate 44,000 to 54,000 net new completions of housing units over five years, because of the new policies, which “would result in six to 12 per cent lower prices and rents than what they would have been without the provincial legislation.”

That does not necessarily mean housing affordability, says retired planner Ken Cameron, who played a central role in the region’s adoption of the Livable Region Strategic Plan of 1996. He also worked for the city of New Westminster, B.C. and the Ontario government, as well as chief executive officer for the Homeowner Protection Office. Mr. Cameron says dramatic action needs to be taken to address the housing crisis.

“I would just like to be more confident that somebody has looked at how this will work and assured themselves that it will produce the amount and kind and cost of housing that we are looking for,” said Mr. Cameron.

“It was my generation of planners that was there when these problems were created, and there is no doubt that housing is a crisis, and we need to resolve it.

“I compare it to the introduction of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) in 1973. … A very bold and sweeping intervention on the part of the provincial government, which also set aside local zoning provisions and a lot of local planning work that had been done.”

However, the ALR might have protected farmland, but it didn’t always protect farming. For example, in the tony west side neighbourhood of Southlands in Vancouver, ALR land has been purchased by nonfarmers to build massive single-family homes.

“Just changing what can be built in the technical zoning sense doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be productive and actual housing will be built,” says Mr. Cameron.

“These transit-oriented developments are not new developments. They are older parts of the community in which they sit. There is, for example, a fair amount of low-rise rental accommodation in a number of these places, like Steveston. Or some still left in Metrotown, which will be put on the chopping block for redevelopment by these changes in zoning.

“I think that those of us who’ve been involved in planning in the last 30 years or so have to respect the fact that we have a significant problem, and planning provisions are part of the problem, so something needs to be done. But whether what’s been proposed will actually produce what is needed is really the $64,000 question.”

Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly said Nathanael Lauster had launched a lawsuit to repeal the B.C. tax on foreign buyers; this has been corrected.

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