In recent weeks the City of Vancouver has unveiled plans to add significant density to areas that are already rich with rental housing, much of it affordable. But questions are rising as to why the areas targeted are the ones already vibrant with affordable housing, while low density areas of the west side are left untouched.
Areas such as Mount Pleasant, Fairview, South Granville and Kitsilano have renter populations of around 60 per cent. And because the buildings are older, they’re generally larger units at an affordable rent, with many long-term tenants.
The 30-year Broadway Plan is in the draft stage and goes to council for a decision in May. The current iteration, released a little over a week ago, shows an additional 24,000 to 30,000 homes and a swath of 30- to 40-storey towers around Skytrain stations and 20- to 30-storeys in shoulder areas off Broadway. The plan, which doesn’t yet offer a lot of details, is to house an additional 50,000 residents in 485 city blocks. But many wonder what the cost will be for those already living in the neighbourhoods.
About one-quarter of the city’s purpose-built rental buildings are within the Broadway Plan, which was the consequence of the Broadway Subway Project, a 5.7-kilometre extension of the Millennium Line that is being built from Clark Drive on the east side to Vine Street in Kitsilano.
In existing apartment neighbourhoods, the plan says buildings will undergo “careful renewal of the aging rental stock over the long term,” with requirements for below-market rents and policies for tenants who are displaced.
Julie Guerette and Gretchen Stuart live in South Granville, on West 12th Avenue near Fir Street. Their 1960s three-storey walkup falls within an area designated for mid-to high-rise towers. The couple opened a hair salon in Kitsilano in the last year, so they are close to their work. They live in separate rental units in the building and have three dogs between them, which would make relocation difficult. Ms. Guerette pays $1,675 for her apartment and Ms. Stuart, who’s been in her unit six years longer, pays $1,250. They say their landlord had been renovating suites in the building as they came available, until the draft plan was released.
Now it’s likely that the building will be redeveloped instead. The couple worry about the loss of affordable housing, the loss of trees along West 12th Avenue and the loss of livable, large apartments, as well as community. Their apartments each have about 850 square feet of living space.
“I was renovicted from my last place, so it feels like it’s happening again,” says Ms. Stuart, who is 40.
“They will go bigger and develop more and they’ll say it’s newer and nicer, and so I’d probably pay double what I’m currently paying,” adds Ms. Guerette, 38. “Just based on what happened with Cambie Street. That didn’t bring prices down, it drove it up,” she says, referring to the Canada Line extension.
“If anyone has a family they are trying to support, or start, I feel like you take the lifeblood out of communities. … You’re taking away the main people who drive the city.”
If the plan were approved, Ms. Guerette and Ms. Stuart would live for the next few years with the uneasy feeling of future displacement. According to city protection measures, Ms. Stuart will get five to six months’ rent as compensation in the event of eviction. Ms. Guerette would get about four months’ rent. When redevelopment is complete, they have right of first refusal to move back into the building. However, the only break they get is 20 per cent off whatever the new market rent turns out to be, and that could be much higher than what they are paying now. They wonder how their elderly neighbours would afford it.
Housing experts wonder why the city would target affordable apartments for redevelopment and risk displacing tenants, causing upheaval and replacing homes with what will undoubtedly be smaller apartments at higher rents.
Thom Armstrong, chief executive officer of the Co-operative Housing Federation of B.C., said that supplying affordable housing is becoming an impossible effort. For every provincially subsidized affordable housing unit that was developed between 2015 and 2019, he says, another three affordable units were lost due to redevelopment. Those are units in the $750 to $1,000 a month range, and those figures were obtained from census data.
He took issue in particular with institutional investment, such as real estate investment trusts and pension funds, buying up older rental apartment blocks and redeveloping them, or holding onto the units as income, and then renovating each unit as it becomes vacant, then raising the rents.
“We went to [the province] and said, ‘we are going to max out your investment in new supply and get units into the ground, and we’re still going to be behind – because for every one we have built we lose three,’” Mr. Armstrong said.
The draft Vancouver Plan, released last week, runs parallel with the Broadway Plan land use strategy. It is the second time in the city’s history that such a comprehensive plan has been created, at a cost that could top out at around $11-million, according to city staff in a virtual press conference held on April 5. Council will consider that plan in June, after the Broadway Plan.
Taken together, the two plans will transform the city.
Critics say the plans stick to a rigidly held principle in Vancouver – giving the more expensive neighbourhoods a pass when it comes to taking on significant density.
Cameron Gray was the city’s housing director for 20 years, and he argues that the city could have targeted several areas capable of taking on significant density without causing displacement.
For example, towers built along Dunbar, Arbutus, MacDonald and West 10th in Point Grey make sense due to the high cost of land on the west side.
“When you have a very high-value single family stock, you have to have high density if you want to see it transformed.”
Phasing in density in low-density areas should be done prior to densifying affordable neighbourhoods, he says.
“If they really want to increase supply and improve affordability they would be doing towers along those west side streets. That’s where they could get some substantial density,” Mr. Gray said.
“Right now, it seems to me, the tradition – which is decades old – of preserving the west side at all costs, seems to be a consequence if not a motivation for what they are trying to do. That seems to be quite counter productive and at some point I think they are going to have to face the music, that some density is going to land west of Granville and south of 16th Avenue.
“Those streets they could increase supply dramatically without the loss of affordability, and in fact, probably improve it, whereas now, they want to densify the already dense [areas]. It seems to me a bit of a contradiction.”
Mr. Gray said that he read through the Vancouver Plan and it seems there is a financial motive behind such dramatic changes to the city’s built form.
“Clearly, the City is under financial stress and is looking to enhance its tax revenues, which development would do.”
At the press conference, Theresa O’Donnell, director of planning and general manager of planning, urban design and sustainability, did not explain why the west side was not given more consideration for greater density. Instead, she spoke about policies that would balance out redevelopment.
“[That question] is one that we continue to kind of grapple with as we look for more opportunities. Some of the most affordable housing that exists in the city are some of these low density garden style apartments built in the 70s and 80s and those are very attractive redevelopment sites for many landowners and developers. So we have to come up with rate of change policies and density policies that can balance that, so that we are not displacing the most vulnerable residents. It’s something that we will continue to work on,” Ms. O’Donnell said.
A community plan should work with existing residents, not aim to displace them, said Andy Yan. The urban planner and director for Simon Fraser University’s city program spoke at the Grandview-Woodland Area Council’s annual general meeting earlier this month.
“In Chinatown, in the 50s and 60s, the City denied the existence of those living there with the promise of urban renewal. I loathe those words that ‘it’s an emerging neighbourhood’ as opposed to, actually acknowledging a neighbourhood that’s already there. We don’t need to place-make, we need to have place-stewardship, acknowledge and work with the social fabric that is there. That’s a skill for the planners to take up, and also ask, ‘is the responsibility and civic sacrifice shared as far as development that occurs across the city?’”
In an interview later, he commented on the release of draft Vancouver Plan: “It reduces communities to a transactional unit. … It’s about land use, not people.”
Carole Lewis is a grandmother who lives with her daughter and granddaughter a block off W. Broadway in a co-op housing townhouse at 717 West 8th Ave., on city-owned land. Their lease expires in August, 2026, and Ms. Lewis, who is the co-op board president, said city staff has notified them their 36-unit complex may be redeveloped, depending on the outcome of the Broadway Plan. The new development would likely be a tower with the co-op designated for the lower floors. Their concern is that the new replacement units will be smaller and they’d lose their courtyard, which is a gathering space for the community of 66 adults and about two dozen kids.
“It’s a fantastic community. The courtyard is the hub of the co-op. So that would be a big loss.”
Ms. Lewis wonders why affordable housing isn’t built on empty or underused city-owned lots, instead of livable properties such as her own. She said they asked the city to give them a 10-year extension on their lease.
“They said [they couldn’t] because people are desperate for affordable housing. My question is, ‘if they are desperate for affordable housing why can’t they build on these city lots?’
“It’s a big question: why are they not building some new ones and leaving the existing affordable housing in place until there is more built?”
Ms. Stuart says that renters are at a disadvantage because they have less collective power. She points to the concurrent planning underway for Jericho Lands, the prized low-density 36-hectare site in Point Grey that has massive redevelopment potential. Towers have been proposed for the site, which is a joint venture partnership between First Nations’ MST Development Corporation, which oversees more than $1-billion worth of property, and federal government crown corporation Canada Lands Company.
“One of the bigger stories coming up is the Jericho Village area, and the residents there are fighting any kind of redevelopment, and I don’t disagree with the residents, because that’s why you moved to these areas, because you like the feel of the place. If you put in towers that would change it.
“But there is quite a bit more land available, and they’re not displacing people by building there. But they have more money and I think they come out in larger numbers than the people who live in rentals.”
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