In favour of purpose-built rental…

Remarks at public hearing for rezoning of 3365 Commercial Drive (and other lots)

June 23, 2016 

Link to video of hearing. My remarks begin at 1:20:25

Good evening mayor and council. Thank you for this opportunity to speak. My name is Karen Sawatzky and I am here to support this rezoning application and urge you to do the same.

I am a long-time renter in the City of Vancouver, in a neighbourhood right next to Cedar Cottage –– Grandview-Woodland. It’s because I’m a renter, and one who strongly believes in the need for more purpose-built rental, that I favour this proposal.

While the reasons I support more purpose-built rental in general, and particularly here tonight, are probably familiar to all of you, I would like to explain at least some of those reasons now.

Over the last three to four decades, and in the absence of the federal tax incentives for rental housing that used to exist, very little new purpose-built rental has been created. This has led to the increasing predominance of what is known as the secondary rental market – especially rented condos and secondary suites. While these units are crucial and valued, they are much more easily converted to owner occupation, or just removed from the rental stock, than purpose-built units because they are not subject to various regulations and policies to prevent their conversion or demolition, such as the city’s rate of change regulations. In practice, this means that renters living in the secondary market have far less tenure security than those living in purpose-built units. An insane real estate climate such as we have been experiencing for the last several years provides owners of secondary market units with many temptations and incentives to sell or demolish those units, or more recently, convert them to more lucrative short-term rentals. Living as a renter in Vancouver in this climate and with an incredibly low vacancy rate brings with it a constant sense of precariousness and stress. The only thing that will cure this is more rental housing. This should most definitely include lots more social housing and coop units, but we also need to address the long-standing construction deficit of market rentals. As far as I’m concerned, the more of those market units that are purpose-built, the better off tenants will be.

I note as well that the need for rental housing is clear no matter where you position yourself in the local debates currently raging over whether it is more supply that is needed to remedy our housing crises, or more controls over foreign capital – and for the record, I think we badly need both. Our chronically unhealthy and abysmally low rental vacancy rate is proof of the need for more rental housing and there is no doubt that if built, these units will quickly fill with residents who will contribute to our city in myriad ways. They will not be used merely as a safe place to park capital.

I know that some object to projects like this on the grounds that they are not affordable enough to people making low and moderate incomes. I definitely share that concern, but I also realize that in the absence of senior government subsidies or incentives, there is no way to make brand-new construction on land bought at today’s square-foot prices as affordable as units in 50- or 60-year old apartment buildings, such as the one I live in. As a renter, I do not want to wait any longer for those senior government incentives to materialize – we have already waited far too long to build more purpose-built rental.

In any case, to the charge that these units are not affordable enough, I can only say that the alternative to approving this rezoning is allowing the developer who owns the properties to build what they are already zoned for – single-family housing. That would probably please the immediate neighbours, but it would mean that instead of higher-than-average rents that the many mid- and higher-income renters who have been shut out of our “freakshow” real estate market can actually afford, this transit-friendly housing would only be available to those who can afford the mortgage on a house priced at $1 to $2 million, or even higher. I’ll take the 100-plus units of market rental housing located near transit and parks, please.

I will also point out that the city-wide proportion of renting households has declined from a high of 59 percent in 1991 to its current 51 percent – or perhaps even less as of the 2016 census. Again, as a renter this trend causes me considerable worry and it’s one I would like to see you, my elected representatives, try to halt or even reverse. I realize you have recently exceeded many of your targets for enabling new market rental units and I commend you for doing so, but I would like to see you go further and this project could be part of that. I’d like to see you calculate the number of units that are needed to reach a vacancy rate of 3 to 5 percent (which is what I see cited as a healthy rate) and also the number of units that would be needed to ensure that our city continues to be evenly balanced in terms of renting and home-owning households – and then set your new housing targets accordingly.

There are more points about the need for this type of rental housing, and this proposal in particular, that I would make if I had more time, but I know I’m nearing my limit so will conclude here. Again, thank you for your time.


Additional points not said at hearing

Regarding the trees and green space arguments

While of course I value the mature trees – and have passed and enjoyed them countless times over the years – there does not seem to be a scenario under which all the trees that neighbours want to be retained actually will be. It’s not reasonable to compare an unrealistic scenario to the options that actually exist. A developer owns these properties (with the exception of the city lot) and therefore has the legal right to develop single-family homes on them if this rezoning is denied. This would not result in more trees saved. And, locating housing close to transit where people can choose to lead car-free lifestyles will ultimately have a far greater environmental benefit than saving the few trees that could be retained if the lots were developed as SFD rather than apartments – if that was even the case, which I don’t think it is. Some residents have called for there to be a park on this site. The parks board has said it’s not interested, so that’s not a realistic option. With Trout Lake and Clark Park so nearby, this area has far better access to green space than my corner of East Van.

Age exclusion vs. economic exclusion

There is much talk in the housing affordability debate about making sure the city remains (or becomes) livable and affordable for young people (millennials) and too often, in my opinion, these issues are framed as if the young and young families are the only ones affected or the only ones who matter.

This annoys me, since I’m a GenXer who has been living with the consequences of unaffordable Vancouver (and Victoria) housing (and also student loans, expensive childcare and an eroding social safety net) for more than 20 years – and I have the invisible children and non-existent mortgage to prove it. While I agree that young people are the future (because it’s a truism), I’m also concerned about fairness in the present and I value the ability of (just as an example) a single 55-year-old retail or service worker (who may play a vital role in their community) to stay in Vancouver just as much as I do the ability of well-educated 20- and 30-somethings with young children to do the same.

In my view, if a city requires the labour of minimum-wage and low-paid workers to function, then that city (along with other levels of government) has an obligation to plan and do as much as it can to ensure those same workers can be housed in the prosperous city they make possible. It seems cruel and unfair that anyone should expect the people who make the least and have the most challenges in life to be consigned to spend another two hours commuting back and forth to those low-paid (and likely tedious) jobs on top of having to work them. Hard to improve your station in life (such as through starting a side business, going to school or working another job) when so much time is taken up in unpaid shadow work. Of course we need better transit and that would help affordability a lot. But a vision in which the only people who can afford to live in Vancouver (proper) are those who are childless, highly educated and with high-paying jobs and/or inherited wealth – while the rest are consigned to the outskirts and killer commutes – is what I call dystopic, as well as poor urban planning from a climate-change (and social cohesion) perspective.

Back to affordability

Finally, and again to those who say they oppose this project because it’s not affordable enough or they would support it if it were more affordable, I have to ask – How do you see that greater affordability being achieved?

The city had to take several steps – through the Rental 100 and similar programs – to get any purpose-built rental constructed at all. Condominiums and single- family homes are much more attractive options to developers, as evidenced by the fact that there was so little purpose-built rental created before the city initiated these programs. Since we’re living in a market-based society, we can’t actually force developers to build projects they don’t want to or that don’t “pencil out” for them, as much as I would love to have that magic wand. I’d much prefer a scenario where more housing was publicly owned, such as in the Scandanavian and many other countries, but that’s not what we have now.

Are you suggesting we wait to build any more purpose-built rental until senior levels of government bring back the tax incentives and subsidies that encouraged its construction in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s? I absolutely support the calls for more social housing, but I don’t see how constraining the supply or delaying the construction of what has become an incredibly scarce resource will ultimately benefit those who need social housing. Those with the most economic power are always going to win the competition for scarce resources.

If you say you support more rental housing but only if it meets your affordability criteria, please explain how you see that affordability being achieved – and please reference reality in that explanation. I hope you will acknowledge that asking for a project to be both less dense and more affordable is a contradiction under current market conditions. Again, I wish it were different, but we need to find ways to get a lot more rental built now, not in some hypothetical future. Also, I think it’s unfair and unreasonable for those who are lucky enough to be securely housed to try to set conditions for how others can achieve that state. Housing is, after all, a major social determinant of health and a fundamental need – and should be recognized as an enforceable human right.

As a resident, you certainly have a right to input into potential developments in your area (as well as do people in other parts of the city, if they consider themselves affected). But you did not buy the neighbourhood when you bought your house.

As for future directions, here’s a group and set of statements that I think provides a good model. I find it more nuanced and inclusive than the straight-ahead YIMBY stances.

Portland for Everyone