Crisis conditions continue for renters, but Vancouver’s record shows solutions emerging

The stories told by four renters at last night’s Generation Rent forum, organized by the Tyee Solutions team, underlined the continuing crisis of affordability, insecurity and dubious building maintenance afflicting many renters.

That the crisis continues is unsurprising: a long-neglected housing market cannot be overhauled in a day.

What was a wake-up call was the lack of information many on the panel had about how closely Vancouver’s policies reflect the solutions they propose. What’s more, other municipalities, like New Westminster and Burnaby, are beginning to implement their own rental housing strategies. There is hope. Thousands of new rental units are being built.

The tenants’ stories were diverse and compelling. For Joe Thompson, who now lives in affordable housing at City Gate, finding stable, long-term housing enabled him to turn around his life. Two of the other tenants had stories with less certain happy endings: a Mount Pleasant couple fearful the discovery of their chihuahua would trigger eviction from their perfect apartment; an artist and mother of two, husband in high tech, determined to raise her children in the city, now in a lovely home but with a uniquely progressive and supportive landlord who might someday sell.

The most unusual story: Jocelyn Wagner’s tale of five (or was it seven?) room mates, all professionals, who joined together in a social media strategy to land a $3,500 shared rental in West Point Grey that met their needs.

Many solutions were canvassed, but to take just one example: all four tenants expressed support, with some qualifications, for densification of the city as a way to produce additional rental housing supply.

What they did not know is that Vancouver’s Rental 100 program, along with renewed community plans supporting more growth on arterials, are showing dramatic successes along those lines, exceeding the city’s rental housing goals by almost 2,000 units.

A report before council this week will see a major project, including 87 secured market rental units, referred to public hearing.

If approved, that building will put Vancouver 1,917 rental units ahead of where the city’s Affordable Housing Plan proposed to get us by this date. The goal for 2021 is 5,000 rental units, with 1,500 completed by 2014. In fact, 374 are complete, 880 under construction, 1,245 approved and 918 currently in the rezoning process, not all of which may be approved.

This is four or five times the rate of rental construction before Mayor Gregor Robertson made affordable housing a priority.

That’s not all. The record of the Vision Vancouver council is a telling one:

  • Launching a Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability;
  • Enabling significant new affordable housing on City-owned land with an innovative partnership that is creating 355 new affordable rental units on 4 City-owned sites in Southeast Vancouver;
  • Approving a record number of new rental housing units in 2012;
  • Hiring a new Chief Housing Officer for the City of Vancouver;
  • Approving the development of an arms-length Affordable Housing Authority;
  • Approving Vancouver’s first-ever co-housing project;
  • The opening of Vancouver’s first Rent Bank, to support renters in crisis with short-term loans;
  • The creation of the Rental 100 Program, which provides incentives for the development of new, 100% rental buildings;
  • Launching the Online Rental Standards Database, which enables renters to search out buildings that have current safety issues; and
  • Hosting the ‘re:THINK Housing’ international ideas competition to solicit ideas from around the world on how to create new affordable housing.

Is it enough? Not nearly, but it’s a beginning. What’s been missing in the debate has been the voices of tenants. We heard some of them last night.