Reader Soapbox: Son of STIR risen: Vancouver rental policy approved

On Tuesday May 15, 2012 Vision Vancouver City Councillors approved a new rental policy report, Secured Market Rental Housing Policy. Based on concerns about the report and the process, it was substantially opposed by Green Party Councillor Adriane Carr and NPA Councillors George Affleck and Elizabeth Ball.

The recently cancelled Short Term Incentives for Rentals Program (STIR) has now been replaced by the Secured Market Rental Housing Policy, or the Son of STIR. Like its predecessor, the new program is a density-bonus-for-rentals policy. But this new version is potentially more problematic.

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Unfortunately, instead of discussing and addressing the true merits of the report, Vision Vancouver councillors hid behind rhetoric. They framed themselves as the defenders of rental housing, saying that opposition to their policy report came from bad people who oppose rental housing. Vision claimed that the need for new rentals is so urgent there is no time for any delay to allow for further amendment or consultation.

The opposition was of course not against building rental housing in principle.

Some of the issues raised by opposition speakers were the lack of meaningful public consultation, affordability, neighbourhood fit, protection of existing rentals, and numerous problems with the report including future work outlined in the report. Former councillor Ellen Woodsworth spoke representing COPE, requesting that the report be referred back to staff to conduct a public consultation process so other options could be explored.

The Urban Design Institute (UDI), the BC Apartment Owners and Managers Association (BCAOMA), rental non-profit organizations and an architect spoke in favour. UDI noted that the proposed incentives are only for 100% rental projects which in their opinion should be reconsidered to also apply to projects that have mixed or total strata units. The architect noted issues about implementation that had not been adequately address in the report.

Some interesting discussion came out of the debate but the substantive issues of process and of product were not addressed by the Vision councillors or staff. There needs to be much more objective analysis and consideration of a variety of different options.

ISSUES OF PROCESS:

1. Consultation

As Councillor Adriane Carr noted, the public consultation process has changed from what it was previously. What staff is now doing is to allow opportunity for comments from the public on a general topic before staff prepare a specific proposal. But that proposal then goes directly to council for approval without having any public consultation process on the proposal itself.

In this case the public did not have an opportunity to see or comment on the new rental housing policy before it was posted to the City's website days before the May 15, 2012 meeting for council approval.

2. Public Hearings Bypassed

The future work outlined in the report set directions to write this policy for market rental density bonusing into many zoning bylaws affecting neighbourhoods city-wide. It grants immense discretionary power to the Director of Planning.

Changes to the Zoning and Development By-law require a public hearing, but once approved, large increases in height and density could be allowed for individual projects without rezoning, only requiring approval by the Development Permit Board, which is largely comprised of City staff.

ISSUES OF PRODUCT:

The Son of STIR report does not address the STIR issues about lack of affordability, loss of amenity contributions, or the scale of rental developments. It is certain to result in the loss of older rentals in the RT zones on arterials. The larger, affordable family sized units presently contained in older heritage buildings will in many cases be replaced with expensive market priced units as small as 320 sq. ft.

The impacts to affected zones are broad in scope. Other than some limitations in RM apartment zones and CD-1 zones , there is no protection for existing rental buildings. No existing rentals in RT heritage zones, commercial areas, industrial areas and Official Development Plan areas are protected. The increased density and height for rentals would increase the development pressure on heritage and character buildings, which already embody some of the most affordable rental and ownership options in the city.

The proposed Secured Market Rental Housing Policy, Son of STIR, works against protection of existing rentals, affordability, heritage, liveability, and the City's environmental objectives. There are so many issues that have not been thought through. This proposed policy should not have been approved and needs major reconsideration.

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Elizabeth Murphy is a former Property Development Officer for the City of Vancouver's Housing & Properties Department; Senior Development officer for BC Housing; and private sector project manager. She ran for councillor with Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver in the 2011 Vancouver civic election.

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