Critics challenge Vancouver’s plans to protect existing rental stock

Thursday, May 31st, 2018

Critics challenge plans to protect old rental stock

Joanne Lee-Young
The Province

The City of Vancouver is holding public hearings next week on proposals aimed at tightening protection for one of the cheapest housing options left: old rental stock.

But the jury is out on what these will actually accomplish.

The affordable rental units are usually found in low-rise, wood-frame buildings, built between the 1950s and 1970s — the antithesis to all the city’s shiny, new, skyscraping condos with granite countertops.

The city wants to make it more difficult to tear down these older buildings. Currently, if someone wants to redevelop anything larger than a five-unit, older building, they have to replace the rental units, one for one. New rules would include three-unit buildings, which would protect an additional 4,500 units in smaller buildings.

It is a welcome move for those in such units at a time of rising rents and tight vacancy rates, but not everyone agrees.

“It’s a noble idea, but it’s sheer, bloody nonsense,” says David Goodman, publisher of The Goodman Report and a commercial real estate agent who specializes in apartment building sales. “They are doing nothing to improve the situation.”

He says only 60 to 70 units have been lost in the last seven years, against 2,452 new housing units added between 2010 to 2017 in the City of Vancouver, according to Canada Housing Mortgage Corporation figures. “It’s really nothing. But this reduces the amount of land that can be used for building new, purpose-built rental. If you can tear down old three- or six-units, you can put in 10 to 15 units.”

Another measure being proposed by the city next week focuses on supporting better maintenance of these older buildings. Less than 25 per cent of landlords have a capital plan for taking on major repairs, according to a report it commissioned.

The city wants to partner with LandlordBC on a pilot project to help landlords plan for energy efficiency-related upgrades, an opportunity that CEO David Hutniak cautiously welcomes.

“We broadly support the measures, but the reality is that the economics are still a challenge,” says Hutniak.”With older buildings, it’s not just cosmetic improvements, but deep retrofits, building envelopes, mechanicals, that must be done. It can be huge bucks.”

“When buildings get to a certain age, the business case of bringing them up to current standards versus tearing them down and bringing in a new building with increased density is a challenging one,” says Hutniak. “We understand what the city is trying to do. It’s a situation not unique to our city and we are trying to help the city walk down this road, but they can’t go it alone.”

Hutniak is encouraged by more recent signs of provincial and federal interest.

“We need to find mechanisms to make it economically feasible,” he said, offering as possibilities various combinations of subsidies or rent support for existing tenants.

“When you look at three-storey, walk-up buildings that are between 50 to 60 years old … the cohort of residents are seniors on fixed incomes,” said Hutniak. “Trying to beat up the landlord over building maintenance and making investments, well, the numbers don’t actually work.

“The situation is that nobody cared about building purpose-built, rental housing for 30-plus years, (so) no new stuff was added. Now, the old stuff is really old. But you can’t fix things overnight. It’s not reasonable to legislate or push existing owners to do this on their dime.”

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