OPINION: Burnaby fails on housing issues

We are grateful that the local media is investigating the various aspects of the housing crisis in Burnaby. Overall, Ms. Naylor’s article has rightfully identified that the City of Burnaby has choices and the choices being made have led, in part, to a situation where one of the relatively richest municipalities in Canada has the absolute worst outcomes in the nation when it comes to access to affordable rental housing. In fact, a 2014 ranking of 523 municipalities nationwide, the Canadian Rental Housing Index, placed Burnaby dead last. Since then, things have gotten worse.

There are some points mentioned in the article that need further clarification. First of all, the assumption that by increasing supply of housing, will lead to lower prices does not apply. We will not be able to create enough supply to meet the increasing global and domestic demand for housing as an investment vehicle. 

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The problem with the simplistic supply and demand model Mr. Davidoff uses is that it is a fixed local supply trying to meet a growing domestic international demand. Federal, provincial and municipal governments exacerbate the problem of demand with policies that have unintended consequences on rental housing availability and affordability. Nearly 6,000 students are on the waitlist for housing this year at UBC, highlighting the growing lack of rentals off campus.

In Burnaby, we have BCIT and SFU with similar housing issues. Also, housing is being used by our wealthiest as an investment vehicle, ignoring the fact that everyone deserves a safe, secure and affordable home. Lack of space is not the issue. The issue is the lack of will and compassion among our politicians who care more about getting re-elected and pleasing their donors than doing what is socially just.

A second reminder to your readers is David Goodman, founder of the Goodman Report, is not an advocate for affordable rental housing. He is a Realtor that specializes in selling purpose-built apartment buildings. He and others like him have profited handsomely from speculative activity in the Metrotown and Edmonds communities. In fact, he lauds Mayor Derek Corrigan. “Unlike Vancouver, Burnaby provides an example of free-market forces allowing for the unrestricted demolition of rental apartment buildings” In 2014, in Goodman’s “What’s Hot” list, in addition to the removal of rent controls, rental vacancies at 0.5 per cent, Corrigan was “hot.” “Burnaby (is) basically saying, ‘Not our problem. You want rentals? Let the market do it,’” and Goodman agrees with that philosophy. Mr. Goodman is only concerned about selling his product, older rental apartments. “Land lifts” such as Burnaby’s Metrotown update has only improved his sales at the expense of renters.

With well over 100 apartment transactions since 2010 in Metrotown alone, the majority of new landlords are speculators, motivated by the opportunity to make windfall profits by the city’s abandonment of long-term renters and the upzoning of the entire Metrotown area. According to Goodman’s reports, average sale prices of older apartment units have increased 100 percent since last year with the most recently sold old units exceeding $1 million.

Simply building more purpose-built market rentals is not the solution. Insisting that new buildings include a certain proportion of affordable housing managed by B.C. Housing or a non profit is one lever the city could use. This is called inclusionary zoning, and it ensures a mix of incomes is represented. It doesn’t cost a city anything to make it a zoning requirement. Such proposals have been forwarded by Metro Vancouver and other groups to Burnaby only to be rejected or ignored. Furthermore, every level of government owns land in Metrotown that could provide affordable homes so desperately needed in the community. In other jurisdictions, affordable housing has been built above fire halls and police stations. Most notably, Metro Vancouver is in the midst of vacating its iconic headquarters at 4330 Kingsway. Additionally, the City of Burnaby holds tens of millions of dollars in property for resale. These sites could be used for affordable homes. 

Finally, we take issue with the misinformation regarding the scope of the problem. The NOW states activists “estimate will ultimately lead to the loss of nearly 700 old purpose-built rental units and the displacement of 1,400 people in the Metrotown area alone.” City planners told activists in a meeting during the Summer of 2016 that 3,000 old purpose-built rental units are under threat in Metrotown (well above the 700 estimated in the article). This will lead to 6,000 evictions.

The Regional Growth Strategy (RGS) forecasted a demand for over 2,100 low-income rentals in Burnaby by 2021. To date, the city has encouraged the construction of 19 low-income units and not added a single family-sized, low-income rental. Ninety units of family housing are being built to replace 90 housing units lost in a land swap deal with a developer in Edmonds. This developer donated almost $70,000 in 2014 to the B.C. Liberals and $15,000 to the mayor’s party, the Burnaby Citizens Association. This begs the question, who do your politicians work for?

To hide the fact that affordable homes are not being built the city defines affordable housing for a density bonus as “guaranteed rental units.” Consequently, the 1,607 purpose-built market rentals in the development approval process in the city are considered “affordable.” Is an $1,800 one bedroom highrise apartment affordable? Only if your household income is $72,000. In 2011, 53 per cent of households in Metrotown earned less than $40,000 per year. The 2016 census incomes show Burnaby’s median household pretax income to be $64,737, significantly below (10.9 percent lower) the median income of $72,662 for the region. In the Maywood census tract income is $51,520 (29.1 percent lower).

In the RGS adopted in 2011, 71 percent of future rental housing demand was forecasted to be for “low” to “low to moderate” income households. Despite failing to provide any new rental housing in this category, the revised 10-year forecast reduced the overall demand for these groups by 1,300 units and the proportion to 64 per cent. The revised RGS reduced Burnaby’s population growth from 2.1 per cent annually to 1.85 per cent.

However, between 2011 and 2016 according to the census the actual growth rate was only 0.85. Metrotown has endured the lion’s share of growth. In the Maywood census tract the population density climbed to 19,070 persons per square kilometer from from 14,075. It appears we have a case of decision-based evidence making.

Burnaby is in the midst of a rental housing crisis. There are actions that can protect renters from demoviction and spiralling rent increases. In the absence of a proper housing strategy and a sympathetic city government, it is up to the provincial government to show leadership an impose an emergency moratorium on the demolition of purpose-built rental apartments in Metro Vancouver.

We can no longer claim there is not enough data, or the “invisible hand” of the free market will ensure there is housing for all. As Winston Churchill wrote once in a time of crisis, “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.” British Columbia is already in its period of consequences.  

Rick McGowan is with the Metrotown Residents’ Association.

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