The City of Burnaby is signalling a major change of course in its strategy to redevelop the Metrotown area, as it seeks to become the first municipality in B.C. to implement new rental-only zoning powers.
The city also hopes to strike deals that would guarantee new homes at similar rental rates for individuals displaced in so-called “demovictions,” according to Mayor Derek Corrigan.
Burnaby city council made the first move in this new plan at a hastily scheduled special council meeting Thursday morning. Councillors voted to rescind first reading they gave to two proposals that were scheduled to go to public hearing on July 24.
Council gave initial approval in April to two highrise buildings proposed by Anthem Properties Group. The towers would have replaced 177 rental units in three walk-up buildings at 6444 Willingdon Ave and 4241 Wilson Ave. in Metrotown.
The proposals included 30 units of not-for-profit rental housing.
But that wasn’t enough, Corrigan said.
Councillors sent the rezoning applications back to staff with the goal of having as many as half guaranteed to be non-market rental units in perpetuity.
Corrigan said the special council meeting was scheduled after Coun. Colleen Jordan learned on Friday the details of new provincial legislation that allows cities to zone land specifically to be only for rentals. Until then, he said, they didn’t know they could zone a portion of units, and even specific floors of a building, to be rental-only.
The ultimate goal, Corrigan said, is to have one-to-one replacement – with every apartment torn down replaced by a new apartment at similar monthly rent.
“I'm not going to over-promise,” he said. “I don't think council wants to over-promise that they’re going to be at the same rents, but they want to get rents that are going to be much more within the means of people who are living in those previous units.”
Corrigan said those affordable rents will only be achieved with help from the NDP government in Victoria.
And, he said, city staff will try to strike deals with developers to make sure individuals displaced when their apartment building is demolished get the first opportunity to rent a unit in a new building.
“We think there's been a real increase in the ability of cities to negotiate the requirements that we're placing on any redevelopment,” Corrigan said. “What we're going to do is push the element of replacement housing further than it's been pushed to this point.”
Corrigan said the new strategy will apply to more than just the two Anthem developments.
“We're hoping to be able to achieve a one-to-one ratio right through the Metrotown redevelopments and, if we can do that, that would be at least part way to accommodating people who are displaced and people who will need that housing in the future,” he said.
A looming Oct. 20 civic election and ongoing criticism of council’s record on housing in Metrotown played no role in this change, Corrigan said. He said his council has been pushing for rental zoning legislation since 1990 and was eager to be the first to put it into practice.
“When you get your choices expanded, when you get the ability to do more, you would be bloody-minded if you didn't look at those opportunities,” he said.
Asked if he regrets his record on Metrotown housing, Corrigan said: “I think we've done the best we could under the circumstances that we had and, no, I don't regret doing the best I can under the circumstances I've been given.”
ACORN housing activist Murray Martin said he believed Corrigan was caving to pressure with just over three months to go before the election.
“This is political pressure that he has come to this position, and I don't trust him, after the election, to carry through with this,” Martin said. “It's no coincidence that Mayor Corrigan and his council have all of a sudden developed a concern about tenants being displaced.”
Martin said he had prepared more than 500 submissions for the planned public hearing.
He previously declared victory when council pulled two other proposals the night before a public hearing and sent them back to staff in an effort to have more non-market rental housing included.
SFU political scientist Paddy Smith said Corrigan’s new approach is likely, in part, a response to rhetoric from the man seeking to unseat him as mayor. Mike Hurley has put Metrotown housing at the forefront of his campaign.
“It's certainly, I'm sure, in response to the criticism, but I'm not so sure the criticism was always as warranted as some people thought,” Smith said.
Corrigan’s contention that his hands were tied given the powers he had in previous years has merit, according to Smith.
“It's not a bad explanation,” he said. “It doesn't explain why it took so long to get here.”
“It might explain why Burnaby is first off the mark on this. They're catching up to where public opinion is. The election's not so far away, so I think they're probably realizing they needed to have a response.”