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Rent check: The Outlook examines the rental housing situation across the North Shore
By TODD COYNE and SEAN KOLENKO
As a rent-paying retiree in one of the country’s priciest postal codes, Brian Merth sometimes feels like the walls are closing in on him.
The Ambleside senior and former architect doesn’t have trouble meeting his bills or maintaining his 19th Street and Marine Drive apartment, but he says options for North Shore renters like him are getting fewer, farther between and more expensive every year.
“I live in a building where there’s lots of seniors and their incomes are fixed, yet the demands on them are more every year,” Merth tells The Outlook at a café outside his apartment.
While the North Shore population has grown steadily since the housing boom of the 1950s and 1960s, the area’s rental stock has not.
“The situation on rental housing has — I think we’ve long known — deteriorated over the years because new stock just hasn’t been created,” says Geri Boyle, West Vancouver’s manager of community planning.
Like much of the region — think Vancouver’s West End and West Vancouver’s waterfront — and, indeed, much of the country, the construction of dedicated rental housing peaked just before hitting a steep decline by the start of the 1980s. That’s when the federal government did away with tax breaks for apartment developments.
“The federal tax incentives around rentals in Canada don’t exist anymore, so a lot of our rental housing was developed in the ’60s and ’70s predominantly and is now aging,” says Susan Haid, sustainable community development manager for the District of North Vancouver in a phone interview with The Outlook.
Currently, North Vancouver district’s housing is 82 per cent privately owned and only 18 per cent rental.
And with skyrocketing land values on the North Shore, the problem of creating affordable apartments is compounded.
Last month, a Metro Vancouver report into what remains of the region’s aging apartment stock found that 17 per cent of West Vancouver’s pre-1980 rental stock — or, 309 units — is at risk of loss to redevelopment, while in North Vancouver district that number climbs to 840 units, or 70 per cent at risk.
Since the 1990s, after the bulk of rental construction in West Van had long since stopped, the district has imposed a non-conversion law that prohibits turning rental apartments into strata units or condos. That law, however, does not necessarily prevent a building from running into disrepair and eventually being replaced by non-rental housing.
The district is, however, in the process of putting together a rental housing strategy with secondary suites and laneway housing at the forefront of its plan for the near-term.
“It is a form of rental housing and certainly in the Lower Mainland every municipality has been dealing with them,” says Boyle. “It’s not the same as having an apartment building where you can say this is permanent rental housing, but it is a big component of the rental housing stock.”
The City of North Vancouver fares considerably better rental-wise with just 23 per cent of its pre-1980 stock at risk of redevelopment. But because of the city’s comparably higher density, that seemingly low percentage represents 1,553 units in danger of being lost — a sizable chunk of all the available apartments on the North Shore.
With about 45 per cent of its population renting their homes, the City of North Vancouver maintains the most robust rental market of all the North Shore municipalities.
Yet the pressure to create more rental stock remains constant for both council and staff. The city has a number of tools to make the construction of rentals more appealing, namely reducing development cost charges — fees for essential services such as water and sewage or, in the case of the city, parkland acquisition and highway infrastructure — or negotiating with developers for the inclusion of rental suites in new condo projects.
And earlier this year, council endorsed the Canadian Rental Housing Coalition Charter, a national initiative that includes members from the Metro Vancouver Housing Committee, the Greater Vancouver Homebuilders’ Association and the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver. Its goals are to lobby the federal government to reinstate tax incentives to developers interested in building rental housing and review provincial taxes to ensure they don’t impede rental construction.
The charter received unanimous support at the time, although many on council stressed the fact that the city already strives to do what it can in this area. What made the charter worth endorsing were the provisions that put responsibility in the hands of senior levels of government, the tiers best suited to create policy — restoring the aforementioned tax breaks — to stimulate rental construction.
But when the burden of providing tax relief is placed on the city’s plate, council hasn’t responded warmly. Last month, for instance, a report from community planner Cheryl Kathler and finance director Isabel Gordon outlined a potential rental housing pilot project between the city and BC Housing.
The project, intended to support “the development and retention of market rental housing,” came from discussions between city staff and representatives from the Ministry of Housing at last year’s Union of B.C. Muncipalities meetings. City staff, according to a CNV report, suggested a change be made to the Community Charter to give more power to municipalities to support rental construction. Such a change, however, would apply to all cities in the province, require more support and likely take “some time to implement.”
So, a pilot project for the city alone was proposed by the province. Included in it was a handful of methods, some of which the city currently employs such as reduced development cost charges. But it also proposed the city explore “taxation relief for a specified period” for rental developments.
That provision proved a deal-breaker.
“There is a lack of market rental housing. But this says the city has to fill that gap,” says Coun. Guy Heywood.
“The city’s financial ability comes from property tax, which is property owners. This is taking money from one group, the taxpayer, to subsidize potential taxpayers.”
The city, Heywood adds, can’t be singled out from the rest of the region, as the problem is one found throughout Metro Vancouver.
In an interview with The Outlook, Coun. Craig Keating echoes Heywood’s sentiments. Rental housing is disappearing, he says, because there is no incentive to invest in it. But that does not mean a municipality can willfully give up its right to collect much-needed tax revenue.
“People, just like you and me, are not going to be making the decision to build rental housing in the free market if it is not worth it for them to do so,” says Keating.
“We’ve been asking our staff to show us ways we can deal with this but this is all the province offered. This is a pressing issue facing our society but rental is, in fact, a provincial and federal responsibility.”
The result of the rental crunch has not only affected seniors but has also contributed the disappearance of what many refer to as the
“missing generation” of twenty- and thirty-somethings on the North Shore.
“We’re hearing really strongly from the community that in many cases their adult children cannot afford to live here and they want to live on the North Shore and raise their families here,” says DNV development manager Susan Haid.
“We have a real need there.”
And it’s not just the would-be renters themselves that North Shore governments are hearing from, but also major employers and educators like Seaspan and Capilano University who have both expressed an urgent need for affordable rentals for their employees and students.
“We’ve heard from many bigger and smaller industries that their employees cannot afford to live here and they’re commuting and that they need worker housing as they’re losing employees to other municipalities,” Haid says. “There’s nowhere for them to live.”
North Shore Rental Tracker
Because there was so much talk about rental housing leading up to the 2008 municipal election, City of North Vancouver resident John Jensen thought he’d develop a rental tracker that records the listings for every one, two, three and four bedroom rental in North Vancouver city and district every 30 minutes.
Here’s some of the data Jensen’s tracker found as of May 7, 2012.
# of ads in the past 30 days - 313
Mean price for past 30 days - $1,085 (rounded to the nearest dollar)
25% of 1 bedrooms in previous 30 days were this price or less - $895
50% of 1 bedrooms in previous 30 days were this price or less - $995
75% of 1 bedrooms in previous 30 days were this price or less - $1,350
Lowest price in previous 30 days - $495
Max price in previous 30 days - $2,300
# of ads in the past 30 days - 279
Mean price for past 30 days - $1,653 (rounded to the nearest dollar)
25% of 1 bedrooms in previous 30 days were this price or less - $1,250
50% of 1 bedrooms in previous 30 days were this price or less - $1,425
75% of 1 bedrooms in previous 30 days were this price or less - $1,975
Lowest price in previous 30 days - $700
Max price in previous 30 days - $5,500
# of ads in the past 30 days - 70
Mean price for past 30 days - $2,414 (rounded to the nearest dollar)
25% of 1 bedrooms in previous 30 days were this price or less - $1,800
50% of 1 bedrooms in previous 30 days were this price or less - $2,300
75% of 1 bedrooms in previous 30 days were this price or less - $2,900
Lowest price in previous 30 days - $1,000
Max price in previous 30 days - $4,500
# of ads in the past 30 days - 30
Mean price for past 30 days - $3,451 (rounded to the nearest dollar)
25% of 1 bedrooms in previous 30 days were this price or less - $3,025
50% of 1 bedrooms in previous 30 days were this price or less - $3,650
75% of 1 bedrooms in previous 30 days were this price or less - $3,750
Lowest price in previous 30 days - $1,042
Max price in previous 30 days - $5,495