Thursday, March 2, 2017

A recap of Metro Conversations #2: Renewing rentals without kicking people to the street.

From Tuesday night's Metro Conversations. Select image to enlarge.

On Tuesday night, the second Metro Conversations was hosted in Langley City. Metro Conversations is based on the format of SFU City Conversations where experts and attendees engage with each other about a top-of-mind urban topic. Metro Conversations takes City Conversations from Downtown Vancouver to the rest of the region.

This latest conversation was around purpose-built rentals. How do we ensure that people at different income levels have access to rental housing that they can afford, and how can we ensure that the rental housing stock in our region is kept in a state of good repair?

One of the experts at this conversation was Marilyn Fischer who is the chair of Triple A Senior Housing, and is an active member of the Langley Seniors Community Action Table. Her perspective was from tenants currently living in affordable rental housing, with a focus on Langley.

Another expert was Dr. Penny Gurstein who is the Director of the School of Community and Regional Planning at UBC. Her research focuses on strategies for housing affordability, and she brought her perspective based on that research to the conversation.

The final expert was David Hutniak who is the CEO of Landlord BC. Landlord BC’s mandate is to support a balanced and healthy rental housing market with an emphasis on private sector solutions. His perspective was from responsible landlord’s who managed purposed-built rental buildings.

The discussion between the experts and other people who attended was lively, and covered a good amount of ground. I wanted to share some of the ideas that stood out to me.

Many rental units are affordable because they are older and worn-out. While landlords in BC do have the responsibility to comply with health, safety and housing standards, some landlords take this responsibility more seriously than others. One of the ideas proposed at the conversation was to update provincial laws and local government bylaws to ensure that rental units and buildings are maintained more consistently.

At some point buildings reach their end-of-life. A building’s envelope, electrical, heating, and plumbing systems start to fail. Buildings do need to be replaced eventually. In BC, a landlord is only required to give 2 months noticed to terminate a tenancy to either renovate or demolish a rental unit. At the discussion, everyone agreed that this minimum requirement was unacceptable. Landlords should be required to work with tenants to find them new accommodations, and tenants should be treated with respect and dignity throughout the process of a relocation.

While local governments can set policies that landowners can voluntarily adhere to regarding tenant relocation when a purpose-built rental building is demolished, it would take a change in provincial legislation to make relocation policies that respect tenants a requirement.

One of the big questions of the evening was should older, and in some cases sub-standard, rental units be relied upon to be the only source of affordable rental housing. The clear answer was no.

It was acknowledged by many in the room that both the federal and provincial governments have policies in place to encourage home ownership, but for many, this is no longer possible.

At the same time, it was also acknowledged that the feds and province are also now stepping up to provide housing for people who have no or very limited income. What is currently missing is support for people in the middle who are slowly being priced out of both the ownership and rental markets.

To provide affordable rental units for people in the middle, both provincial and federal government support will be required, working with local governments.

There was discussion about bringing back housing co-ops into Canada which were successful in providing affordable housing. The Whistler Housing Authority was also cited during the conversation as an innovative way to not only provide affordable rental units, but also affordable home ownership.

There were many other ideas discussed last night, and this post only covered a small sampling of these ideas. While there is no magic wand that can be waved to provided instant affordable rental housing, there is certainly a path forward after listening to Tuesday night’s conversation.

Councillor Patrick Johnstone from New Westminster, Councillor Mathew Bond from the District of North Vancouver, Councillor Kiersten Duncan from Maple Ridge, and I are helping organize Metro Conversations. We are currently working on putting together podcasts from both the first Metro Conversation and this conversation, so you can hear the full discussions. Our next conversation will be in North Vancouver in May.

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