Last Thursday, SFU Public Square hosted a ZOOM conference entitled “Towards a More Equitable Housing System: Is Vancouver a City for Renters?” It was co-hosted by Meg Holden of SFU and journalist Kerry Gold. More than 500 people joined the event, including at least seven Vancouver City councilors. It was, in my judgement, a very worthwhile two hours because of the range of viewpoints expressed.
The meeting kicked off with a poll asking participants to select the most urgent housing issues facing Vancouver at this time. 62% said homelessness, 52% cited affordability, and 47% suggested a lack of social and co-op housing opportunities.
The meeting proper began with a presentation by Andy Yan using his vast collection, and understanding, of the relevant data. He showed that renters represent 53% of households in the City, about the same as since 1971. This population is not spread evenly across the city: his maps shows 82% in Strathcona, 81% in the West End, and 62% in Grandview.
Further graphs showed that it is considerably more expensive to own property in Metro Vancouver than it is to rent (without even taking the down payment into consideration) and this shows, in his opinion, that renting is the wave of the future. His data also shows that roughly half of all renters earn less than $50,250 a year, whereas the median income of owners is $88,431.
Another interesting graph showed that for the purpose built rentals (PBR) approved between 2017 and 2020, 25% had anticipated rents suitable for those earning $150,000 and over, 66% for those earning over $80,000. Very few has rents suitable for the vast majority of the population earning a living wage.
Yan also noted that beyond affordability, accessibility is a real problem as the vast majority of new build approvals from 2009-2018 were market rental, with just a small number of rental suites. Thus being a renter has become significantly harder over the last decade.
Following the presentation, two more polls were conducted:
In the first we were asked to choose what types of rental should be built. 66% said co-ops, 63% said below market, and 53% said social.
In the second we were asked to prioritize the rental protection measures we wanted to see. 77% suggested protection of the current rental stock, 69% voted for anti-speculation measures, and 57% wanted more protection for displaced renters. I should note that vacancy control was not on the poll list but was given as an alternative by many of us i the chat box.
The panel discussion consisted on contributions from Evan Siddall of CMHC, Barbara Steenbergen of the International Union of Renters, Leilani Farha from The Shift, William Azerofff of Brightside Housing, and Khelsilem representing the Squamish Nation.
Sidddall kicked off the debate by decrying the glorification of home ownership and promoting a shift to rentals. He believes a paradigm shift is needed in cities that currently favour the rich.
Barbara Steenbergen gave a welcome European perspective, noting that in most of Europe housing is a right, that renters have significant protections, and that there is little or no disdain for public housing. She also noted that their are social rent laws in much of Europe. She suggested that it takes time to develop these protections and that we in Canada are just at the start of that process.
Leilana Farha made a pitch that what she calls the financialization of rental housing — the buying up of rental properties by REIT-financed corporations who then increase rents to improve their profits — IS speculation and must be seen as such.
Khelsilem gave a pitch about the 6,000 units the Squamish people are currently building on their land in Vancouver, with much more to follow on the Jericho lands etc. However all of these will be market rentals, with no social housing. He was very keen on the build more for affordability nonsense that decades of experience in Vancouver has proven to be false. He also seemed to suggest they would need huge subsidies in order to build more affordable housing.
Bill Azeroff discussed how Brightside is planning to expand on their existing properties to create more affordable units. He believe it is vital to have rents that are affordable in the areas of the city is which people have grown attached.
In the general discussion that followed, it was depressing to hear so many people still claiming that the only way toward affordability is to keep building unaffordable rentals. The myth of trickle down — which has never worked in ANY economic sphere — is still alive and kicking in Vancouver.
That being said, this was a valuable discussion and it was particularly interesting to hear the perspective of a European expert on how far behind we are in this field.