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How Vancouver's byelection candidates stack-up on rental issues

Advocate breaks down party platforms on rental housing in Vancouver.

Rental housing in Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, on Mar. 23, 2017.

Jennifer Gauthier / For Metro

Rental housing in Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, on Mar. 23, 2017.

As Vancouver’s Oct. 14 byelection nears, all of the main five contenders for one Vancouver city council seat have put together a suite of policies to tackle the city’s most persistent political problem: skyrocketing housing prices that bear no relation to local incomes.

Renters have particularly hard-hit lately. Vacancy rates are below one per cent throughout Metro Vancouver, and between 2015 and 2016 rents rose by the highest rates ever tracked by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Tenants have increasingly been threatened with eviction and many have had a hard time finding a new place they can afford.

“All of the five main candidates seem to be giving some priority and prominence to renters’ issues, and that’s great to see,” said Karen Sawatzky, a member of the City of Vancouver’s Renters Advisory Committee. City committees are made up of volunteers who report to council on a variety of issues.

The policy proposals range from a luxury property tax and a flipping levy proposed by OneCity, to a rent freeze proposed by independent candidate Jean Swanson (endorsed by the Coalition of Progressive Electors).

Vision Vancouver candidate Diego Cardona has promised to advocate for more pet-friendly units in newly completed buildings. Both Vision and the Greens promise to create a tenants’ advocate position at city hall.

Non-Partisan Association candidate Hector Bremner says opening all single-family zones to denser “missing middle” development is the only real solution to the problem. Similarly, the Green Party's Pete Fry promises to streamline the backlogged development permitting process and allow more rowhouses, townhouses and lowrise apartments in low-density neighbourhoods. OneCity candidate Judy Graves would require developers to include more affordable units in new developments.

The Renters’ Advisory Committee supports additional taxes as part of the city's housing strategy, Sawatzky said (the committee supports Vancouver's empty home tax and proposed regulation of short term rentals)

But she cautioned that any change in taxation will require provincial approval. While the B.C. NDP government may be more sympathetic to renters’ issues than the previous B.C. Liberal administration, there’s no guarantee that approval will be forthcoming or will happen quickly.

“What we would like to see is, if you have a major platform plank that requires provincial consent, then we need to have other (planks) to deal with renters’ issues in the meantime,” Sawatzky said.

That means that OneCity’s second promise, to use the luxury property tax revenue to fund “10,000 units of guaranteed affordable rental units,” can’t happen until the province approves the luxury tax. OneCity’s flipping levy (which would apply to homes sold within three years) and Swanson’s proposed rent freeze fall into the same category.

The Renters Advisory Committee is most concerned about the low vacancy rate, which is currently tipping the power balance in favour of landlords. The committee has expressed its concern to council that the current Housing Reset plan doesn’t go far enough in opening up single-family neighbourhoods to at least small apartment buildings. So Sawatzky said her interest is peaked by plans that call for denser development in single family neighbourhoods.

“If you accept the premise that you need a lot more rental housing to get a healthy vacancy rate, then you have to grapple with the question of where should that more rental housing go,” Sawatzky said of the NPA’s platform. “It’s good to see someone grappling with that question.”

OneCity and the Greens also have something to offer when it comes to increasing supply, Sawatzky added. But utimately, the committee would “like to see more of the land open to apartment buildings. We’re concerned about putting new rental housing on arterials where it’s a lot noisier and more polluted.”

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