Transit gain doesn’t have to equal renter pain

Allan Fernandez knows his building’s days are numbered. Others like his in Burnaby have already been bulldozed to chips, replaced by glass towers that rival downtown Vancouver’s in height.

Fernandez lives in the heart of Burnaby, near the Metropolis supermall and the Metrotower office complex, a three-minute walk from the Metrotown SkyTrain station and bus loop.

His building on Dow Avenue is a three-storey walk-up with a wooden frame, and it turns 60 next year. It’s been sold four times since he moved there in 2013, and a rezoning application is under way.

“Let’s be honest with ourselves: it’s not the best looking,” said Fernandez. “But the people who live here, they’re priced out of everywhere else. It’s the United Nations of Burnaby.”

Fernandez is from the Philippines, and the neighbours in his building are from all over: Japan, India, Ukraine, South Korea. They live in a diversity of family configurations, too. Fernandez, for example, lives with his mother, wife and two young children, and is also sending money to the Philippines to support his father and cousin who lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

Fernandez’s story is a regional story.

In Metro Vancouver, rapid transit projects pair well with politicians’ green goals for growth.

The push for a “sustainable region” that reduces car reliance is good for the economy too: new tracks spark development. A ride on any one of Metro Vancouver’s rapid transit lines will show a forest of towers sprouting up alongside the train.

But that new density has been replacing old rental buildings that are home to vulnerable communities who depend on transit for work.

It’s all in the name of sustainable growth, but do trains really need to cause this much pain for renters?

The municipalities of Metro Vancouver have clued into this. With this kind of renter displacement increasingly common, some have been updating policies to help renters — a mix of everything from requiring landlords to offer cash compensation to offering renters a unit in the redeveloped building.

But rather than let each city decide the landlord-renter playing field on a piecemeal basis that could also change with municipal elections, housing advocates are wondering whether it’s time to tweak the province’s Residential Tenancy Act itself.

“It would embolden cities to say, ‘We don’t have to tiptoe around this,’” said Robert Patterson, a legal advocate at B.C.’s Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre.

One potential solution to mass displacement would be to require landlords to allow tenants to return to a comparable unit in the redeveloped building, at the same or similar rent they were paying before. (Patterson points to Section 51.2 of the tenancy act as the place for this potential amendment.)

“The landlord shouldn’t be allowed to end a tenancy just because they want to do a renovation or redevelopment,” said Patterson. “They should be allowed to use their property and still have their profit, but in a way that the tenants can still have affordable housing.”

Craig E. Jones, the geography Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia who helped raise the alarm on Burnaby’s “demovictions” in 2015, also pointed to the failure of the tenancy act to address this increasing problem in a recent paper.

Jones worries that displacement will only get worse as new track is laid. The upcoming Broadway subway, for example, will be passing through the region’s largest concentration of rental buildings. There is also a new SkyTrain planned for Surrey, a top destination for government-assisted refugees because of its affordable rental housing.

“Because there is a tendency to locate stations in areas of least resistance, disaster can follow when those areas are occupied by vulnerable renter households who most need access to rapid transit,” wrote Jones in his paper. Fernandez, for example, was able to shave eight hours a week from his commute after moving from South Surrey to Metrotown near the SkyTrain. His rent for a two-bedroom is $1,080 a month, much lower than the region’s average of $1,750, but he says the building is poorly maintained.

But Fernandez — who’s been organizing tenants with the Red Braid Alliance and personally lives in a redevelopment hotspot with his family — isn’t against the growth that’s been causing this displacement.

“We all appreciate we’ve got to build up,” he said. “But the way they’re doing it, they’re uprooting people’s lives. I appreciate these buildings need to be torn down. They’re old.… But why are we the ones being stepped on in the name of progress?”

Census data back up these concerns: low-income residents are concentrated along Metro Vancouver’s transit corridors.

Aside from renters, small business communities are also at risk. Development pressures related to the Broadway subway could push out the mom-and-pop businesses serving meals to health workers in Vancouver’s medical corridor. The proposed tower near the Joyce-Collingwood SkyTrain station could disrupt the region’s Little Manila, displacing about half of the area’s Filipino businesses.

As cities continue to roll out their densification plans for transit-adjacent areas, the pain has already been felt.

Burnaby had a net loss of 1,136 rental units between 2009 and 2019, the worst in the region, according to the Canadian Housing and Mortgage Corp. Coquitlam follows next, with a net loss of 734 rental units in the same period.

Much of Coquitlam’s old rental housing — 60 percent of which was built between 1968 and 1971 — is clustered in the Burquitlam area near Burnaby’s border. Like Metrotown, it also has a SkyTrain station.

The Immigrant Services Society of BC opened an office there to help refugees get settled: Bhutanese, Iranians, Iraqis, Turks and Syrians, among others.

The organization’s role in helping find housing for newcomers is “absolutely getting more and more difficult” as affordable rentals in the region are destroyed without replacement, said Chris Friesen, the society’s director.

“It’s not only the available stock but the size of units,” said Friesen. It’s been a challenge finding units with four or more bedrooms for large, non-nuclear households. “All of these cascading factors put pressure.”

Having stable housing is key to refugees building their new lives, whether finding employment or taking English classes.

“In many ways, I’m embarrassed about the kind of housing some of our Syrian newcomers were placed in when they got here,” said Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart.

He knows of one refugee family in Burquitlam with a paraplegic son. “They’re on the third floor of a building and it’s a walk-up,” he said. “They’re still there.”

Stewart, once the president of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association of BC, has long been concerned about the rental housing problem in Canada.

The majority of the country’s stock was built between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s, spurred by federal tax breaks and interest-free loans for developers. When the government cut the programs, the rental building boom ended. Developers opted to build condos, which were much more profitable.

For many years, that left fewer options for renters. They could rent suites in houses or condos, but if they wanted purpose-built rental buildings, most of the stock was the old wood-frame walk-ups.

“I’ve been inside dozens of the buildings in Burquitlam taking pictures of building code deficiencies,” Stewart said. “The fire department laments that there are now so many hidden defects in ’60s- and ’70s-era housing. Fighting fires is their biggest fear. Firewall separators, dampers and such, they don’t work anymore.” Still, he knew the importance of this rental stock. There wasn’t much else at an affordable price.

When TransLink began planning a SkyTrain extension into Coquitlam, Stewart suggested that the Burquitlam station be placed slightly north of where it ended up. This would have concentrated redevelopment pressure on single-family homes rather than rental apartments. That way, vulnerable tenants wouldn’t haven’t been displaced, and the apartments could have had a longer lease on life.

It was a rare proposal as far as Metro Vancouver goes; politicians don’t often touch single-family neighbourhoods in fear of backlash. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t successful.

“It was the province that made all the decisions,” said Stewart.

After years of a lag in rental construction, it’s finally beginning to pick up again, thanks to low interest rates and municipalities taking on what was once a federal responsibility and encouraging new builds.

In Coquitlam, Stewart prefers the carrot approach to increase supply, offering incentives to developers, such as density boosts, if they’re willing to build rental.

As of last year in Coquitlam, there are about 5,000 market rental units and 985 below-market or non-market rental units in the works. City staff will also present suggestions on how to better help displaced renters to council later this spring.

Stewart is wary about using the stick for redevelopers of rental buildings, as he “doesn’t want there to be a disincentive for the value of their land after 40 years.”

Vancouver and New Westminster have taken up that stick, though, requiring developers to replace every rental unit destroyed with a new one. The two cities are leading the region in rental construction.

Thanks to these supply-oriented efforts in Metro Vancouver, purpose-built rental housing has jumped by a net gain of 4,431 units between 2014 and 2019, according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp.

But housing advocates are critical about the affordability of this new stock, and note more supply has not resulted in lower rents. A new two-bedroom in Vancouver, for example, goes for about $2,000.

Regardless, advocates say the supply issue is overemphasized compared to establishing the rights of displaced tenants, which is a different issue.

“Even in a healthy market, demovictions still serve the purpose of destroying affordable units,” said Patterson of the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre.

Back in Burnaby, Fernandez finds the increasing interest in transit and development ironic. When he first moved to Metrotown eight years ago, there was still some stigma attached to the neighbourhood.

“It was noisy, too close to the bus, too close to the train, too close to crime,” he said.

But the push towards transit-oriented communities in city plans and real estate marketing has given places like Metrotown a facelift.

There is some good news. In 2018, Fernandez and other housing advocates worked to oust then-mayor Derek Corrigan for the “demovictions” in his area, and the city government under a new mayor has helped bring in new policies to help displaced tenants.

The latest version was approved last year. Burnaby boasted that it has among the “strongest protections in the country,” and even the Vancouver Tenants Union was envious of how extensive this policy was in comparison to their city. Burnaby requires developers to welcome tenants back into the new building at the same rent. Also, if the tenant’s interim home during construction rents for more than what they were paying before, the developer has to cover the extra costs.

However, implementation is still in its early stages, according to the city’s renters’ office. They are currently working with developers to notify tenants of properties they plan to redevelop, and there are about two dozen in the works.

“It feels better, but now I see a big anvil over the top of my head waiting to fall,” said Fernandez.

He also wonders how closely developers will follow the new policy.

In Vancouver, for example, one developer mandated to help its tenants find new homes has just been sending them Craigslist listings of apartments going for double their current rent.

Patterson has heard of some landlords attempting to drive tenants out by neglecting repairs — closing fire escapes, taking doors off hinges, removing weatherproofing — in order to avoid the requirement of having to rehouse them.

Elsewhere in the region, the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain project is gathering speed.

Friesen of the Immigrant Services Society of BC worries how it might displace the newcomers there.

study done by the organization in 2017 following an uptick in Syrian resettlement in Canada found that 43 per cent of B.C.’s refugees settled in Surrey, Metro Vancouver’s top destination for the group.

“We’re mindful that they could experience a second displacement,” said Friesen.

Fernandez finds this ironic, too. He’s an internet technician and has been in Canada for less than a decade, immigrating here under a provincial program that valued his skills.

People are being “invited” to come, he said, and it should be a no-brainer that they’re going to need to rent for a time.

“But we’re not really offering them any security in terms of their housing arrangement,” Fernandez said. “‘True North strong and free?’ I’m not free to choose where to live. I’m only able to ‘choose’ what I can afford.”

Christopher Cheung is a reporter at The Tyee, where this story originally appeared on April 9, 2021.

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