Will “more social housing everywhere” mean more destruction of our affordable homes?

A map of the city of Vancouver with an overlay of RM-4, RM-4N andRM-3A zoned districts. These include Cedar Cove, Grandview Woodlands, Marpole, Mount Pleasant and Kitsilano. The map also show locations of non-market housing in those zones. A legend at the bottom states there are 62 Non-profit owned sites and 45 city/government owned sites in these areas

On December 7th, 2022 recently re-elected OneCity councillor Christine Boyle celebrated the unanimous passage of her motion “Reducing Barriers and Deepening Affordability for Non-Profit, Co-op and Social Housing in Every Neighbourhood”. It was her second time bringing the motion to council, this time with lively support from non-profit housing developers, the Vancouver & District Labour Council and Women Transforming Cities.

OneCity’s press release on this motion frames it as a targeted effort to help non-profits build social housing - up to six stories in areas zoned for single family homes, and up to 12 stories in areas around the city that are primarily zoned for low rise apartment buildings. The idea is to reduce the time and expense, specifically for developers that are building the housing we most desperately need - non-commodified social housing. Once implemented, these social housing projects will also get to bypass public hearings, which often devolved into an ugly parade of poor-bashing homeowners.

While it seems like a practical, if not exciting step for the city to take, the devil is in the details: a critical combination of existing and forthcoming policies might mean that instead of “more social housing in every neighbourhood”, what might actually happen is that the bulk of new social housing would get built almost exclusively on top of the last affordable apartments in the city.


Definitions matter when the city is pushing you out

First and foremost, the spirit of Onecity’s motion is undermined by the city’s flawed Tenant Relocation & Protection Policy (TRPP). Basically, when a developer demovicts tenants to demolish a building, the city forces the them to offer a small lump sum of cash as consolation to the displaced tenants. These tenants are the then forced to search for new housing at market rents - a dramatic hike for long term renters whose tenancies were rent controlled. Despite the supposed intent of the policy, tenants still end up priced out of their communities. VTU members have been pushing for the city to overhaul the TRPP for years.

The other consequential policy related to OneCity’s motion is how the City of Vancouver chooses to define “social housing”. The city allows non-profits to call a project social housing even if up to 70% of the units are rented at market rates. This matters because if a non-profit doesn’t get any additional government funding to support lower rents for a project, a 12-story social housing basically becomes just three and a half floors of below market units. If the original building that was demo’d was 3-4 stories, there is arguably no net gain in actually affordable units. The market rate units, which are unaffordable to most renters in the neighborhood, contribute to gentrification. Councillor Pete Fry wrote about this exact issue in 2021, and it was a big reason why he didn’t support Boyle’s motion the first time it came around. Despite motions that passed last term to improve both the TRPP and improve the definition of social housing, nothing has substantially changed. 

Finally, looking at the actual text of Boyle’s motion, the part about upzoning single family homes for up to six stories, as mentioned in the press release, is gone. Instead there is a vague directive to report back on the feasibility of increased density in these areas. This bait and switch, means that this motion only upzones the affordable apartment districts in the near term. Meanwhile, it’s conceivable that Vancouver’s ruling party - who were most supported by suburban homeowners - will decide to nix any real plan to build six story social housing in these areas.

A map of Vancouver showing RS zoning in yellow

The text of Boyle’s motion for social housing in “every” neighbourhood excludes all the yellow areas in this map 

Housing targets and the path of least resistance

Earlier this year B.C.’s new Premier David Eby announced his intentions to set some course corrections on provincial housing policy. Two of those policies are highly relevant here, should they be implemented.

The first is an intention to give $500 million to non-profit housing societies in order to acquire private rental stock. This should be a good news - when a building is put up for sale, it can be taken out of the private market, instead of being purchased by another private landlord, or a huge corporate entity like a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT). This purchasing power, combined with a city policy that allows them to quickly redevelop a site into a 12 story building, it only makes sense that non-profits will be looking to strategically purchase buildings that they intend to quickly demolish and redevelop. This leaves the tenants - thinking they’ve been saved from vulture landlords - to instead get demovicted by their new non-profit landlords.

Eby has also announced his intention to impose housing supply targets on municipalities, based on regional “demand” for housing. Eby has hinted that this might include overriding local governments on development proposals if they are failing to meet those targets. With mounting pressure to build lots of housing - including non-market social housing - quickly, governments at both levels will be looking for sites where they can build as much as possible. All eyes will be on those low income apartment districts where they can build up to 12 story “social housing” with minimal public or regulatory interference. 


Are Non-Profit Housing Developers Benevolent?

Decades of minimal to no investment in affordable public and co-op housing from the federal and provincial government has given rise to a neoliberalized non-profit housing sector - where a housing project must “pay for itself”. This is why most social housing is now a mix of market rate and below market rates - because the higher rents are said to subsize the low rents. It’s considered a bonus if governments actually make an investment in lowering rents in all the units.

But just because non-profits are tasked with building non-commidified housing, does not mean they are allied with tenants and affordable housing advocates.The BC Non Profit Housing Association (BCNPHA) has previously advocated against real rent control (vacancy control), worried that it would hamper their ability to maximize income from their market rent units. In 2019, seniors at a nonprofit housing owned by Brightside reached out to VTU to help them fight a demoviction. Brightsite’s plans to build a larger building on site meant that the longtime residents would be dispersed across the city - torn from their friends and community in their final years.


A Zero Sum Game for Affordable Rentals

Onecity’s motion failed to acknowledge or address tenants' desire to stay in our communities as they grow. It makes it easier for near-future “social housing” development to almost exclusively be built over top of existing affordable housing. A familiar story, but with a progressive veneer. By removing public hearing from the upzoning process, council will be saved from hearing poor bashing homeowners oppose social housing. But it also denies renters - those most affected in this case - a forum to have a say over our homes and neighbourhoods.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Earlier this year the city amended the TRPP for one section of the city - the Broadway Corridor - as a consolation for tenants in order to facilitate a 30-year plan to massively densify the corridor. As it stands, Broadway corridor renters facing demoviction are supposed to be offered right of first refusal to return to the new building at the same rent, and receive rent top ups from the developer during construction so they can afford to continuously stay in their neighbourhood. This is similar to the protections Burnaby tenants receive. If these provisions were included in the TRPP city-wide, both developers and non-profits would be required to support demovicted tenants and ensure that they can live in the new building. Why is the government acknowledging the rights of renters in some neighborhoods, but not others? Why should your postal code determine whether or not land speculators are allowed to push you below the poverty line?