Citizens Desperate for Effective Public Policies to Save Affordable Housing

Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 10.33.38 AMHalifax    The discussion of fights between tenants and landlords was a central part of the organizers’ agenda in the ACORN Canada head organizers’ meeting. In Ottawa it was another fight to save the 1300 unit, Herongate, a frequent target. In Toronto and Halifax landlord licensing is an ongoing fight and there were steps forward around inclusionary zoning, but ground zero for much of the struggle was the blazingly hot housing market in British Columbia cities of Vancouver and its satellites cities, where most of our members live, in Burnaby, Surrey, and New Westminster.

Average home prices in Vancouver are now considerably over $1 million. The Premier was in The Globe and Mail promising to end “shadow flipping,” which is a good example of how overheated the market is. Shadow flipping involves a real estate agent, who represents a seller, recommending and securing a “sales contract” from a new purchaser at a fixed price, and then continuing to try to get another buyer to pay more than the original contract and pocketing the difference from the higher price before the deal goes to closing. Shadow flipping is just a fancy term for felony robbery.

What’s the fix for low and moderate income families being pushed out of affordable housing? That was the question before the organizers.

Burnaby was about the worst case. The council has approved something called a “density bonus” for developers, which allows them to pay more, millions more to the city, to go up higher with more units. 20% of the so-called bonus goes to a fund for the creation of affordable housing, though little has been approved or built. 80% goes for civic improvements and amenities in Burnaby. The result is that the city council has a huge incentive to allow for total displacement and gentrification!

Vancouver supposedly has a program of one-for-one replacement for every rental unit lost. The RAP or Rental Assistance Program is supposed to require placement of the tenant before a rental unit can be converted or demolished in comparable housing within a range of 10% of the rent they were paying within a reasonable distance from their current residence. Sometimes this will stop the redevelopment, but in other cases this and other programs are subverted by developers who simply throw money at the lower income tenant which is too good to resist, inducing them to vacate voluntarily with some money in their pockets.

For all of the strategies and public policies discussed the best model that emerged in the discussion centered on the city council of New Westminster. There is no fancy bylaw or housing program, and there have been a lot of developers who have come, blueprints in hand with proposals, and admittedly some of them have been built, but for the most part they have not succumbed to the high-rise, density bonus allures for a simple reason: they just say, “No!” They vote down the proposals that too often simply eliminate the housing without hopes for residents finding replacements.

Protecting affordable housing and our neighborhoods in many cities in Canada may not come as much from fancy, well-crafted policy solutions, but from old fashion, hard-knuckled politics. Moving the developer patsies out of office, and putting home protectors in when the chance arises to pull the voting levers.