New Westminister News Leader: New Westminster seeks to protect and encourage rental housing

BC ACORN member Noel Ouellette. Rental housing in New Westminster is being knocked down without anything to replace it, so the city has come up with some ways it hopes will reverse the trend.

The situation is getting serious because the median age of the city’s rental stock is approaching 50 years, said a report to Monday’s council meeting. In 2012, 51 rental units were demolished but “there has been virtually no construction of secured market rental housing in the last 10 years.”

The report from planning manager Bev Grieve says unless incentives are created the shortage will worsen. The plan she presented recommends business licence fees for rental housing be capped at the current rate for five years.

To address the issue, the city is also considering:

• continuing its moratorium on converting rental buildings to strata;

• not supporting rezoning properties for higher density development;

• requiring developers tearing down rental buildings to have a plan for tenant relocation and replacement housing options; and

• exploring transferring the allowed density on the property elsewhere to preserve the existing purpose-built stock.

To increase investment in rental stock construction, increase the life of existing stock, and improve their operating costs, the report recommends:

• using the density bonus program to permit additional construction of rental units on the site;

• reducing building permit fees for additional units up to 50 per cent; and

• consider relaxing engineering service requirements when adding new units.

“We have to acknowledge that buildings age out,” said Coun. Betty McIntosh. “Do we want these people to start becoming slum landlords? Basically, no. We want the upgrades happening. The policy is going to have to address what we can do, not just say ‘you can’t do that. You’re going to have to do something to keep your buildings in shape.’ ”

To create and extend rental stock the city may allow increases in density, cutting building permit fees in half, processing rezoning and building permit applications at the same time, reducing parking requirements, and may also consider relaxing servicing requirements.

In addition to the report’s proposals, Coun. Bill Harper said there should be legislation preventing strata councils from having bylaws restricting the rights of condo owners to rent their homes.

“I don’t see why I, if I was a condominium owner, I can’t rent it just like I can rent my house,” said Harper.

Grieve’s report also notes municipalities could be helped in their quest to keep and grow rental stock by participation from the provincial and federal governments.

They could do that by providing tax or funding incentives to rental owners looking to extend the life of their buildings and re-introduce programs to stimulate construction. The province, said the report, could be a big help if it allowed cities to have control over rental demolition and allow rental-only zones, something the City of Burnaby has proposed but was shot down by the provincial government.

Grieve got support on that count from councillors and from ACORN spokesman Noel Ouellette, who works on the advocacy organization’s housing campaign for healthy homes.

“Without a coordinated effort from the provincial and federal government it’s very hard for a city like New Westminster to do very much, because New West doesn’t have the money that the provincial government and federal government have,” said Ouellette.

While there are lots of apartments in New Westminster, the rents are so high most people can’t afford them, he added.

“Affordable rental housing, it barely exists here in New Westminster,” said Ouellette, who feels he’s lucky to have found a rental unit in the Queen’s Park area. “Most people that are looking for places they’re on disability, or a low-fixed income and they can’t really afford high rents. Here in New Westminster they’re building so many condos that the average people like myself, we can’t really afford them.”

The city staff report notes the median renter household income in New Westminster is $34,000 compared to $66,000 for homeowner households, putting home ownership out of the renters’ reach.

The percentage of renters in New West dropped from 61 in 1991 to 46 in 2006, although the actual numbers went from 13,000 to 12,500.

If something isn’t done, the report suggests it may result in overcrowding and lack of maintenance in existing units.

A survey of Lower Mainland municipalities shows New West has about eight per cent of the region’s rental stock with 9,235 units in 348 properties. The majority was built from 1950 to 1970 when there were federal incentives. Most are wood frame that could be at risk for demolition and redevelopment, but only seven buildings are at moderate to high risk of being redeveloped in the next decade.

Only Vancouver (4,902) and Burnaby (363) have more rental properties, according to the survey.

City staff will take council’s comments and tweak the draft policy and then take it to the public for discussion.