Emma Jean, The Peak

February 06, 2021

Moving Towards a More Equitable Housing System reimagines the rights and lives of renters

A group of statisticians, advocates, urban planners, real estate developers and a journalist walk into a Zoom meeting and ask each other what’s wrong with the housing market. Turns out, a whole lot. 

Moving Towards a More Equitable Housing System: Is Vancouver a City for Renters? featured a head-spinning web of insight with a panel of experts on various aspects of the housing system. The event was designed not only to inform participants on housing policy, but also for the City of Vancouver to hear what their experiences have been as renters, and what they would like to see put in policy as a result. 

The event was moderated by director of SFU’s urban studies program Meg Holden and Globe and Mail journalist Kerry Gold, both of whom had plenty to offer to the discussion.

The baseline of the discussion was promptly given by Andy Yan, the director of the City Program at SFU and described as a “fixture” in the Vancouver housing discourse. He opened the event with a statistical deep-dive into the Vancouver housing market. He described Vancouver as a city of renters, with at least half the city being occupied by renters since 1971. 

Even more damning were the statistics comparing the percentage of income levels in Vancouver households  to what income brackets were for the housing units approved in 2017 by the City. Housing units were significantly disproportionately developed for those earning over $80,000, compared to the amount of housing units developed for those earning minimum wage. 

According to Leilani Farha, the UN’s former special rapporteur on the right to housing and global director of housing non-profit The Shift, it’s the treatment of something that should be a right as a commodity. The main concern she sees in Vancouver, she said, is one that she’s seen all over the world in her work: the financialization of residential real estate. 

“Financialization is a very particular phenomenon, at least with the work that I do on it and my concerns,” she described. “It really is where housing is viewed as an uber-commodity. I’m not talking about the individual who buys a house and is chuffed when their property value goes up. I’m talking about institutional investors, the private equity firms, the asset management firms that have millions of dollars invested in residential real estate.” 

Farha explained that when multinational corporations scoop up real estate,  they evict the current tenants to do surface-level renovations and pass along the cost to the tenant to pay for with a higher rent. All of these factors make housing increasingly unaffordable and companies all the more profitable. 

William Azaroff, the CEO of Brightside Community Homes Foundation, is engaging in the kind of flipping activities Farha describes, but in an non-profit, well-intentioned way. His Vancouver-based non-profit flips apartment buildings to make them more densely populated and more accessible for different kinds of support, like seniors, people with disabilities, or those fighting addictions. The developments are also designed to be “deeply affordable” with different payment plans depending on the renter’s circumstance. Azaroff emphasized that housing is “not one-size-fits-all” and that there should be diversity beyond single bedroom walk-ups.

The housing-as-rights perspective was echoed by a fellow activist Barbara Steenbergan, a member of the Executive Committee of the International Union of Tenants, who joined the call with an ecstatic presence from Brussels, Belgium. She was in Brussels for a reason: the European Parliament just adopted a hard-fought resolution that legislates EU countries to recognize housing as a human right. After hearing statements from renters in both the chat and in the form of video messages, she opined that Vancouver should adopt similar policies to protect renters, like social rent policy which protects renters and often makes it a preferable option to owning.

According to Steenbergan, Vancouver is “at the beginning of that wave” in regards to these policies. Furthermore, it’s more than just policy making. She encouraged those in the audience to add their voice in advocating for change. “This must come from the ground up [ . . . ] from the organized crowd, from the tenant’s union, from all these people fighting for more affordable housing. [Only] then [will] you have the chance to fight for more affordable legislation,” she said.

Putting into action a similar belief from a different standpoint was Squamish Nation councillor Khelsilem, who has been involved in the Nation’s development of housing. “We continue to press all levels of government to repatriate and return land to the nations in the spirit of, as article 27 speaks to specifically, the repatriation of Indigenous lands that have been confiscated or taken, or to be compensated for our lands that have been confiscated.”

Khelsilem continued, “We are choosing to enter into the real estate area because so much of our natural lands [and resources] have been alienated from us. Our lands have been completely obliterated for the city to exist. [We] see [entering into the real estate area] as an opportunity to not just succeed in our territories but also give back to our city. We believe that the delivery of a significant amount of housing is what we need in our city.” 

Khelsilem was also quick to note that while the City of Vancouver clearly needs to invest more in affordable housing and reduce the zoning barriers for non-profit housing, the federal and provincial government also need to chip in. 

“One of the things that’s challenging about that [income-housing equivalent] graph [referenced earlier] is that anyone with an income of under $50,000 or below, the amount of subsidies that are required to pay of mortgages for financing or the costs of construction and new, affordable housing, the subsidies to ensure that those rates are required for those incomes, require huge amounts of subsidies form other levels of government to pay for that.” 

He pointed out that while the onus is on the City of Vancouver, it does not rest solely on their shoulders. “The reality is that federal and provincial governments need to step in to be able to increase the amount of housing at those levels.” 

Gold also mentioned that the BC provincial NDP are funding social housing at the same rates they were in the 1990s, without accounting for how underfunded they became during BC Liberal rule and the measures needed to restore their ability to operate.

When it comes to the perspective of investors, however, these approaches to the market are seen differently. That became evident in the perspective of Evan Siddal, president and CEO of Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. He argued the important role of investors, as he essentially acts as Canada’s highest authority on what federal housing is and isn’t funded.

Keen to “stick his neck out there to give people something to shoot at,” he laid out what the federal government is doing to create a “massive supply of housing.” Through its $22.7 billion Canada Housing Benefit, which partially subsidizes rent, and the Rapid Housing Initiative, the federal government  aims to provide shelter for unhoused people in major cities and was oversubscribed by 200%. Sounds effective, right? The other panelists had questions.

“I know I have a question,” said Gold. “So the low-interest rate construction program, from what I understand is that they only have to provide affordable housing for ten years. What happens after that? Does it convert to market rate after they choose to?” 

“It can,” responded Siddal, “The minimum threshold is ten years but we’re receiving significantly more competition through this money.” 

Gold’s concern, echoed next by Farha, was that these developments would soon convert to unaffordable rates as soon as the threshold expires, and that the housing may be temporarily affordable but not secure in the long-term. After all, the “any supply is good supply” approach offered hasn’t historically worked in Vancouver when the supply isn’t affordable. As Farha put it, these affordable units aren’t truly affordable and sustainable until they are protected from private investors. The success of the Squamish Nation contradicts Gold’s claim about the approach never working in Vancouver before. Squamish’s latest developments provided affordable, high-density housing.

After some terse moments of debate, Vancouver City Councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung was finally able to connect her video to the call to offer thanks for the opinions expressed. In a closing message, she talked about how they need to integrate all these different approaches into how they develop their housing plan. Kirby-Yung told the audience that she prefers to think of Vancouver, not as a city for renters, but as “a city for people.” This seemed to negate the urgency of establishing better tenant rights and access to affordable housing in favour of a message of vague unity — not unlike the disproportionate funding of upper-class housing units that occurred in 2017. 

The majority of the event, watching as an outsider felt like being a kid sitting at the adult dinner table for the first time. The specific issues to which the panelists spoke felt familiar and resonated, yet the concepts and policy quibbles felt levels above common knowledge. However, the talk emphasized how housing is one of the most crucial issues of our time and understanding how rights-based approaches, the roles of outside money and the zoning laws that get in affordable development’s way is key for any citizen to make a housing system that works for everyone. 

The event was hosted by the City of VancouverSFU Public SquareSFU Urban StudiesSFU Vancity Office of Engagement, and the SFU City program.

This was published by The Peak on February 6, 2021.