A past column I wrote for Business in Vancouver:

It looks like Vision Vancouver is STIRing up the West End.

Sorry for the pun, but it’s too obvious to resist.

STIR stands for Short-Term Incentives for Rental Housing – a time-limited program that offers developers, among other incentives, significant additional density in return for the construction of market rental apartments.  Note, that’s market rental. There’s no constraint on rental rates, only on tenure: the units must remain rental for the life of the building or 60 years, whichever is greater.

Vancouver is, surprisingly, a rental town (52 percent of all households) but these days only a small fraction of new construction is purpose-built for that market.  It’s just too profitable to build condos, sell ’em off, and move on.  Though a lot of investment-purchased condos may be rented out, there’s no guarantee they’ll stay that way, and the city’s housing stock is becoming increasingly inaccessible to lower middle-income renters.  Developers argue there’s simply no way to make the numbers work, given the low returns from rental accommodation, without the kind of incentive the STIR program offers.

And a big incentive it is.  City Council just approved the first project – a 210-foot tower on Bidwell Street in the West End that almost triples the allowable density in return for preservation of a heritage facade and 49 rental units. Another project at Comox and Broughton is awaiting consideration, this one even taller and five times the current allowable density.

Needless to say, some West Enders are, to put it mildly, concerned. As a West Ender myself (and the first City Councillor to come out of the downtown since the 1940s), I learned that, paradoxically, as the rate of change slows down, people’s anxiety about change increases.  Even the smallest alteration can ignite fear of precedent. Within that square mile only a dozen or so new buildings have been constructed since 1972, the year the highrise boom ended.  But even that proved to be too much, and so in 1989 the NPA Council rezoned the district to discourage demolition.  A rate-of-change bylaw has slowed redevelopment to practically zero.

Politically it was a no-brainer.  Redevelopment meant eviction of existing tenants with few options, a loss of affordable housing, a drop in density and the blocking of views.  Developers were directed to other parts of downtown, where rezonings encouraged much higher densities where few residents would be disturbed.  Downtown South became the new West End, taking pressure off the existing housing stock.

That era is practically over.  Downtown is almost all built out; there are few places left to massively rezone.  The STIR program, whether intending to or not, is directing attention back to the West End, where dozens of wooden low-rise apartment blocks are nearing the end of their physical lives.  Change, it seems, is inevitable.

Supporters argue that providing hundreds of more units is the only solution available to City Hall to take the pressure off demand.  Without alternative accommodation, new arrivals to Vancouver will outbid existing tenants for the only available housing or be forced out of the city altogether to places where commute times will lengthen – exactly the opposite of what Ecodensity intends.

Hence a left-wing Council is raising the redevelopment bar, justifying a de-facto subsidy of over $100,000 a unit by arguing that ‘market rental’ constitutes a public amenity.  Rather than parks or child-care centres, the West End gets additional density. 

There’s also a hidden danger: If the actual rents come in at a significantly higher rate than what the developer is expecting, it’s possible that the entire market could be recalibrated.  Landlords will argue that rents in existing buildings surrounding the new developments are below market, and hence eligible for upward adjustment. The political consequences would be most unpleasant. 

In the meantime, residents are meeting in church halls and on web sites to pressure for a stop to all rezonings until a plan is in place.  Change may be inevitable, they argue, but it must be ‘appropriate,’ without defining quite what that is.  The process required for consultation, however, could take years.

One long-time leader in the community is skeptical of anything so simplistic as a ‘plan.’ As he notes, the West End is a hodge-podge: layers of different styles and forms accumulated over a century.  Trying to define a single vision for the future actually goes against the very nature of the West End.  Better to go block by block, allowing new development when and where it fits in without rezoning the whole neighbourhood, doing so incrementally without massive disruption.

Kind of what the STIR program is attempting to do.