April 19, 2019

Ghost Apartments in Seattle

. It’s odd that Vancouver, with its ongoing crisis in affordable rental housing, doesn’t pay more attention to Seattle – fast-growing, tech-boom city that it is – where the problem has been so much new rental stock available that the fear has been too many ‘ghost apartments.’  That’s changing, according to the Seattle Times:

The Seattle area is filling up new apartments faster than any region in the country, suggesting demand for housing is starting to catch up with the record construction boom — not a great sign for tenants hoping landlords get desperate and drop rents.

The new figures offer fresh insight into the years-long, multibillion-dollar experiment being waged by developers as they build more apartments in the city of Seattle this decade than in the previous half-century combined, betting on the long-term economic health of the region. Will enough renters eventually materialize to fill them, or will the city have a skyline of empty ghost apartments? …

(Market analyst Carl) Whittaker cited the region’s strong economy and foreign immigration pull for leading the country in drawing renters, as well as the fact that the metro is building more apartments to actually house them. Only three metro areas in the country — New York, Dallas and Los Angeles — built more apartments than Seattle last year. …

For a while it looked like developers might have been too aggressive with all those new units: Vacancy rates had been rising, recently reaching their highest point since the recession. Building owners struggling to fill up tons of new units all at the same time resorted to offering concessions like a free month’s rent or thousands of dollars in gift cards. The supply-and-demand equation flipped so suddenly that Seattle rents went from soaring at the fastest rate in the country to among the slowest.

Now, generally speaking, apartments in Seattle are filling up nearly the same rate as they are opening.

As PT has noted before, the fundamentals are beginning to shift in Vancouver too: falling house prices, increased supply in some areas, more to come.  While the housing crisis continues, it’s changing, and perception lags behind.

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Last Wednesday, the mayor addressed a full class at the Board of Trade, with a PowerPoint lecture that outlined the City’s progress on the housing crisis.

Not your grandfather’s BoT

With some helpful slides and a low-key professorial manner, he articulated some obvious but rarely made points:

  • We have in this society “a full-blown capitalist housing system” – 91 percent of housing developed by the private sector; 9 percent public.
  • Maps don’t end at Boundary Road.

  • The key to addressing labour supply needs and provide access to jobs is a good regional transit system.

Then, another chart:

Snap quiz: how many of us knew the City had almost reached its housing target for the shelterless?  In fact, except for minimum wage citizens, the results look pretty good.  Or so the mayor thought until he saw the media coverage.   Because good results, as the politician in the mayor noted, is not how data is portrayed.  But it is why the debate and discussion has shifted more and more to affordable rental.

The dilemma, as Kennedy stated, is this:

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I’ve seen at least at two studies which demonstrate that ‘gentrification’ does not necessarily lead to major displacement of poorer residents.  But that goes against the dominant narrative, so is often not acknowledged – or it’s dismissed.  Indeed, the meme that investment or development leads, ipso facto, to gentrification is spreading, most recently at the open house for the Kits Larch Street rental project:


Here’s another perspective from Jesse Van Tol, chief executive officer of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition:

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In cities across the world, housing systems are undergoing immense change. Homes are being transformed into liquid commodities, and as such, are increasingly unable to meet the social need for residential space. This has painful consequences for households and urban life, in the form of residential alienation, precarity and displacement. But in many places, resistance movements are growing.

Join us April 23 to hear sociologist David Madden explore the causes and consequences of the commodification of housing, drawing lessons from London and New York City

David Madden is associate professor in sociology and co-director of the Cities Programme at the London School of Economics. He works on urban studies, political sociology and social theory. His research interests include housing, urban restructuring, public space and critical urban theory. He has conducted qualitative, ethnographic and archival research in New York City and London. He is co-author, with Peter Marcuse, of In Defense of Housing: The politics of crisis. His writing has appeared in leading academic journals as well as the Guardian, the Washington Post and Jacobin.

David Madden’s talk will be followed by a panel of local respondents to give the themes of his talk a Canadian context on a local, provincial and national scale:

  • David Hulchanski, University of Toronto
  • Penny Gurstein, University of British Columbia
  • Selina Robinson, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing
  • Question period hosted by Jen St. Denis, Star Vancouver


Tuesday, April 23

7 PM to 9 PM (doors open at 6:30 PM)

Room 1200-1500, SFU Segal Building, 500 Granville Street, Vancouver

Admission: $5. Free for students with valid student ID.

Reserve your seat!


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Trust Dan Fumano in his Vancouver Sun article to wade right into the ongoing NIMBY and YIMBY discussions which in many ways mirror what we all think is happening on the west side of the City of Vancouver.  In his article (and you should read the comments on-line) a group of older articulate residents express their displeasure with the potential for a new five storey building on the site of the old St. Marks Church at Second and Larch in deepest darkest Kitsilano.

This application for 1805 Larch Street is for a 66 foot tall five storey building that will have 63 secured rental units which will be built under the City of Vancouver’s Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program (MIRHPP). What this means is that 20 percent of the building will be for “moderate income” renters, those earning between $30,000 and $80,000 annually. In total the building will have 19 studios, 16 one-bedrooms, 20 two-bedrooms, and eight three-bedroom apartments, with underground parking and a rooftop patio.

In the rezoning application for the three lot site, Metric Architecture describes the church as disused for ecclesiastical services, but notes that its location and site lends itself for moderate income family accommodation.

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You may have caught wind of the District of No Vancouver’s — how shall we say — odd approach to doing their part on the region’s housing issue.

Young people, seniors, low and fixed-income folks are struggling to live near services, employment and schools. Without sufficient or reasonable housing options in town centres and near transit, these vulnerable segments of our society are not just experiencing the stress of housing insecurity, they’re getting pushed out.

DNV is quite simply saying no to efforts to accommodate people in need. Repeatedly. Over and over again.

But Councillor Jim Hanson of team “No Vancouver” (pssst….this domain is available) has a solution.

Since it doesn’t look good to say no to people in need of housing, try saying yes, but in a different way. As in — “Yes, we’d like to give housing to people in need. We’ll just take it away from others.”

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What a difference four years make, and some apologies need to be made by several people to the Duke of Data and Director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program Andy Yan. It was the Fall of 2015 when Andy first crunched the numbers and in his very straight forward way told the CBC that his review of 172 property sales on Vancouver’s west side found 66 percent of owners had “non-anglicized Chinese names” suggesting they were recent arrivals. At that time 18 percent of these residences were purchased without a mortgage which is a pretty jaw dropping feat for many local residents. That was potentially a significant group of people entering the local housing market, and could represent the commodification of housing as a holding, not a place to live in.

Despite the fact Andy was basing his analysis on real data,  real estate pundits were quick to fingerpoint about “intolerance, racism, singling out certain groups of people …to blame” and even the past Mayor of Vancouver fell into the rhetoric stating “This can’t be about race, it can’t be about dividing people. It needs to get to the core issue about addressing affordability and making sure it’s fair.”

Well we all know where that logic took us in terms of housing affordability and it revealed an interesting cultural trait of Canadians about not wanting to offend, even when data suggested there was a trend that should be examined.

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Much continues to be said and written about the District of No Vancouver’s compulsive nixing of social and non-market housing projects.

In particular, current Councillor Mathew Bond is a frequent critic of the actions of his counterparts on Council. His Twitter feed serves as running commentary of No after No after No…somehow, he manages to keep an even and rational tone. Maybe just a hint of strain. The sound of one head slapping. Do you hear it?

Bond can’t afford to flame out at his colleagues too hard, because, much like a certain Federal ex-cabinet minister, he still has to work with these people, no matter how ethically challenged.

The parallel ends there, however; he’s member of an elected council, not of a party. He can’t hand in his card, cross the floor, and still keep his power. It’s a District council, and there’s no aisle to cross. He’d have to climb over the Clerk, and then where’d he be?

But he’s not the only one speaking out. Steven Petersson is a former DNV planner, and not only did he write a Master’s thesis on affordable housing provision, he worked as a residential support worker for disabled people for seven years.

In a recent letter to Mayor Little and his NIMBY cohorts — Councillors Muri, Curren, Forbes and Hanson — Petersson lays it on the line:

There’s a desperate community need for social and affordable housing.

Why put the needs of elites who already have homes over the disadvantaged who need your help?

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We’ve covered the rejection by the District of North Vancouver Council of the Delbrook affordable housing proposal, CHAC funding and previous consultation processes.  Here’s another:

Hollyburn Family Services project killed in camera

  • Hollyburn Family Services operates two safe houses/transition houses for young people on Mount Seymour Parkway, in two single-family homes that house six young people each.  Hollyburn leases the land from the DNV.
  • Hollyburn put some resources into crafting a proposal to redevelop the sites into a larger, multi-family style facility with approximately 40 units.
  • Additional density on Mount Seymour Parkway was not acceptable to the majority on DNV Council, so they rejected the proposal. They were able to kill the project in camera because it was a decision re: the disposition of DNV land.


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