Demolition in a vintage rental neighbourhood

High Style Living

Five years after tower construction first jumped the Skytrain line at Metrotown, the City of Burnaby continues to enable the destruction of 1950s and ’60s era rental housing in the area.

Rick McGowan, a neighbourhood activist and townhome owner, estimates that 560 rental units have been replaced by owner-occupied condo towers, or are slated for demolition. More worrying, he says, is the fact that there is no end in sight.

Rental units on Willingdon Street. The building has been recently purchased, but not yet re-zoned for demolition.

Rental units on Willingdon Street. The complex has been recently purchased, but not yet re-zoned for demolition.

McGowan recently gave me a brief tour of the streets of south Metrotown, historically known as Maywood. “If you live in Metrotown as a renter, there’s a good chance your place will be demolished,” he said. “These are long-term renters, and they’re being told they need to leave their community.”

This matters because, as noted elsewhere on this site, rental housing is already in short supply in Metro Vancouver. The amount of purpose-built rental housing construction in Metro Vancouver was  almost nil during the 1990s and 200s. The Burnaby city government highlighted this issue in a 2007 statement on housing policy, but minimized the role of local authorities in facilitating rental housing construction.

“The region needs about 3,500 additional market rental housing units to be built each year. Currently virtually no purpose built rental stock of this type is being constructed by the private market. Between 15 to 20 percent of individuals and families in the region are in core need for non-market housing… In Burnaby alone, there are over 13,000 households in core need for affordable housing (and rising). There are no sustainable housing programs available to address the magnitude of this need for low-income individuals and families. The current estimate of homeless people in the region has nearly doubled since 2002 from 1,121 to 2,174….

While these issues have serious impacts and implications for the health, quality of life and economic viability of our community, they are beyond the mandate, resources and tax base of Burnaby and other local governments to address on a direct basis.”

Residential tower construction viewed from the Metrotown shopping centre

Residential tower construction viewed from the Metrotown shopping centre

In a December 2015 newspaper article, city councillor Colleen Jordan was quoted as saying that Burnaby regrets the loss of the old rental units, but local government can’t force developers to build rental housing.  Strangely enough, in Vancouver, the city next door, the Zoning and Development bylaw “requires redevelopment projects with six or more dwelling units to replace every demolished rental unit.”

Alternatively, as McGowan points out, Burnaby Council could just say “no” to rezoning requests.  As noted in our earlier post on the Burnaby Heights neighbourhood, the City is prepared to impose strict limits on the densification of streets dominated by single-family housing.

One argument for tearing down the three-story walkups is that they have reached the end of their useful life. McGowan denies this, and says the buildings could last another generation if they were properly maintained. He says that in New Westminster, Burnaby’s neighbour to the east, a combination of property standards policies and other pro-rental policies have allowed the city to maintain a healthy stock of affordable rental housing.  New Westminster has pledged that “For properties containing purpose-built rental housing, [there will be] no support for rezoning to higher density developments or variances to increase the building height.”

McGowan also questions the aesthetics of unmixed tower development at a time when that development model is falling out of favour in Vancouver. “We’d like to see more diversity, mid-rise and low-rise, and not just a focus on density.”

Walkup apartments on Dunblane Avenue, east of the mall

Dunblane Avenue, east of the mall; west side of the street

Dunblane Avenue, east side; mutant Vancouverism, anisolated townhome duplex with towers

Dunblane Avenue, east side; an isolated townhome duplex with towers

As noted in my previous post on Metrotown, the 2010 land use map for the area contemplated extensive residential densification, and Burnaby has not yet (to my knowledge) stepped past the proposed boundaries. In the process, however, long-term residents are being evicted, the form of densification is open to question, and much of the benefit appears to be flowing to unknown Asian buyers. One feature of Burnaby’s current housing market, according to an authoritative survey, is that the city ranks last among municipalities in Canada in the availability of affordable and accessible housing.

To give local government its due, Burnaby is now showing some support for social and non-profit housing, although this will not help Metrotown renters in the short term. The City’s “Community Benefits Program,” a fund based on developer contributions, created a total of 19 affordable or special needs units from 1997 through 2014. More recently, the City established a Housing Fund to be financed from development charges.  Mayor Corrigan reported in late 2015 that the Fund has already leveraged the creation of 257 new non-market housing units. With the dedication of City property for further new housing, something that was ruled out in the 2007 statement quoted above, Burnaby hopes to see new co-op or social housing developments on Hastings Street and on 18th Avenue. McGowan, on his Metrotown Residents’ Association blog, counters that at least some of the new non-market housing will simply replace other social housing that is being demolished.

A developer-funded community social centre in a new Metrotown tower. The low-rise building in the background is slated for demolition.

A developer-funded community social centre in a new Metrotown tower. The low-rise building in the background is slated for demolition.

One response

  1. I can’t help but play a bit of devils advocate and say those new condos going up today will be the affordable rentals that those 3 story walk ups are in 40 years. If they result in more units going in they will help reduce the upwards price pressure in the Metro Vancouver market as a whole. Some of those condo will be rented out, at first the rates will be much more than those existing walk ups…..but since it should result in more units on the market it will reduce upward pressures on rents on the market as a whole (maybe not in Metrotown directly if supply in Metrotown is constrained). It works like this, the new condo rented out rents for much more than the existing walk-ups, but there are more units so some of the people who would have rented at a higher rate end up renting in those new condos, this means they are not bidding up the rents on that mid range apartment building letting someone with lesser means get that apartment, meaning they are not bidding up the price of the less desirable apartment building….etc. So the new condos in Metrotown don’t really help rents in desirable areas (Vancouver, Richmond, Metrotown etc), but they help keep rents in places like Surrey Center affordable…..Of course dedicated rental housing stock would help more and even help in desirable areas….

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