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Contentious rental housing incentive program may live on

A controversial program aimed at alleviating Vancouver’s housing shortage may soon get a new lease on life. The Short Term…

By Malin Dunfors , in City , on November 2, 2011 Tags:

A controversial program aimed at alleviating Vancouver’s housing shortage may soon get a new lease on life.

A rezoning application sign for 1754-1772 Pendrell Street, West End.

The Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing (STIR) program offers incentives to housing developers in order to encourage the construction of market rental housing. But it has met with particularly strong opposition from residents of the West End, who say it only profits the property developers.

The Vision Vancouver party, though, considers it a success. “It was our first delivery of an election promise,” said City Councillor Geoff Meggs.

If Vision Vancouver is once again handed a majority in city council in the upcoming municipal elections, the party will propose that STIR be extended past its Dec. 15th expiration date, according to Meggs.

A new program, if approved, would be put in place for January 2012, said Meggs.

A lack of housing

Mayor Gregor Robertson was elected to office in 2008 in part because of his promise to deal with the city’s lack of affordable housing. The following June, the Vision Vancouver-led city council voted in STIR.

Under the program, developers can receive incentives such as the expedition of permit processing, waived fees, and increased density, if they construct apartment buildings whose individual suites are rented, not sold, for at least 60 years. They are not required to cap rents at a certain level.

Rental signs are not a common sight in the West End.

Some West End residents say STIR doesn’t address the area’s high rents or low vacancy rates. More than 81 per cent of the people living in the West End, one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in North America, are renters, compared to 52 per cent in the rest of the city, according to Vancouver Economic Development Commission.

“Generally speaking, I’m not opposed to a program that would encourage affordable housing rentals,” said Michael Geller, an adjunct professor of architecture at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Sustainable Community Development.

Geller previously worked as a real estate consultant on the Beach Towers project in the West End. He said that STIR was rushed through city council without any policy guidelines, and that as a result, it’s failed to deliver the affordable rentals for which many of the neighborhood’s residents had hoped.

Randal Helten, the former president of West End Neighbors (WEN), calls the program “a perfect case study” for what’s wrong with city politics. “The neighbourhoods get projects forced on them that dramatically alter the character of the neighbourhoods,” he said.

With that in mind, Helten recently entered Vancouver’s mayoral race, representing Neighborhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV). “[STIR] should be terminated immediately, or at least allowed to expire, as planned, this December,” Helten said.

But ultimately, that decision will be left up to voters on Nov. 19th.