“A Bold Step”? Burnaby’s social mix response to the Metrotown evictions crisis is not bold enough to stop displacement

On May 27th, 2019, Burnaby City Council unanimously voted to endorse a new approach to planning housing development, which they are promoting as a “bold step in addressing rental housing crisis.” These changes to the City’s housing policy come after years of organizing by Metrotown tenants against the destruction of their neighbourhood. That the City now feels the need to address the concerns of renters is a direct result of this resistance. Yet, while the new approach to housing is being pitched by Mayor Mike Hurley as a break from the eviction policies of his predecessor Derrick Corrigan, activists with Stop Demovictions Burnaby say it in fact threatens to continue them. While the plan takes some steps to preserve rental housing in Burnaby it does so through social mix policies that fail to protect low-income renters. It does nothing to control rising rents and does not meet tenants’ demands that the City build and create zoning to support social housing and end the profit driven development that is fuelling displacement.

For the past few years, the Burnaby neighbourhood of Metrotown has been a site of intense gentrification, with over 3,000 lower end of market rental units targeted for demolition and their residents evicted. During this time, tenants have resisted their displacement and organized to keep Metrotown a working class neighbourhood. Their struggle shifted the politics in Burnaby and made demovictions the key issue in the 2018 election. In his mayoral campaign, Mike Hurley took advantage of the gap between the anti-displacement politics being pushed by tenants in Metrotown and the intransigent demoviction agenda of then-Mayor Corrigan. Hurley appropriated some slogans from the anti-demoviction movement to position himself as the candidate who would “solve the housing crisis”. Now, seven months later, we can at least see what is being proposed.

There are three features of Mayor Hurley’s new policy that are getting positive press. The first is a promise to use rental-only zoning to ensure the one-to-one replacement of rental apartment units lost as a result of condo development. The second is that, according to the City, these units would be rented at 20% below market rate, which, based on current Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation averages for Metrotown, would mean around $1,000/month for a one bedroom apartment. And thirdly, Hurley’s policy also calls for all new developments to feature at least 20% rental housing. Additionally, the Mayor has promised a new tenant relocation policy but this has yet to be released.

While the announcement is being presented as a bold new plan, it looks very similar to the one Corrigan proposed last July. In a last-ditch attempt to save his re-election bid, Burnaby City Council passed an inclusionary zoning by-law with the goal of ensuring one-to-one replacement of rental units destroyed in Metrotown. Hurley’s plan, just like Corrigan’s before it, fails to address the root cause of the eviction crisis: the private housing market. Hurley’s plan doesn’t promise to stop the rezonings and profit-driven development that is gentrifying Metrotown. In fact, it depends on it. 

Social mix: A market-based solution to a market-based problem

Sean Phipps speaking at the Metrotown rally for the international day of action against evictions, April 6, 2019

The basic solution that Hurley’s policy proposes for the demovictions crisis is “social mix,” an urban planning theory that promotes mixed-income housing projects as a market-based way to redevelop historically working-class neighbourhoods. Proponents argue that mixed-income neighbourhoods are beneficial for low-income people by putting them in contact with wealthier neighbours. Sociologist Martine August found a report from Toronto’s Regent Park Collaborative Team in 2002 that claimed, “Behavioural patterns of lower-income tenants will be altered by interaction with higher income neighbours. For example, social norms about workforce participation will be passed on to lower income residents.” Social mix is a patronizing idea that sees working-class and Indigenous peoples’ oppression as resulting from individual failures, rather than capitalism and colonialism. 

The social-uplift theories of social mix are a cover for the market-based gentrification of low-income neighbourhoods through combining some portion of either non-market or affordability-branded rental housing with high-end development. Burnaby Mayor Hurley’s plan promises that 20% of new units will be rentals, which means the other 80% will be condos for homeowners, not for the renters that are currently the majority population in Metrotown. In order to incentivize private developers to build rental housing, the City of Burnaby is using social mix policies to justify extra concessions for developers, such as density and height bonuses, effectively subsidizing developer profits. 

As the City of Burnaby’s housing report admits: “If a site is valued and purchased on the maximum potential for market (strata) development, the requirement to provide rental housing using available strata density may result in the rental component becoming uneconomical.” That means that the City knows the rezoning of Metrotown for condo development under the Downtown Plan has driven up land prices to the point building rental housing has become unaffordable. In this context, Burnaby’s social-mix policies are working as a set-up that helps promote market development in the name of building more affordable housing. In doing so they increase property prices even further, making housing for renters even more unaffordable. 

Stop Demovictions Burnaby is demanding that, instead of using rezonings through the Downtown Plan to increase land prices, the City should work to bring down land costs by refusing rezoning applications for luxury developments. Mayor Hurley’s new housing policy will ultimately fail to stop mass evictions and displacement because it protects the profits of private landlords and developers, whose interests are at odds with those of tenants. 

No “Placement Before Displacement”: Renters most vulnerable to displacement are still on their own

The Mayor’s new housing policy also fails to protect and rehouse tenants displaced by condo rezonings. A key principle of the People’s Plan for Metrotown, the alternative vision for the neighbourhood developed by Stop Demovictions Burnaby, is “placement before displacement.” This means that no one should be forced to leave their home until there is somewhere in the neighbourhood for them to move into at the same rent. While the Mayor’s announcement promises one-to-one replacement of any rental units lost, it’s less clear what housing people will be offered and at what price. The plan does say that developers have to ensure tenants have found suitable housing before the final rezoning can go through but gives no indication whether the rent will be affordable at either the interim or new units. Being offered a unit to live in at a rent you can’t afford years after you have already been forced from your community is clearly too little too late. 

The demoviction crisis in Burnaby is a highly visible example of people being forced from their homes to allow for developer and landlord profit, but it’s not the only one. People are being evicted from their homes in Burnaby, in a less spectacular fashion, due to renovation or simply not being able to afford rents. The Mayor’s housing plan as it stands does nothing to address this.

The City says they will try to keep new rental units affordable at around 20% below market rent. While that currently would be around $1000 a month for a one-bedroom unit, that will rise as gentrification raises rents in the neighbourhood. The Federal Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation defines affordable housing as spending 30% of your income on rent. In 2011, the average income of single adults in Metrotown was $30,000, and for single-parent families, it was $37,000. Affordable rent for these residents would be $750 to $925 per month. For those with below-average incomes, affordability would be less than $750 a month. Therefore the affordable units Burnaby proposes would be unaffordable to Metrotown residents even before their rents begin to rise. According to Kadar, a tenant in Metrotown who has already been renovicted from his apartment, “The City needs to consider the income of the people living here. If the new apartments rent for $1,500 a month, we can’t afford them. We can’t compete with people making $5,000 a month.”

In their report, Burnaby City staff suggest implementing vacancy controls, including by tying rent to the unit rather than the tenant. This would remove the incentive landlords currently have to evict tenants so that they can raise the rent above the maximum annual rate. The BC NDP government has refused to implement this form of rent control into the Residential Tenancy Act, but the City of Burnaby could do it by making a fixed rent covenant part of the agreement that developers sign in exchange for height and density bonuses. Adopting this recommendation would at least slow rising rents, but this rent control is not yet included in Burnaby’s new housing plan.

“Bold steps” must lead away from developer profits

What would a housing policy for Metrotown look like that actually preserves the working class character of the neighbourhood and protects renters in the long-run? Stop Demovictions Burnaby’s People’s Plan for Metrotown calls for an end to the private development of luxury condos that is fuelling rising rents and increased displacement. It calls for the City of Burnaby to spend their $1.5 billion budgetary surplus on social housing that is affordable to the people currently living in Metrotown.

What we’re seeing from City Council falls well short of this vision. As one Metrotown resident, Magda, said about the policy, “They don’t want to do much! They did the least they could do.” However, that doesn’t mean we should give up. Instead we should keep organizing our buildings, keep supporting our neighbours facing eviction, and keep fighting evictions and for the social housing we need. 

The anti-eviction movement in Metrotown has already reshaped politics in this city, getting rid of one mayor and forcing a pro-development council to make concessions to renters that they refused before. Metrotown renters won the reforms in Mayor Hurley’s new housing plan by building power within the community in opposition to both politicians and developers. The forces that displace people from their homes is the system of property and private housing itself. Social mix is a false solution that depends on the same corporations that have already displaced thousands of renters from Metrotown. We must accept nothing less than taking housing outside of the market if we are to put an end to the endless cycles of eviction.

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