Canada’s “Best Tenant Assistance Policy” allows Mayor Hurley to continue apartment demolitions in Burnaby

After fulfilling his election promise of implementing a 6-month moratorium on rezoning and demolishing apartment buildings in the Metrotown neighborhood of Burnaby, Mayor Hurley is starting up the demoviction bulldozer again. On Monday, December 2nd 2019, Burnaby City Council voted to pass, in principle, their Housing Task Force’s Tenant Assistance policy. Media coverage has focused on the good-news story that, as Mayor Hurley said, those covered by this tenant assistance policy are the “most cared for tenants in Canada.” This celebration overlooks the problem that the policy paves the way for mass demovictions to resume in Burnaby, softening the blows of displacement for individuals driven from their homes by condo rezonings while failing to stop the loss of 3,000 units of low-end-of-market rental units in Metrotown. 

Burnaby’s new tenant assistance policy is a revision of its standing municipal policy. Burnaby adopted the first tenant assistance policy in 2015, making amendments in 2018 before this most recent version. The new tenant assistance policy significantly improves the 2015 and 2018 versions by adjusting the terms of tenants’ eligibility for compensation. The policy will now go through a “stakeholder process” for feedback and revision, and then back to city council for a final vote. The Mayor has not clarified who these stakeholders will be.

The most important changes are those that promise evicted tenants new housing at the same rents they paid at the time of eviction. The rent “top-up” means that developers will have to pay the difference between a tenant’s old rent and the rent in the apartment they’re displaced into. The “top up” will last for up to 3 years, and then displaced tenants must either move into the newly built tower, where their rent will remain the same (apart from annual rent increases), or they can stay where they have reestablished their lives, which may be far from Metrotown, without their “top up” subsidy. 

The one-for-one replacement policy means that developers must replace every rental unit demolished with a new rental unit in the condo tower that takes the low-rise apartment’s place.  

And the right of first refusal policy means that tenants displaced from a demovicted building have the first claim on an apartment in the new development at the same rent they paid before the demoviction. 

These are significant wins for evicted tenants, and are no doubt the result of the campaigning of Maywood residents who demanded “people before profit” and “placement before displacement.” These improvements, though, affirm the perspective that politicians in city hall have inherited from the previous Corrigan council: that demoviction is inevitable.

Destiny Morris, a member of Alliance Against Displacement and resident of Metrotown, speaks at the November 19th rally against rezoning and demoviction (@stopdisplacemnt)

On November 19th, Stop Demovictions Burnaby (SDB) activists held a press conference outside of city hall to protest the rezoning of 8 apartment buildings for condo projects in Metrotown, the first rezoning hearing since the end of the 6-month moratorium on demovictions that Mayor Hurley promised during his election campaign. Reflecting on the resumed destruction of the area, SDB campaigner Linda stated, “We are back to living in constant anxiety.” SDB organizer Sean Phipps explains that having the tenant assistance policy on the table at the same time as these rezonings makes it clear that “this policy is an attempt to allow these demolitions to go ahead smoothly.”

Although Mayor Hurley claims his new tenant assistance policy is based on principles like “affordability” and “accessibility,” its narrow focus on the individual tenants evicted by redevelopment means that it will not stop the loss of Metro Vancouver’s largest stock of low-end-of-market apartment buildings. Even if landlords and developers follow through with assisting tenants, there is no guarantee that tenants will be moved into a replacement unit anywhere near Maywood, meaning many residents will be uprooted from their communities and current employment, and their children from their school and friends. This is because rental vacancy rates in Metro Vancouver are at or below zero so losing 3,000 more units of housing will virtually eliminate the already scarce low-end of market rentals.

If displaced tenants don’t use their right of first refusal when the developments are completed, years down the road, the city says units will be rented out at 20% below the median rent identified by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Currently CMHC estimates the median rent for a 1bedroom apartment in the Metrotown area as $1186, making the city’s protected rents $946. Tying the city’s protected rent level to the median rent in the area means that as median rents increase, which they will as the area is upzoned, condo-ized, and gentrified, the protected rent will also increase. 

Furthermore, the protected units will be tied to BC Housing income limits so individuals that do not make over $36,000 and households that do not make over $51,500 a year are not eligible without subsidies. This means the protected rentals replacing the low-end of market rental stock in the neighbourhood will be unaffordable for the pensioner, service-industry working class and Indigenous people who have made a home in Metrotown traditionally, and an impossibility for people on income assistance. In the words of another Metrotown resident, “city hall is trying to make a city for the rich not for the poor.”

It is worthwhile to celebrate the efforts of community struggle that brought about the new tenant assistance policy, but it is dangerous to get carried away by the promises of Hurley and city hall. Mayor Hurley, the housing task force, and the tenant assistance policy are absolutely products of the grassroots struggle for non-market housing in Burnaby. They are also the techniques of government to maneuver around actually building the social housing we need.

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