A pair of proposals for neighbouring seven-storey apartment developments sailed through rezoning approval Thursday night at Vancouver city hall, with almost none of the friction generally associated with just about any building taller than three storeys that comes to council for approval.
And immediately after those first two rezoning applications — the very first to come before council under a rental housing pilot program -— seemed to cruise through to approval, the night’s third and final pilot proposal seemed set for a much rockier road.
That assessment is not meant to belittle the effort and time it took the developer behind the first two projects to get to this stage. The proponents, the local family-run rental building firm the Molnar Group, had been working to advance the project for almost three years before Thursday’s approval, and the start of construction is still expected to be almost a year away.
But in many ways, the two Renfrew Street buildings line up squarely with what city hall, and many people concerned about Vancouver’s rental housing crisis, want to see: a pair of adjacent apartment buildings replacing older detached houses in a relatively low-density area near rapid transit, bike routes, schools, parks and jobs. If council had rejected these two building proposals at a time of severe rental housing shortage, developers might find it hard to imagine what could be approved.
Every piece of correspondence the city received was in support of the Renfrew projects, as was every speaker who came to address council Thursday. Not a single homeowner or representative of neighbourhood association came out to speak in opposition.
And the two city councillors who have most consistently voted against rezoning applications so far this term — NPA Coun. Colleen Hardwick and COPE Coun. Jean Swanson both supported the projects, with Hardwick saying they “tick all the boxes.”
The third project to come before council Thursday evening was a different story.
The three proposals Thursday were the first under the Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program, or MIRHPP, which effectively offers a trade-off to developers, allowing them to propose bigger rental buildings in exchange for permanently securing 20 per cent of the floor space for units affordable for moderate-income households earning between $30,000 to $80,000 a year.
The rules require the mayor and every councillor to enter a public hearing with an open mind. Before each one makes a decision and casts her or his vote, they must listen to the city staff, the proponents, and any members of the public who arrive to speak for or against a project.
But Mayor Kennedy Stewart has made no secret of his support for the aims of MIRHPP overall. Stewart has MIRHPP, which was approved by the previous council in late 2017, as council’s best bet for producing what he calls “workforce housing.”
“Each project will be evaluated on its merits,” Stewart told the Sun in October. “But as a policy, it has to succeed.”
The two Renfrew projects will provide 178 rental homes between them, 74 of which will be two- and three-bedroom homes suitable for families. They will also provide 37 homes that will be permanently secured at rents affordable for lower-income households, with rents starting at $950 a month for a studio apartment in a new building. A two-bedroom would be $1,600 a month, the city report says, which means a transit driver and administrative assistant, with a household income of $64,00 a year, could afford to raise a kid or two there.
The third project on Thursday’s agenda, a 63-unit project proposed for 1805 Larch St. in Kitsilano, has already faced significant community backlash. When council finished for the night at 11 p.m. Thursday, they had heard from about 17 members of the public out of the 65 on the list signed up to speak. Most identified themselves as having owned homes in the area for decades, who opposed the project. Of the first group of speakers, only one, who was noticeably younger than the other speakers and identified herself as a Kits renter, spoke in support.
David Hovan, a homeowner in the neighbourhood for four decades, opened his remarks to council by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
The proposed five-storey rental building, directly across the street from Hovan’s four-storey condo building, has caused him “sleepless nights,” he said, “worrying about how this massive development… is going to infringe on my privacy and property rights.”
The neighbourhood, he said, has been “thrown into enormous upheaval.”
Following Hovan’s remarks, NPA Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung asked him if he thought there might have been neighbourhood opposition to his four-storey condo building when it was built 22 years ago, on a property that was previously United Church until the church sold to developers.
“When we bought that place,” Hovan replied, “the real estate people said: ‘There is no way they could rezone west of Larch… I guarantee it.’”
“Now, I can’t go back and sue the real estate agent. It’s too late,” Hovan said. “But no, nobody was upset that my building was built.”
The first two projects Thursday were noteworthy as the first of their kind through the pilot project. But their approval, without any opposition, might not be the best indicator of what will come with the hundreds of other MIRHPP homes in the pipeline for next year and beyond.
But when the public hearing for the Kitsilano proposal resumes next Tuesday evening to hear from dozens of remaining speakers, many people will be watching to see which way one of these pilot rental projects goes when faced with sleepless angry homeowners — on the west side of Larch, no less, where Hovan’s realtor once told him it could never happen.