British Columbia·Analysis

Rents on fire: Vancouver follows San Francisco's lead to curb rental crisis

San Francisco has some of the highest rents in North America, but Vancouver is hoping the City by the Bay will have some advice on how it can deal with a rental market on fire.

An estimated 24,500 households in Vancouver are in need of more affordable housing

Vancouver is looking to San Francisco as a model for how to increase the number of rental units in a city. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

San Francisco has some of the highest rents in North America, but Vancouver is hoping the City by the Bay will have some advice on how it can deal with a rental market on fire.

A tech-sector boom and droves of young renters have made San Francisco one of the most expensive rental markets in North America.

When an affordable apartment is offered up in a city-run lottery sometimes thousands of would-be tenants put their name in a draw.

The market is so stretched, Google bought 300 modular homes for its employees.

Evictions and rent hikes are rampant — up to 400 per cent in the case of one man whose $8,000 apartment story spread like wildfire over the internet last year.

Vancouver isn't that bad — but it's getting there, city planners warn.

Hundreds lined up for the opportunity to get a two-bedroom suite in a co-op in Vancouver's Fairview neighbourhood. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

This spring, 300 would-be applicants lined up for the opportunity to rent a $1,200 two-bedroom co-op suite in Fairview, a sought-after neighbourhood.

Waiting lists for such gems can be three years long.

Vancouver is looking to San Francisco as a model for how to increase the number of rental units in a city.

"San Francisco — the tidal wave has crashed over them. They are just struggling right now. A lot of my work there was how do we get hold of this thing?" said Gil Kelley, who ran that city's planning department for 2½ years before recently taking on the same role in B.C.'s biggest city.

"In Vancouver, although prices have spiked, my hope is that we get out in front of that wave."

Vancouver builders have been focused on condos only for too long, say city planners. (Yvette Brend/CBC)

Kelley estimates that, right now, 24,500 households in Vancouver are in need of more affordable housing.

Vancouver has begun an aggressive push to build rental housing over condos, with a goal of 48,000 to start.

In the spirit of that goal, a new pilot project along the Cambie Street corridor will mirror a 15-year practice in San Francisco that requires a certain percentage of new builds over 25 units to be "affordable."

In Vancouver, Kelley hopes the pilot project creates 1,000 units, aimed at tenants who earn between $30,000 and $80,000, by enticing developers with the promise of much-desired density.

Developers can build higher if 20 to 25 per cent of their units are long-term affordable options the city then helps fill.

If San Francisco is a harbinger of what's ahead for Vancouver, expect bidding wars for apartments and mass evictions as rents increase, say city planners. (Alexandre Caron/Shutterstock )

Affordable is defined as rentable at a rate that doesn't top 30 per cent of the target renter's income.

Rent would range from $850 to $1,000 for a studio apartment and up to $2,100 for a two-bedroom suite, city officials say. Details will be worked out over the summer.

If the idea pans out — it could be rolled out citywide.

It's not a new idea.

San Francisco and New York have done it for years, with enough success that Portland, Ore., just started a similar plan.

In San Francisco, new rental builds of a certain size — as part of the Inclusionary Housing Program — must have 18 per cent affordable rentals.

That's created 4,000 rental units since 2002. These apartments run around $1,154 to $1,800 to rent for a one-bedroom — in a specific targeted income range.

Demand is high, which is why a lottery system is used to choose tenants.

San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in North America to rent. Explosive growth in the tech sector has driven rents and commute times to obscene levels. (Gabriele Maltinti/Shutterstock)

This spring, San Francisco ramped it up even further with a controversial new push.

The Home-SF program targets specific zones and allows even more density — higher towers — for developers but demands 30 per cent of units be affordable housing.

The goal is 5,000 new units in the next 20 years.

But San Francisco municipal officials say they need tens of thousands more.

Peter Cohen, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations in San Francisco, applauds Vancouver's pilot project but warns it will have growing pains, pushback and it won't solve the rental crisis.

"It's kind of one of those Sisyphean efforts to continue to push that rock up the hill. But if you don't, it will end up smashing you," said Cohen.

He says it helps to free housing from the speculation market — that drives costs up even further — but says don't expect instant results

"It is kind of a long game," he said.

Some worry Vancouver is already behind.

Officials expect immediate waiting lists for any new units created by the Cambie pilot project.

The city of Vancouver is trying to encourage developers to build rental housing. The goal is to create 48,000 more rental units in the city. (Yvette Brend/CBC)


Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist.


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