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Housing advocates urge West Van to adopt rental-only apartment zone

The 30 Ambleside rental buildings targeted for rental-only zoning are home to one-tenth of district’s households

Housing advocates and renters who live in some of Ambleside’s most affordable older apartment towers urged members of West Vancouver council this week to adopt a rental-only zone that would restrict 30 of those apartments from being redeveloped as strata buildings.

Council heard from the public Monday on a proposed zoning bylaw that would see 30 rental apartment buildings identified in West Van’s draft Ambleside local area plan earmarked as rental properties in perpetuity. Most of the rental apartment buildings in Ambleside were purpose built as rentals in the 1960s and 1970s.

Under current zoning, many of those older rental apartment buildings could currently be replaced with a strata building without any need for council approval, leaving many of the area’s tenants vulnerable to ‘renovictions,’ senior planner David Hawkins told council.

The rental buildings are home to about 1,600 households – or about one in ten of the households in West Vancouver, Hawkins said.

Rents in the buildings – at almost $2,000 for a one-bedroom apartment and almost $3,000 for a two-bedroom unit – are about $1,000 cheaper than similar rentals in West Vancouver, Hawkins added.

“The value of strata is obviously significantly higher than that of rental housing,” said Hawkins. “There is a risk and we have seen it … that rental buildings are torn down and they are replaced with strata.”

Don Peters, chair of the Community Housing Action Committee, urged council to make the change to protect rental housing, calling lack of affordable rental housing a “slow rolling rental disaster” across the North Shore. Many of those living in the rental towers are seniors, said Peters, adding if the housing is lost to strata development, it will be very difficult to get back.

Housing consultant Pat Frewer told council protecting rental housing as a default makes sense if West Van wants to keep people like teachers employed locally. “We can’t become a retirement resort,” he said. Bringing in a rental-only zone also sends a message to the province “we’re taking the bull by the horns to protect housing,” he said.

Andy Krawczyk said rezoning to rental only doesn’t mean owners can’t apply to build something else on the site. But it makes a statement to current tenants that their housing is safe for the foreseeable future, he said.

“My first 10 years of teaching, I lived in that apartment area and was very thankful for it,” he said.

Not everyone was in favour of the rental-only zoning.

Michael Armstrong, whose company owns a 12-storey tower on the waterfront on Argyle Avenue, said the 50-year-old building “is starting to cost a great deal of money to maintain.” The company has started to look at redevelopment, he said, but the project won’t be economically viable unless strata can be included.

Martin Bruckner, an architect who is doing a feasibility study on redevelopment of the 49-unit building, said much higher density than is currently allowed would be needed to make any project work.

Couns. Linda Watt and Christine Cassidy also voiced concerns that rental-only projects wouldn’t make economic sense. Cassidy also asked if there would be a way to give tax breaks as an incentive for owners to keep rental housing.

Others urged council to consider the needs of the wider community.

Dana Mulhern, a member of the Positive Voices advocacy group, said West Vancouver is “an absolute paradise” but “it is dying from old age, greed and fear of change … too often only profit counts,” she said.

Marianne Pengelly, who lives in one of the apartment buildings, said, “It’s very hard to think that maybe your housing is not secure when you are old.”

The apartments provide homes for “seniors like me who’ve downsized in the community, but may not be able to own a place,” she said.

Housing advocate and Positive Voices member Jatinder Sidhu said many of the residents in the old apartment buildings are people in their 80s and 90s. “It is an extraordinarily inhumane thing to do, to say, ‘You know what, we don’t care about the security of your tenure. We don’t care whether you live in this community,’” he said.

"To me, the heart and soul of a community is how much we care about our neighbours … the people who may be less fortunate than ourselves.

Since 2018, the province has given municipalities the power to designate zoning on certain properties as rental only.

Rental-only zoning has been brought in in other communities, including New Westminster, Richmond and Squamish, according to staff.

If passed, the rental-only zoning would apply to about 30 of West Vancouver’s 80 apartment buildings.

The bylaw is set to come back before council for a vote Nov. 27.

West Vancouver has a large proportion of single-detached homes, but there are also a number of older apartment buildings in the Ambleside area | Nick Laba / North Shore News