This piece by Nathalie Baker in the Province describes the work of  Vancouver’s Affordable Housing Agency (VAHA) to enable the “development of new affordable rental housing. This agency was a Council creation designed to  leverage “city and partner-owned land to create new housing projects that offer both, a greater diversity of home options and greater affordability, than what is currently offered by the private market.”

Originally “affordability” was targeted to households with incomes from social assistance to incomes of $86,500. Affordability was to be based on a maximum allocation to housing cost of 30 per cent of household income.  If your income was $86,500, your rent should be around $2,162.50 a month.

Ms Baker notes that under the city’s “Rental 100 Program” the city waives Development Cost Levies that are usually collected for items like parks, infrastructure and child care if the developer builds “affordable housing”in their development. The City of Vancouver defines “affordable rental” on the west side of Vancouver as being a studio for $1,496; a one bedroom for $1,922; a two bedroom for $2,539; and a three bedroom unit for $3,333. Seriously.

There’s another interesting wrinkle too in this policy. You’d think there would be a minimum unit size for these “affordable” units being developed in exchange for not having to pay a Development Cost Levy. But it’s actually the opposite-for some odd reason the city’s bylaw places a MAXIMUM size of 450 square feet for a studio, 600 square feet for a one bedroom, 830 square feet for a two bedroom. In terms of minimum, it can be reduced to 320 square feet in the case of the studio. Regardless of the size of the unit, developers can still charge the “affordable rent” rates as established by the City.

It is clear that under the Rental 100 program households need to be making over $86,500 to rent a three bedroom unit at $3,333 a month. Indeed you would need about $130,000 a year to make that work.  “A household would require a combined income of over $100,000 to make the two-bedroom units “affordable” if rented at $2,539 a month.”  The City of Vancouver’s own housing characteristic fact sheet notes that the median before tax income for two person families is $80,050 a month. One parent family income median is $41,500. So who is able to afford these “affordable housing” units?

Ms. Baker cites the 46 “social housing units”  being built at 585 West 41st Avenue as part of that development. The developer was given a grant by the City of $620,000 towards the construction and did not have to pay the estimated $454,000 Development Cost Levy fee. But the challenge is that only 15 of the 46 units will be rented  “at or below rents affordable to B.C. Housing Income Limits ($49,500 a year for a two bedroom) and that the remaining 31 units will be rented “at starting rents that are at or below the maximum rents described in the DCL bylaw for for-profit affordable rental housing” .  What this means is that “Vancouver “for-profit affordable rental housing” and “social housing” are now one and the same.”

While the City is offering several sites for sale for developers who build affordable housing, they’ve placed a relatively low value of $72 million dollars on eight sites, or  $9 million dollars a site, a troubling low figure when you consider two of the sites are downtown.

Ms. Baker concludes: “The public should be demanding more transparency of council and the VAHA regarding these deals before they go any further. How is the city going to ensure these rental buildings actually produce affordable rental housing? If the city is going to enter into low-cost land leases with developers that won’t expire until 2117 or later, the people who live and work in Vancouver and subsidize these developments deserve to get value in the form of truly affordable rental housing, not social-housing units renting at $3,000 a month. Unchecked, deals like this will only add further momentum to the current housing crisis.” 

And who are these “affordable” units being built for anyway?