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November 27, 2023

Preserving affordable housing in transit corridors

Canada hardly has any rapid transit, as we have very few large cities. Densification, developing transit corridors and nodes is relatively new in our context (Toronto and Montreal notwithstanding), so it’s not surprising that details like making sure we don’t displace low-income people in these areas hasn’t been a priority. I’ve written on this topic in the last chapter of my book Transit-Oriented Development: Learning from International Case Studies, two recent articles and a report for Infrastructure Canada. Lina Olsson and I studied the impacts of new transit infrastructure on Malmö, Sweden to Kitchener, Canada. But now for a current example from BC.

In the past week BC has given us another illustration of the conflict between affordable housing and transit. The province recently announced plans to speed up construction of new housing near transit hubs. While this sounds great (and is being initiated in other provinces like Ontario and Nova Scotia), removing or streamlining planning processes risks real impacts to the people living in the existing buildings. Over one-third of Vancouver renters live 800m from a rapid transit station or 400m from a bus exchange, and 21% of them are in core housing need, according to SFU researcher Andy Yan. Yan’s study is mentioned in Claire Wilson’s article, “One third of Metro Vancouver renters could be impacted by the province’s transit oriented plan” (Business Intelligence for Vancouver). 43% of purpose-built rental buildings are in these TOD areas, and many buildings are aging and vulnerable to acquisition and demolition for higher-value condos.

Andy Yan argues that we need to re-examine the concept of “highest and best use” as being uses that earn more property tax revenue or higher rents. Simply using a building’s assessed value doesn’t capture the value of keeping workers nearby jobs–a lesson Vancouver has learned as it has slowly increased the percentage of people walking, cycling, and taking transit to work by building housing in areas formerly designated for commercial. “Highest and best use” also doesn’t capture the value of community capacity and connections, or resources like libraries and community centres, which contribute to health and well-being and would be lost if households were displaced.

BC’s Rental Protection Fund, recently expanded by a $500M contribution from the province, is meant to protect these types of units by helping non-profits and co-ops to buy them. This way the tenants can remain and the buildings can remain rental, and maintain their affordability. CEO Katie Maslechko has her hands full trying to arrange applications from 70 non-profits and 25 occupied properties, who need to demonstrate they can take on buildings and keep them affordable for at least 20 years without government subsidies.

The Broadway corridor alone is home to about one-quarter of Vancouver’s rental stock, mostly older and affordable units on lots that have now been upzoned, which could lead to their demolition (“BC begins to protect rental stock“, Kerry Gold, Globe and Mail). Vancouver lost 100,000 units with rents below $1,500 from 2016-2021. Steve Pomeroy, who has written a comprehensive report on the loss of affordable units in Canada, notes that while the Rental Protection Fund is a good step, vacancy control would be better because it limits what landlords can charge. The fund would allow acquisition of 5,000-7,000 units, which does little to stem the loss of tens of thousands affordable units.

So, should we densify TOD areas? CMHC noted earlier in the year that we have a shortage of 5.8 million new units if we want to restore affordability levels to those seen in 2004, and by any estimation we will fall well short of reaching that goal by 2030. FCM estimates that we would also need $600 B in infrastructure to support all these new homes (roads, bridges, sewers and stormwater facilities, transit, culture and recreational assets). If we can build more densely near transit and other existing infrastructure using eTOD strategies, we should be doing it.

But Canadian municipalities should be taking steps to ensure that we’re densifying in a way that doesn’t severely disadvantage vulnerable groups. We should be building affordable units in TOD areas, otherwise we’ll displace transit riders with car drivers–which is of little use to Canada’s ailing transit agencies, still recovering from COVID’s devastating effect on transit ridership. Displacement won’t achieve the main goals of TOD either: making transit, walking, and cycling more viable for wealthy owners cannot come at the expense of low-income renters who are already making those choices. We are literally pricing out the very demographics that use transit in TODs.

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