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Thousands of aging rental apartments at risk: Study

Older three-storey apartment buildings, like this one near the Patterson SkyTrain station in Burnaby, will be under increasing pressure to redevelop, a study predicts. - Google Streetview
Older three-storey apartment buildings, like this one near the Patterson SkyTrain station in Burnaby, will be under increasing pressure to redevelop, a study predicts.
— image credit: Google Streetview

Thousands of rental apartments in aging suburban buildings across Metro Vancouver are in growing danger of being torn down, a new study warns.

More than 6,300 units built before 1980 – or 13 per cent of the total dating back to the 1970s or earlier – are already at moderate to high risk of loss to redevelopment, according to the report prepared for Metro Vancouver.

And the proportion of at-risk rental apartment stock in the region outside Vancouver proper could climb to 30 per cent within a decade, it says.

Most cities have some limits on the conversion of rentals to condos, but the report notes few track rental housing or have policies in place to retain or replace the stock.

The cities with the most to lose may be White Rock, where more than 1,000 rental units or 82 per cent of the total pre-1980 rental stock are estimated to be at risk, and North Vancouver District, where 840 units or 70 per cent of the older stock are rated at risk.

Other cities with large numbers of aging, at risk apartments include:

  • North Vancouver City, with 1,553 units rated at risk or 23 per cent of the pre-1980 stock.
  • Richmond, with 1,078 at risk units, or 48 per cent
  • Surrey, with 451 units at risk, or eight per cent.
  • Burnaby, with 379 units or three per cent at risk.
  • West Vancouver, with 309 units or 17 per cent at risk.

Richard Walton, Mayor of North Vancouver District, said the statistics don't show the full rental picture, because rented strata units and basement suites weren't included.

But he agreed the outlook is troubling for older apartment buildings, many of which  are run down.

The analysis rated units at risk if the value of the land for redevelopment exceeds the current value based on the stream of rental income.

Walted noted the land value is typically rising faster than the rent, while the maintenance costs are also climbing and many buildings face big bills in the years ahead.

"The rents they're getting are well below the return on the value of the land alone," Walton said. "The economics are just very challenging."

Old rental buildings – three- and four-storey wood frame walkups – tend to be more affordable but they're also often in areas that cities want to densify because of proximity to transit routes.

Walton said cities may let developers build higher and denser on such sites as part of negotiated deals to retain rental market housing.

But he said there's no escaping the fact the new units will rent for significantly more money than before, increasing the squeeze on affordability.

He and other Metro reps say the results underscore their push for reforms at the provincial and federal levels to foster more construction and replacement of purpose-built rental apartments.

Preferred tax treatment for rental housing would help, they say, or perhaps a tax credit for owners who sell rental buildings to a non-profit operator.

"We need a national housing policy," Walton said.

But he noted policies on affordable housing that work in the rest of Canada don't fit  in Metro Vancouver, because of the high land prices here.

About a third of Metro Vancouver's 325,000 renter households live in low-rise wood frame buildings that are 40 to 50 years old, and the report warned they will come under increasing pressure.

The study did not include the City of Vancouver, which accounts for about half the rental apartment supply in the region and was the focus of a separate study in 2009.

Metro has been spearheading a Rental Housing Supply Coalition with various partners to press for reform.

"I think we're going to need concerted action at senior government levels or we're going to have a huge problem on our hands," said Vancouver Coun. Geoff Meggs, vice-chair of Metro's housing committee.

He said cities have some tools to improve the equation for rental building owners to upgrade and retain rental housing.

But he said cities can't do it alone.

"Land prices are the fundamental issue," he said.

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