Housing and transit are always hot topics in the Lower Mainland. Craig E. Jones, a PhD student in UBC’s department of geography, delved into these issues for his master’s thesis. His recently published report, “Transit-Oriented Development and Gentrification in Metro Vancouver’s Low-Income SkyTrain Corridor,” is now available.
In this Q&A, Jones discusses the impact on two Burnaby neighbourhoods undergoing dramatic changes, and draws parallels with other Lower Mainland communities grappling with similar situations.
Why does your research focus on the Burnaby neighbourhoods of Maywood and Richmond Park?
I’m interested in the intersection of housing and immigration – in particular, I was looking at areas well served by rapid transit. I wanted to look at neighbourhoods that had high rates of recent immigration that were also low-income areas.
Two areas in Burnaby really stuck out: Maywood in Metrotown for absolute rates of recent immigration, and Richmond Park in Edmonds for rates of recent refugee arrivals.
What’s the key issue at stake?
The key issue is access to rapid transit for low-income people in this region. Planning decisions made a long time ago, and tax incentives that no longer exist, led to the creation of dense concentrations of purpose-built rental housing (PBRH) in these two neighbourhoods. It just so happened that the rapid transit Expo Line was routed through these neighbourhoods, as there was already a pre-existing rail corridor.
With the failure of the recent transit plebiscite, it’s uncertain how transit infrastructure is going to be expanded in the next little while. There’s been a general acceptance of transit-oriented development in this region – the public realizes that the population of the region is going to grow, and we have to increase density in order to accommodate that.
But there are a lot of low-income people living in these neighbourhoods who really value its accessibility. So high-density redevelopment at the cost of rental housing, which replaces it with privately owned condos, has the consequence of denying access to those who arguably need it most. Unfortunately, the current tenants of the purpose-built rental housing, some of which is being demolished, often cannot afford to rent in the new condo towers.
What’s the status of the low-rise, purpose built rental housing in these neighbourhoods?
It depends on whom you talk to. For some, these buildings are at the end of their lifecycle, and aren’t really appropriate any longer for habitation. They’re too old, they were never built to last this long, they haven’t been maintained. And so they are a liability.
But if you talk to some people living in the units, they think the housing is fine. Some of them are very concerned about losing their homes. There have been a number of stories about how many of these rental buildings have been bought in the last two years. There’s also been a sharp increase in the number of demolitions of apartments – particularly in Maywood.
We’re seeing a rapid change in this neighbourhood and the loss of a lot of affordable apartment units. This has been made possible through policies that seek to encourage high-density redevelopment near rapid transit. In Burnaby, it’s called “S zoning” – it drastically increases the maximum density that’s possible in Burnaby’s four town centres: Brentwood, Metrotown, Lougheed and Edmonds.
What do you think the ultimate fate of these units will be?
That’s still very much being decided. The organizations Burnaby ACORN and the Social Housing Alliance have begun to organize in the neighbourhood to protest the demolition of these purpose built rental apartments. At a June 23 meeting, council decided to take two actions regarding this issue – one is to look at the legality of imposing a moratorium on demolitions in Maywood. The second is to look at the cost of a one-for-one replacement policy – for every rental unit that is demolished, the developer must replace that with a rental unit.
Almost all of the PBRH in Burnaby is within the areas that S zoning affects. So it is not unthinkable that ultimately, this could lead to the demolition of almost all of this housing – particularly in Maywood and Richmond Park. But there’s a lot that can still happen.
Is this story repeating itself elsewhere?
There are similar issues all over the Lower Mainland. In Vancouver, the Cambie corridor is seeing a lot of demolitions to make room for high-density development, following the opening of the Canada Line in 2009. Adriane Carr, the Green Party of Vancouver councillor, was just talking about the number of empty houses that are in that neighbourhood, and how it’s a concern for residents.
At Broadway and Commercial, there was a vision document for the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan, which suggested an increase of density in that neighbourhood. It was met with a lot of community resistance and is now being reworked with the community by the City of Vancouver.
In Coquitlam, with the Evergreen Line that’s being introduced, there are concentrations of PBRH that are next to rapid transit. In cases like this, housing often ends up being demolished. Coquitlam has a one-for-one replacement policy – but typically the units that are replaced do not rent at the same rates as before.
What lessons can be learned?
I encourage policy makers to really think through transit-oriented development in particular areas. There’s a social cost associated with facilitating high-density redevelopment at the cost of rental housing that already exists.
We really need to think about which neighbourhoods are affected by rapid transit. How do we balance increasing density with the needs of those who struggle near the bottom of the housing market, but still need access to rapid transit – more so than others.
VIDEO: Transit, density and the impact on affordable rentals