Designed to Displace: Burnaby’s 2015 Growth and Housing Policy Report Deflects, Denies, and Distorts City Council’s Responsibility for Demo-viction
November 12, 2015
Draft Op Ed by the Stop Demovictions Burnaby Campaign
When two apartment buildings near the Metrotown Skytrain Station first faced demolition by rezoning hearing in June more than sixty people showed up at Burnaby Council chambers to show their opposition. Every single speaker at this public hearing opposed the rezoning application, which pushed council to order a staff report on Burnaby’s housing policy and the feasibility of the group’s main demand: for Burnaby to declare a moratorium on demolitions of rental apartment buildings. Now, five months later and without a single recorded instance of consultation with communities that will be affected by this policy, council has unanimously adopted the director of planning’s report on “growth and housing policy” that will speed the mass ‘demo-viction’ and displacement of working, migrant, refugee, and all lower-income residents out of the affordable low-rise apartments in the Metrotown area and beyond.
Burnaby city planning staff was supposed to answer the critique and demands that came from the community at the Silver Avenue public hearing. Instead, Burnaby Council’s Growth and Housing Policy report deflects, denies, and distorts their responsibility for managing real estate development and stopping its mass displacement of renters most vulnerable to homelessness.
Rather than admit to their power (and therefore unwillingness) to stop the mass demolition of rental apartments, Council’s report deflects discussion to a red herring of their limited power “within existing zoning.” And they’re right: cities don’t have much power to limit property development or use within existing zoning. That’s because when someone buys land they are not buying only a plot of earth. They are buying a bundle of social relations that are determined by laws, which are enforced by the government. City Hall guarantees property owners’ rights to use, improve, and trade land according to its existing zoning. But not a single one of the demo-victions that will push hundreds of tenants out of their homes is occurring within existing zoning: they all have to do with rezoning applications, which are a different story.
Rezonings are applications for amendments to existing zoning laws, adjustments to the bundle of rights accessed by a land owner which will benefit that land owner in the form of profits. Cities have practically unlimited power to set conditions on rezonings. Vancouver City Council, for example, recently adopted land use regulations in one part of the Downtown Eastside that state the city will not consider rezoning applications for unless the new floors awarded through rezoning are 60% social housing and 40% rental. Burnaby could state that they will not consider a rezoning application on any land that includes existing purpose built rental housing unless every unit of rental housing was replaced with social housing onsite, etc. Rezonings that grant bonus heights and density are massive gifts/subsidies from the municipality to development corporations. Burnaby Council doesn’t need power to control property development within existing zoning, they only need to stop giving away the sky above Metrotown.
In response to criticism about rental housing losses, Burnaby Councilors have been adamant that senior governments are responsible for housing low-income people. And it is true that when federal and provincial governments pulled out of social housing programs they decimated and effectively ended social housing programs across Canada. But we’re not talking about social housing!
Burnaby City Council’s consistent approval of rezoning applications from real estate development corporations has created a hot investment and speculation climate. Developers have come to see relatively affordable rental apartments as three-story investment properties that are awaiting only their investment and application to unlock their potential power as 40-story condo towers. After council has demonstrated time and again that they will award massive density and heights bonuses at a very low cost to developers, apartment buildings are being purchased at sometimes twice their assessed value: the market is recognizing the actual potential use of the site even when it is hidden in the law. Yes, senior governments are responsible for building social housing but Burnaby City Council is orchestrating an investment climate that is destroying low-income affordable housing.