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Four Years After Burnaby ‘Demovictions,’ Protected Tenants Return

And they’ll be paying their old rents for new homes. It’s a model for cities that want development without displacement.

Christopher Cheung 16 May 2024The Tyee

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on X @bychrischeung.

A group of tenants who were displaced from their Metrotown apartment building four years ago are returning to live in the new development that took its place — and they will be paying their old rents.

It’s a milestone in the saga of “demovictions” in the city of Burnaby.

For much of the 2010s, real estate developers were scooping up old rental buildings in Metrotown to build new towers, driving out tenants. Many low-income people depended on those units, with settlement agencies even placing new immigrants and refugees in them. The neighbourhood, where the city was channelling density, became a dramatic site of protest and transformation as wood-frame rental apartments came down and sleek condo towers were erected in their place.

In 2018, the election of a new council and a new mayor kicked off the introduction of tenant protections for this hot area.

Six years later, those efforts culminated in a novel announcement at 6521 Telford Ave., the first redeveloped site to welcome old tenants back to new homes.

At the old building, 54 rental units were destroyed. Forty-nine households were qualified under the lengths of their tenancies to return to homes in the new development. Of those households, 32 returned.

“We heard loud and clear from our community that nobody should be priced out of their neighbourhood,” Mayor Mike Hurley said, standing in front of the six-storey building of replacement rentals, the first of its kind.

“That’s why the City of Burnaby can produce the strongest... suite of rental protections in our country. No one can dispute that. That’s fact.”

A group of dignitaries stand in front of a new building holding up a sign that says 'Building more rental housing.' One of the men holds a pair of giant scissors.
Others will ‘claim’ they have the best tenant protections in Canada, but Burnaby’s is the best, says Mayor Mike Hurley. From left to right: Coun. James Wang, MP Terry Beech, Hurley, Luke Harrison of Catalyst, Evan Allegretto of Intracorp and Coun. Alison Gu. Photo for The Tyee by Christopher Cheung.

Skimming rentals from condos

Former Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart made the same bold claim about that city’s tenant protections along the Broadway corridor, but Vancouver’s haven’t yet been put to the test the same way Burnaby’s have.

The current version of Burnaby’s protections says that tenants who are displaced by redevelopment and have relocated to a new home must receive a lump sum payment or a top-up from the developer to cover the difference between their old and new homes. The developer must also cover the cost of moving.

Developers are also required to replace the same number of rental homes they destroy. Then, when the new development is complete, tenants have the right to return to a unit with the same number of bedrooms at virtually the same rent (plus the allowed annual increases under provincial controls).

In the case of 6521 Telford Ave., returning tenants will be moving into a separate building adjacent to the main condo tower. The units are smaller than their old ones, but they are brand new. At the time of demoviction, they were paying under $1,000 a month. Though the city and developer did not share what the tenants are paying now, the combination of municipal and provincial protections suggests the new rents won’t be too far off.

There is often resistance from landlords and developers when such tenant protections are put in place, with claims that the requirements would halt sales and render projects financially unfeasible.

But this isn’t a worry of Evan Allegretto — the B.C. regional president of Intracorp, which developed the Telford project — when it comes to Burnaby.

“I think if you look at the supply of housing and the homes under construction here, it’s pretty good evidence that the developers are feeling good about this policy and moving forward with projects,” Allegretto told The Tyee.

He expanded on this in response to a question from a Burnaby Now reporter.

Because Burnaby allows developers to build more market condos to pay for the non-market homes, the project is still feasible for the developer if the replacement units are in a wood-frame building. It’s a “pretty fair” policy, he said.

If a project costs $300 million and the city is asking for $1 million for the tenant assistance program, Allegretto said, “that’s a third of a per cent... it’s really a small number.”

In the case of Telford on the Walk, Intracorp built 66 replacement rental units in a six-storey mid-rise beside its 332-unit, 31-storey condo tower.

To pay for it, the city granted $460,000, the developer contributed $5.4 million and the federal government offered a total of $14.9 million in loans, including $2.4 million from a fund for new construction.

The new rental building was purchased and will be operated by Catalyst, a non-profit developer.

Men in suits tour a new apartment unit. There is a view of landscaping outside the window.
Mayor Mike Hurley and MP Terry Beech tour one of the replacement rentals, a one-bedroom apartment of approximately 525 square feet. Photo for The Tyee by Christopher Cheung.

‘Still crap’?

To spare them the media spotlight, Catalyst did not invite any of the incoming tenants to the building’s ribbon-cutting ceremony.

However, Murray Martin, a longtime tenant advocate from the demovictions era, did show up to the event. Co-chair of Burnaby Acorn, an advocacy group that fights for issues of social and economic justice, Martin was a member of the mayor’s task force that drafted some of the protections, but he believes the city’s current policy is not without problems.

“It’s the best tenant assistance policy in North America,” said Martin, “but it’s still crap.”

Two years ago, the majority of tenants surveyed by the city said that they preferred receiving rent top-ups rather than a lump sum payment from a developer. However, last year, more tenants were receiving lump sums than top-ups.

Mayor Hurley did not see an issue with this.

“I don’t think it’s a problem we’re trying to reverse,” Hurley told The Tyee. “In a perfect world, all tenants would be the same and have the same needs. [But] many tenants came forward and said they were moving out of province, they were going to school and they would prefer a lump sum.”

According to Martin, tenants he’s spoken with are choosing the lump sum because they didn’t believe the city would be able to ensure developers would pay the top-ups.

Last year, a complicated situation regarding another project on Telford Avenue unfolded when the city said it was told that the developer, Kirpal, could no longer pay the top-ups. As a result, the city cashed the developer’s $570,000 bond to compensate the demovicted tenants. Kirpal has disputed the city’s account and says this method of streamlining payments was intentional and agreed upon.

“Even before Kirpal, people were worried about developers not fulfilling their obligations to top up your rent. You’re screwed because you’re already in your place” at a higher rent, said Martin.

Martin is curious about the 17 households who did not return to 6521 Telford Ave. Allegretto of Intracorp told The Tyee that at least two of those households went on to purchase their own homes in the neighbourhood.

Even with the tenant assistance policies in place, Martin adds that the issue of overall affordability still looms.

He is an advocate of rent control between tenancies. Without this, he believes that the market activity — of developers buying up old rental buildings, of an increasing supply of new condos and market rentals — will only make housing more expensive. And Burnaby already has the second-highest rents in the country, according to to Rentals.ca.*

Building in Burnaby

While Burnaby has condos aplenty, it is playing catch-up with long-standing housing needs, considering that it lost a net number of 689 market rental homes between 2017 and 2022, the most of any municipality in Metro Vancouver, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. Burnaby aims to build 3,050 new market rentals by 2025.

A graph shows the percentage change of market rentals from 2017 to 2022. Burnaby is at the far left, with negative growth. Richmond also has negative growth. At the far right, Vancouver has gained over 4,000 market rentals.
Burnaby lost the most market rentals from 2017 to 2022, compared with other Metro Vancouver municipalities. Graph via Metro Vancouver Housing Data Book 2023, based on CMHC data.
A digger beside an old walk-up apartment building with a chunk taken out of it, wood spilling onto the dirt.
Back in the demoviction era, developers in Burnaby didn’t need to replace the rental units they destroyed. Photo for The Tyee by Christopher Cheung.

That being said, Burnaby has become known for its housing innovation in recent years, from the creation of a new housing authority to offering up public land for non-profit developers like Catalyst to build on.

Catalyst president Luke Harrison said Burnaby was now “the leader in affordable housing in Metro Vancouver” and the “best municipality to build in.”

Burnaby’s efforts have resulted in 1,040 non-market homes in the works, a mix of rentals and co-ops.

For now, the demoviction saga is still unfolding, with 29 other developments with tenant assistance projects underway, according to the city’s website.

* Story updated on May 17 at 9:45 a.m. to clarify a source's opinions about Burnaby's tenant assistance policy.  [Tyee]

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