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2924 Venables St., a social-housing building that has been approved for redevelopment, is pictured in Vancouver on Dec. 21, 2021.Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

When the people at Brightside Community Homes began the planning to replace one of their 64-unit apartment buildings on Vancouver’s east side in early 2019, they knew it could take several years and lots of money.

It had to go through a rezoning, which meant at least a two-year process, with public open houses and a formal hearing and council vote for the two new six-storey buildings that were designed to house 145 households, 70 per cent of which would get homes at below-normal market rates. The planning team at Brightside, a large non-profit housing organization, was nervous because a rental project nearby had recently generated massive opposition and been turned down.

So Brightside spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and a lot of effort to mobilize their tenants and others who might be tenants, along with other advocates and supporters, to make sure that council heard positives and not just negatives – like the one from one homeowner nearby. She had said the proposed 145-unit building was not suitable for the site because of the lack of adequate parking as well as lack of accessibility to grocery stores and public transit.

In the end, the project was approved unanimously.

Now, because of a new rental policy that Vancouver council approved almost unanimously last week (only Councillor Colleen Hardwick was opposed), projects like this one won’t have to go through a rezoning. Instead, there will be a more simplified process, vetted by city staff.

That will be a benefit for non-profit groups that have been desperately trying to get more affordable apartments built the last several years, as provincial and federal governments have turned on the housing-money taps.

“If even a few non-profits are helped, it’s an improvement,” said Brightside CEO William Azaroff. He said there’s much more that needs to be done in Vancouver beyond this latest change – something comprehensive that covers the whole city, not just a patchwork of zones. But, in the meantime, this is something.

The recent policy is also meant to spur new purpose-built rentals. On main streets where they’ve been allowed before, it will mean six storeys instead of just four are allowed without a rezoning. On side streets, the non-arterial roads, where anything beyond duplexes has not been allowed before, it means new permission to all up to five storeys, although still with a neighbourhood vetting process and some additional requirements for below-market units and design elements.

The new rental policy, which has been in the works for two years, faced some stiff opposition, particularly from residents in Kitsilano and West Point Grey.

Opponents were concerned about shadows, parking, the possibility of heritage houses being demolished, the possible redevelopment of entire blocks into apartment buildings and much more. Staff had already removed some areas of the city as possible places for the new policy because of that kind of opposition in previous rounds.

For builders and housing advocates, the concern with the policy is that it is very modest. A staff report indicated that it would likely allow for the development of only about 4,700 additional homes in the next 10 years. As well, housing supporters were concerned that there were still so many conditions in the new policy that it would be hard to come up with economically viable projects.

Jon Stovell, whose company Reliance Properties Ltd. is a major developer, said he didn’t see how anyone could find a way to build the rentals now permitted on the side streets.

“I wouldn’t go anywhere near it. I think it’s a failed part of the policy,” he said, noting that any builder will need to still go through a rezoning, will have to set aside 20 per cent of the space for below-market prices, and have to work around a more complex set of design rules than the buildings on the main streets.

Another architect, though, said he believes the policy could still end up creating new rentals on side streets because it standardizes what is required and makes it easier for builders to create simple designs through new technology, which will reduce the cost.

“When you have a framework that’s consistent, you can take a systems approach and industrialize the process. The problem in this industry has been that everything now is a one-off,” said Oliver Lang.

Mr. Stovell did, however, think the new rental policy will encourage some new rental construction – “not a landslide” – in the main street commercial zones, though it would still be a close call for many on whether strata condos would be a better choice.

One aspect of the new rental policy he also thought gave cause for hope was that it passed at all, even though it was modest.

Many political observers had wondered whether it might fail, given the mix of housing votes that have come from the Green Party, COPE, NPA and independent councillors in the past three years of this council. Now, they see it as a possible sign of how things might go with more expansive plans for new housing, such as the upcoming Broadway Plan that is proposing rental buildings of up to 40 storeys at some points along the street of the new subway line.

“At least this is moving in the right direction. I was quite shocked it went through,” said Mr. Stovell. “Now a lot of people are saying this is a bellwether for the Broadway Plan.”

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