Councillors call for moratorium on apartment demolitions

Three Victoria councillors are calling for a moratorium on the demolition of apartment buildings to give the city breathing room to develop rental-housing policies.

Worried about the loss of 1960s- and 1970s-era apartment buildings, councillors Pam Madoff, Ben Isitt and Jeremy Loveday say they will bring forward a recommendation June 22.

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Under the proposal, the moratorium would kick in when the region’s rental-vacancy rate falls below four per cent. It is currently estimated to be 0.5 per cent.

Madoff said with developers turning their attention to demolishing older apartments, it’s time to push the pause button.

“I have felt for some time that if development started to focus on those buildings, that our existing [housing] crisis will become even worse,” Madoff said, adding that options she and her colleagues considered included an anti-demolition bylaw and a moratorium.

Isitt said an immediate moratorium is needed. “I would envision this as potentially a six-month moratorium to get a handle on the situation and ensure that we have adequate safeguards in place to avoid losing this essential component of the local housing supply — and that’s these dozens of four-storey wood-frame apartment buildings that were constructed in the 1960s and ’70s,” Isitt said.

In 2007, the City of Vancouver stopped allowing demolitions of rental buildings in certain neighbourhoods unless the structures were rebuilt with the same number of rental units.

In Victoria, Isitt said the moratorium would remain in place until the city completes “some policy work” relating to retention and refurbishment of affordable rental housing. That could include completing a rental-housing-retention review, developing an incentive program for retaining affordable rental units, developing a bylaw governing standards of rental-housing maintenance, and investigating increased protection for tenants facing displacement due to demolition or renovation.

Madoff said the proposal was prompted by the pending demolition of a 34-unit, 1970s-era apartment at 505 Quadra called Beacon Arms. Madoff said buildings such as Beacon Arms provide the bulk of affordable market housing in the city.

Stuart Kerr of Analogue Projects is managing the re-development of Beacon Arms, which has been owned and managed by his family’s Surfside Holdings Ltd. since 1979.

No applications have been filed with the city yet, but the concept is to demolish the apartment and three adjacent single-family homes to make way for 83 units of new market rental housing and four rental townhomes, Kerr said.

He said the building has reached a point where the costs to maintain it have outstripped its economic value.

“The structure is actually failing. Our foundation is failing and sagging. As well, we’re starting to see, as a result, the windows in the building are starting to buckle and push, [and] we’re getting parts of the exterior starting to release from the structure. And then of course we’re chasing pinhole leaks in the plumbing,” Kerr said.

Kerr said his family is in a “unique position” in that it owns 200 rental units in James Bay and Fairfield. Last February, Beacon Arms tenants were informed of the plans and offered first rights to rent any vacant apartment that came up within the Surfside Holdings portfolio, he said.

Kerr declined to comment on the actions being contemplated by the councillors, as he had not spoken with them.

“I certainly empathize and I understand where they are coming from, but at the same time, there is a challenge for owners of rental property of this vintage,” he said. “Because it was all built at the same time, it’s all aging at the same time and there has to be some incentive to try and revitalize this rental stock — otherwise it deteriorates.”

Madoff said the city does have a policy that conversion of rental units to strata units will not be considered when the vacancy rate falls below four per cent, but no similar policy to prevent the loss of affordable rental units to luxury units.

Mayor Lisa Helps said the city needs to find a way to increase the rental-housing supply without displacing tenants.

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