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Renters Lose Again

A packed council chamber can’t stop the wrecking ball

by Paul Dechene

Considering they were playing to a packed house, you'd think city council would have brought their A-game to their Jan 24 meeting. There were two big housing-related items on the agenda - a long-anticipated condominium conversion policy and the imminent demolition of the Black Building at 1755 Hamilton St - and as a result, the gallery was standing-room only.

But considering how many people walked away expressing disappointment, it seems council really didn't wow anyone.

Well, except maybe the city's landlords and development community. No representative from either group presented that evening, presumably because they, at least, were confident their concerns were well guarded by council policy.

That said, council did manage to edge in a slightly progressive direction on both items.

CONDO SAGA COMES TO A CLOSE

No surprise, council voted unanimously to adopt a new, long-awaited condominium conversion policy.

According to it, conversion applications won't even be considered if the city-wide vacancy rate is below two per cent. That's less than the three per cent rate most of the citizen delegations were hoping to see, but up from the one per cent recommended by the consultants who prepared the original report.

"I was coming in here tonight thinking I would make a motion to amend this to three per cent," said Councillor Fred Clipsham. "But I'm not going to. I'm satisfied the economic drivers aren't there."

The economic driver he's referring to is the situation that existed recently in Regina where property values were shooting up rapidly while rents were still extremely low. This provided a significant incentive to landlords to sell off their buildings unit by unit, instead of continuing to rent them out.

Currently, with rents climbing and property values leveling off, going through the conversion process is less enticing for property owners.

Also, city administration indicated that the vacancy rate has never been above two per cent since 2006. And it's only been above two per cent five times since 1995.

And, as the vacancy rate has hovered around the current level of 0.6 per cent for several years now, it seems likely that by adopting the two per cent cut off point, council has effectively said "no" to condo conversions far into the future.

Councillor Louis Browne added a further restriction to the policy, with a motion saying that even if the average city-wide rate was above two per cent, conversion applications in an area of the city wouldn't be considered if the area vacancy rate was under that level.

Several of the delegations who appeared before council to oppose the conversion policy expressed a grudging willingness to accept the compromise.

"Certainly including two per cent for zones of the city is an improvement over the one per cent the consultant came back with," said Peter Gilmer of the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry. "And the other thing is, they're willing to revisit that if the vacancy rate goes above two per cent.

"But the policy itself will prevent any conversions for at least four years. So I think that will make a difference."

Shawn Fraser, Executive Director of Carmichael Outreach, said he thought council could have gone with either the one per cent or the two per cent cut-off, so he seemed accepting of the decision.

"I think the whole room agrees that the city is impotent to deal with the housing problem. It'd be nice if they could do something, but they don't have the capacity. It's the province that has to step in," said Fraser.

"This is a progressive enough decision. But the problem is the horse is already out of the barn."

Actually, to mix metaphors, you might even say some condo chickens have come home to roost.

The city lost 196 rental units to condominium conversion in 2011. And even though 194 rental units were built in the city last year, those conversions contributed to a net decrease in the rental market of 126 units.

According to numbers provided by staff, a one per cent vacancy rate represents about 100 vacant rental units. So, in other words, council's tendency to say "Yes" to condo conversions over the last four years cost us over three times as many rental units as the CMHC says are vacant in the city.

BULLDOZERS FOR THE BLACK BUILDING

The big disappointment of the night, though, had to be a staff report saying that as far as their lawyers can imagine, there is nothing the city can legally do to halt the demolition of the Black Building at 1755 Hamilton St, an apartment building that provided 46 units of affordable housing.

"I think it represents a failure of city council. And a failure of the marketplace," said Marc Spooner, a homelessness research and education professor at the University of Regina.

"We're not doing a good job of protecting our most vulnerable," Spooner said. "I think there were options. [Council] kept saying their hands are tied. But in the end it's their job to find a way. The responsible thing would have been to enter into talks to buy it."

It's probably fair to describe the mood after the meeting as "incredulous".

"I'm just amazed that there's nothing the city can do to at least defer or slow down the process," said Gilmer. "It seems to me that the civic government should have some teeth that would so obviously protect the rights of people in the city.

"This shouldn't just be a question of did a landlord follow the right process of demolition and eviction. We have to ensure that we have ways to protect tenants rights in the city."

For what it's worth, council did seem genuinely regretful that they were unable to save the venerable building.

"I just want to say thank you for everyone who had the confidence that we could make a change. And I'm sorry that we can't. But it's not for a lack of caring. It's not for a lack of compassion," said Councillor Murray.

Some good did come out of the whole affair, however. Councillor Clipsham cribbed a few ideas from the delegations, bringing forward a motion to have staff research jurisdictions where new developments are required to contribute to a municipal affordable housing fund. He also brought forward a motion that as part of the building inspection process by bylaw enforcement, landlords should be made aware of the Rental Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program which supports the repair of rental units.

Clipsham also attempted to bring forward a motion requesting the mayor draft a letter to the provincial housing minister expressing Regina's support for some form of rent control. But this motion was squashed by a procedural technicality.

Still, Clipsham says he may bring the motion back at a later council meeting.

So, in the end, the Black Building is going to get bulldozed. And maybe the condo conversion policy didn't go quite as far as it could.

And an absent Mayor Fiacco almost, but not quite, came home from his trip to Bangkok to find that he had to draft a letter to the Province saying he supports rent control.

It didn't happen. But, hey, maybe next time.