June 10, 2021

The most important housing protections you’ve never heard of: Kerrisdale in 1989

The story below by Michael Gordon recalls a turning point in Vancouver’s housing history – almost forgotten today. 

What happened in 1989 largely preserved purpose-built rental apartment buildings – primarily built between 1909 and the mid-70’s, still evident in the hundreds throughout the city’s apartment districts today, from the West End to Marpole: the most important privately owned, largely affordable rental stock in the province.

Vancouver archives 

Hardly anyone remembers the circumstances that led to their protection.  Why?  It’s a ‘Nixon-in-China’ moment, when the politicians least expected to implement a policy were the only ones who could.  But the dissonance between expectation and reality is so great, so contradictory to the customary narrative between left and right, that it drops out of history.

Michael explains where it started.


The Kerrisdale Apartment Area – Ground Zero for Vancouver’s Regulations Protecting the Purpose-Built Rental Buildings

Who would have thought that the Kerrisdale Apartment Area would be ground zero for City Council’s introduction of a series of zoning regulations and policies curbing the demolition of purpose-built rental apartment buildings?

A 1989 headline on page one of the Vancouver Sun read “Radicals are bred amid turmoil.” Daphne Braham, still a Vancouver Sun writer, goes on to share that the City of Vancouver had received by mid-1989 applications to demolish 17 purpose-built rental apartment buildings to be replaced by condominiums in the Kerrisdale Apartment Area. She wrote “If all are approved, 359 rental apartments will be replaced by 222 condominiums.”

This was during the first development boom since the early 1980’s. With an improving economy following the 1986 World’s Fair, developers focused on the Kerrisdale Apartment Area with its ‘Outright Approval’ high-rise zoning which encouraged the assembly of 25-year-old rental apartment buildings. They were redeveloped with 10- to 12-storey ‘tower in the park’ condominium buildings.

This was a very worrisome problem for Council’s NPA Councillors who formed the majority of Council.  Kerrisdale was one of the political bases for their party. Now seniors who were the parents of local residents were being displaced and their homes demolished. Photos of elderly residents in front of their demolished rental apartment building appeared in the local press.

Early in 1989, George Puil, one of the NPA Councillors, moved a motion directing that the permitted densities in the apartment areas zoned RM-3 (permitting highrises) in Grandview-Woodland, Kerrisdale and Fairview be reduced to discourage these demolitions, but it was not supported.

Shortly, Council did approve zoning regulations in all apartment areas that discouraged the demolition of rental buildings by introducing a ‘rate of change’ regulation in the apartment district zoning. If more than a prescribed percentage of apartments were demolished in the area, then a permit for a new residential building (almost always condominiums) would not be approved.

In the West End, the apartment zoning was attached to guidelines that limited apartment ‘towers’ to no more than one per block face to curb the demolition of rental apartments. This reduced the number of condominium developments involving the demolition of rentals.

Also, we now have a rental housing stock official development plan that covers the residential apartment areas and requires that if three or more rental dwelling units are proposed to be demolished, then they have to be replaced. There is also a Council policy requiring the developer to relocate the displaced tenants.

These are good and needed regulations and policies because our existing rental housing stock is precious. But what happened in Kerrisdale in 1989 is still a cautionary tale.

A rapid pace of demolition and dislocation would be very worrisome in a city with low vacancy rates and expensive rents, likely more than the displaced tenant is paying.

It’s also important to remember these are people (not units) who have grown attached to their homes, neighbourhoods and communities. It would be better if we referred to where people live as homes not units in policy documents and development applications.


Gordon Price’s reflections:

As a member of council, I remember the issue well – and not just because it was so publicly controversial (thanks, Daphne!). 

George Puil would have been the last councillor anyone expected to introduce a downzoning initiative more drastic than … well, since probably ever.  But the problem was almost literally in his backyard, and the people affected were his neighbours (and very much like his mother).  Ideology was not going to get in the way. 

Regardless of qualms, the justification for stopping demolition of old rental stock with replacement by condos (the boom was getting underway) was inarguable.  The walk-ups, typically at ten apartments per floor, had more units than, say, a twelve-storey condo.  So there would be a drop in density, a loss of affordable rental by expensive condos, a change in scale (and view blockage) – and grandma would have to be evicted from the home she had lived in for decades.  Lose, lose, lose, lose.   It was an easy vote for all parties.

However, the downzoning would have required a dragged-out public hearing process, and it wouldn’t have been pretty politically.  Instead, with the advice of staff, a change in regulations and guidelines that Michael described above could be implemented quickly.

I made sure that any changes also applied to the West End, but that wasn’t enough to placate those anxious about any change at all.  As I learned first hand, people’s perception of change increases even as the rate of change diminishes.  In fact, residents, fearing precedence, get more anxious about any change at all if nothing much has happened in their community.  Especially if it’s a single highrise. 

So staff came up with a rate-of-change bylaw that ensured, regardless of the urban form, neighbourhoods would not feel that development was ‘out of control’.  As it happens, the rate of change limit needn’t be very high in normal circumstances, given the time it takes to plan, finance and develop housing – ironically leading to a demand to increase the rate at which housing needs to be provided to address unaffordability.

The development community of course was not pleased with the changes but, given it was the development-friendly NPA who did it, had no support anywhere on Council.  Landlords predicted decay and bankruptcy, and a loss of any new rental construction.  But that was happening regardless, as senior governments no longer provided incentives and the condo boom drove out alternatives. 

The actions by council worked to stop uncontrolled demolitions, the development community figured out how to work with the changes, and the three-storey walkups survived.  Grandma still had a place to live, and there wouldn’t be more pictures on the front page like this:


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