The City of Burnaby's Metrotown Development Plan Update, also known as the Metrotown Downtown Plan, is designed to replace the lowest-income, predominantly renter community in Metrotown with Burnaby’s 'official' downtown. It aims to enhance the distinctive characteristics of various neighbourhoods within the Metrotown area while fusing them into a comprehensive downtown for Burnaby that will be "a thriving people place" (Metrotown Downtown Plan, p. 3). The stated vision of the Plan is "to establish an exciting, inclusive and sustainable downtown for Burnaby." As the officially designated downtown of Burnaby, "downtown" Metrotown will "advance commerce and job growth, provide a broad range of housing options, enhance connectivity and transportation choice, improve access to services and amenities, and support personal well- being" (p. 4). The language is lofty and the images are glossy in the draft Downtown Plan, but how will it impact the lives of lower-income and working class residents, seniors, and Indigenous and immigrant families renting in the area?
Currently, the residential buildings dominating the Maywood neighbourhood (as well as Marlborough) are 3 or 4 storey rental apartments built in the 60s and 70s. They are home to thousands of lower income and working class residents, immigrant families, seniors, and people with disabilities. Since one of the Plan’s major functions is to "provide policy guidance for the consideration of rezoning and development applications" (p. 17), approval and implementation will unleash a frenzy of development-driven demovictions that will force these residents out of their homes and communities.
Across the Metrotown region as a whole, the Burnaby Plan's blanket upzoning will incentivize the demolition of approximately 3000 units of rental housing currently existing in low-rise apartment buildings; and based on an average of 2 people per unit, this will result in the displacement of approximately 6000 residents. The City's plan to turn Metrotown into Burnaby's downtown will swiftly terminate the majority renter, lowest-income neighbourhood in Burnaby, and exacerbate a demoviction crisis that has been unfolding over the past 6 years in Metrotown.
The planning rationale for the Metrotown Downtown Plan's displacement drive is increased residential density. Based on the Metro Vancouver Regional Growth Strategy, the City of Burnaby asserts its obligation to produce more housing for the people coming to the region, especially around major transportation hubs. Within the Metro Vancouver region, Metrotown has been identified as a Regional City Centre, and as such is expected to absorb a significant share of the population growth projected for the lower mainland. According to the Metro Vancouver Regional Growth Strategy, the city of Burnaby will see an estimated population increase of 125,000 by 2041, or 5,000 per year.(1) Divided between Burnaby's 4 Town Centres, Metrotown would need to absorb a little over 1,000 new residents each year. The most recent statistics for Metrotown's population growth provided by the city (Metrotown Downtown Plan, p. 11) indicates that it grew by less than 1,000 over the course of 5 years (2006-2011). Nevertheless, future regional growth seems to be the driving argument behind this new downtown plan and its imperative for residential densification. Among the six neighbourhoods that comprise Metrotown, the Maywood neighbourhood is identified in the Plan as "the residential 'heart' of Metrotown" (p. 63). Maywood is also the area immediately south of the Metrotown Skytrain station and its major bus terminal. It is this area that the "Downtown" Metrotown Plan targets to absorb new density, by demovicting thousands of existing tenants.
Demovictions have been orchestrated by the City of Burnaby in the Metrotown area for the last half a dozen years, using spot rezonings to plan condo towers to take the place of individual apartment blocks. With the introduction of the "S" category zoning in 2010 that clears the way for increased heights and density, and the consistent approval of spot rezonings to corporate developers, over 600 units of affordable rental housing have been destroyed to date and over 1200 residents displaced. In the Marlborough neighbourhood, the 2 blocks bounded by Imperial and Grimmer, Nelson and Marlborough have witnessed the loss of 240 rental apartment units in the past couple of years and another 120 approved for demoviction. This means the forced eviction and displacement of approximately 700 residents from these two square blocks alone. (2)
The Metrotown Downtown Plan will amplify the scope and pace of demovictions across the ￼ Metrotown area by putting in place a legal policy that establishes blanket upzoning for residential development. According to the Real Es-tate News Ex-change, the Plan is like landowners "receiving a winning lottery ticket. The value of the land under your building will sky- rocket." BC As- sessment figures for the Maywood area reveal a tripling of ￼￼land values between 2016 and 2017 and a massive (90%) decline in the value of existing buildings on these properties as they simply wait to be demolished. Under the looming Metrotown Downtown Plan, the current buildings will soon be worth next to nothing, as the land they sit upon increases exponentially. (3) For landlords, developers and the City, this is a goldmine; for current residents renting in the 3 or 4 storey walkup apartment buildings whose homes will become targets for corporate redevelopment and profit, that Plan spells total disaster.
The City of Burnaby claims that the Metrotown Downtown Plan will produce an "inclusive" downtown, that it will be "a place for everyone". But the truth of the Plan's vision will be the forced displacement of thousands of current Metrotown residents from their homes and communities. According to this Plan, an "inclusive" downtown must first require massive exclusion.
Not only is development-based displacement a violation of the UN Right to adequate housing that governments at every level are obligated to protect, it signals the failure of Burnaby's City Council to fulfill its responsibility to its residents regardless of social or economic status. The fear, anxiety and hardship people face as they are uprooted from their communities of support and care is orchestrated by City Hall and is an example of state violence.
The fifth regional Homeless Count took place in March 2017. The preliminary results revealed the highest count on record (3,605) with a 30% increase across Metro Vancouver over the previous count in 2014. In Burnaby, the number of homeless individuals was among the lowest in the subregions (69, a 19% increase from 2014), due primarily to the absence of a permanent homeless shelter and other low-income community services in the city. In fact, Burnaby is the only subregion where the unsheltered homeless (49) outnumber the sheltered homeless (20). Although shelters are no solution to the housing crisis, they do provide a temporary roof over one’s head. Mayor Corrigan is opposed to homeless shelters in the city and has spoken disparagingly about homeless people.
At the same time, Burnaby's mayor and city council are contributing significantly to homelessness in the region through their demoviction policies. The Metrotown Downtown Plan will eliminate a large portion of critical lower-end of market housing from the already diminishing rental stock. A recent Vancity report (Rent Race: The growing unaffordability of rent in Metro Vancouver) and a study by Union Gospel Mission and University of Victoria (No Vacancy: Affordability and Homelessness in Vancouver) examine low vacancy rates and unaffordable rents across the region. Both reports urge municipal governments to do all they can to protect and expand the rental housing stock, especially among the dwindling "low-end of market rental" stock; failure to do so, according to these reports, leads inevitably to increased homelessness. Yet Burnaby's political leaders are acting contrary to these recommendations. In the face of a growing rental housing crisis, the Metrotown Downtown Plan will precipitate the destruction of important rental housing in the region, and the mass displacement of lower-income and working class residents will result in increased housing vulnerability and homelessness throughout Metro Vancouver.