Does Vancouver Have a Bad “Rental” Complex?

Vancouver is often ranked in the top 10 of the most livable cities in the world. From a stable economy, access to healthcare, culture, environment, education – we’re doing well. But how truly livable is our city? When it comes to housing we suffer from not only a lack of options, but also an ownership-only mentality. Everyone is looking at homeownership as the prize. 

In metropolitan cities like New York, Los Angeles or Tokyo – there is no shame in renting. But in our backyard we make renting to be a second choice, a less than choice. 

We think it’s time to redefine what it means to be a renter – that it’s a choice to be made proudly, something that comes naturally, without stigma. Why should single-family or condo homeownership be the norm? It’s time to demystify homeownership and put renting on equal footing with owning. 

So how do we start changing the story? We say, let’s build it. 

Big city dreams. New York City. (Photo: Patrick Tomasso)

We’ve been learning about what makes a city great for those who choose to rent. For us, it’s a city with a collection of vibrant neighbourhoods with thriving businesses and varied activities related to food, culture and nature. 

Although home to some of the priciest real estate in the east, people still flock to New York. Famously a renter’s city, it’s a city where you can pop into MOMA on a Saturday afternoon, go for a stroll in Dumbo on Sunday morning, and finish off your weekend with a cocktail in the Lower East Side. Every part of the city has a unique identity that speaks to the people living there. 

On the west coast, with its intersection of tech giants, a thriving food scene, and the outdoor lifestyle; Seattle has become a magnet for millennial renters in the past few years too. If we cross the Atlantic, another renter-friendly city is Berlin. It’s a city that has evolved as a hub for young creative professionals drawn to the abundant art scene and the awe inspiring architecture, from Baroque to Bauhaus. 

Charlie Living in Berlin (Photo by: ©Bttr GmbH) Charlie Living in Berlin (Photo by: ©Bttr GmbH)

What can we learn from cities with strong rental cultures, for a city like Vancouver? What do we need to shift in our city’s culture to support renters and become a true renters city?

1. neighbourhood connections are key

New generations of renters are exploring cities in a different way than their predecessors. They know there is more to life than the 9 to 5 grind and require flexibility. It’s a generation prioritizing experience-driven lifestyles, and therefore they expect more from their neighbourhoods. Vibrant streets with a mix of unique small businesses, quality restaurant experiences and effortless  opportunities for neighbours to connect with each other. 

A look into Little Italy in New York. (Photo: Sam Fowler) A look into Little Italy in New York. (Photo: Sam Fowler)

As a young city, our neighbourhoods continue to evolve. How can we support our community and look for unique opportunities for our neighbourhoods to thrive? We want businesses to be an extension of the home, supporting the social fabric of the neighbourhood and creating places to live our best lives in. 

2. build for livability

Renters are attracted to cities with high livability – where walking scores are high, transportation is efficient, and where amenities and jobs are close at hand. 

In Singapore, there is an integrated approach to city building, with their Housing and Development Board empowered to plan for livable neighbourhoods. There is an emphasis on good architectural design quality (exterior and interior), which makes human-centered design a requirement for public housing, promoting high quality urban and architectural design.

Integrated city building in Singapore. (Photo: Eugenia Clara) Integrated city building in Singapore. (Photo: Eugenia Clara)

According to the 2021 Urban Work Index, Vancouver is Canada’s best city for youth to work in, coming out at the top for public health, equity, inclusion, and public transportation. It’s a city that encourages inclusive workplaces and fosters a diverse population. While the city as a whole provides a well-balanced mix for young people to thrive in their professional and personal lives, housing affordability is still a problem. Early 2021 numbers saw Vancouver’s rental vacancy rate sit at 2.6%. 

A key part of the solution is to not only continue building rental – but building diverse rental stock. Do we want to be a global city that encourages creative and innovative professionals to come and be part of our growth? Well, a livable city with purpose-built rental can help with that. Picture intentional community programming where neighbours can build meaningful connections and where all businesses can thrive.

3. design beyond cookie-cutter

A new crop of rental developments focusing on human-scale design and community-focused programming is steadily changing the game in rental. On the American east coast, the Urby rentals are bringing a unique and fresh look to their facilities. They are creating more space for residents to enjoy their building, making shared spaces a key to urban living. 

With large tech companies opening up HQs in Vancouver we are already seeing an influx of a younger workforce looking for rentals that reflect the same ideas they value. Models of the past just won’t cut it.

The cafe at Urby, Jersey City The cafe at Urby, Jersey City
Amenities at Urby, Jersey City Shared Kitchen at Urby, Jersey City
The mailroom at Urby, Jersey City The mailroom at Urby, Jersey City
Urby, Jersey City Gym Amenities at Urby, Jersey City

With continued demands for housing, of all kinds, there is an opportunity to evolve design and amenity programming to suit a variety of lifestyles. We need to diversify what housing and rental looks and feels like as we seek to create more options. For example, co-living is a model of shared living that has been growing in major cities across North America and Europe.

A Rize Co-Living Project in Los Angeles. Preliminary concept by Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects. A Rize Co-Living Project in Los Angeles. Preliminary concept by Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects.

It’s a model that puts community at its core. You can share an apartment with five others – in equal sized rooms – and share a variety of building amenities, including co-working spaces and even recording booths! It’s a step towards modernizing rental and creating more space to live the life you want.

Kingsway & Prince Albert Rental Project. Preliminary rendering by Yamamoto Architecture. Kingsway & Prince Albert Rental Project. Preliminary rendering by Yamamoto Architecture.

Our Role in Building Better Rental 

As our cities continue to evolve, we have been drawing on inspiration from vibrant rental cities around the world. We are working on a series of rental projects – in Metro Vancouver and LA  – that can fulfill the needs of our communities. 

We wanted to get to know more about the make-up of renters living in our cities; with our Homes Not For Sale survey, we dove into the reasons why people rent and what makes an ideal rental building. For the 2,000 respondents, over half rank “being in a vibrant neighbourhood” as a key factor in their decision-making. But even more than that, people are searching for better rental – rental that is a home.

The conversations around housing have always pushed the antiquated idea that ownership is the end-all and be-all. It’s not. 

We see purpose-built rental as a social catalyst, helping shape the neighbourhood, and the city as it grows. In the past, Metro Vancouver cities have been too focused on condo developments and single-family housing, often excluding those who can’t afford to buy. Now rental is getting the attention it deserves and we owe it to renters to deliver high-quality rental housing. 

Rental is an integral part of the future of our city, we need to start acting like it is.