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Maywood families fear displacement

Telford Avenue resident Samara Najei is among parents at Maywood school concerned about their affordable rental housing possibly being lost to future highrise condo developments. - Wanda Chow/NewsLeader
Telford Avenue resident Samara Najei is among parents at Maywood school concerned about their affordable rental housing possibly being lost to future highrise condo developments.
— image credit: Wanda Chow/NewsLeader

Samara Najei has lived the life of a refugee. That's when her family escaped Iraq in 2006 for the relative safety of Syria.

Now she's concerned she could end up a refugee again, this time from her beloved Maywood community in Burnaby.

Najei, 34, is among parents at Maywood Community School who wrote to Burnaby city council asking for help in keeping their affordable rental homes. Their concerns are mounting with each rental complex that's torn down to make way for a highrise condominium tower.

"We're like a pen of sheep. They don't know which will be the next," she said in an interview.

The two-bedroom apartment on Telford Avenue is the only home her family has known since they arrived in Canada in 2008. With two adults and four kids aged three to 10 years, it's smaller than she'd like but she makes the best of it.

"I love to call it a nest," she said.

After all, their options are limited. She and her husband are both trained electrical engineers in Iraq but those credentials aren't recognized here. So her husband works as a technician in an office supply store while he tries to get certified here. And Najei looks after the kids, one of whom suffers from a heart condition.

They pay $1,050 a month but know that if they needed to find a new place, it would be at least a few hundred dollars more. That's if they can find another place like theirs.

Najei noted that they only had two kids when they moved in. It's likely the size of their family now would make it difficult to find someone that would rent them another two-bedroom unit. And that's along with the regular challenge of finding a well-managed building where they feel comfortable.

If they're forced to move and start their lives all over again somewhere else, it will be just like being a refugee again.

"It's very hard, believe me. I did it once, it's very hard."

As she watches Intracorp's 46-storey MetroPlace development go up at the corner of Telford and Beresford Street, Najei wonders about the impact all its future residents will have on the neighbourhood.

She worries about increased traffic, crowding and the impact on Maywood school. And she fears the potential for an us-and-them mentality between the ostensibly wealthier owners of the tower's units, and the neighbourhood's existing residents, many with lower incomes.

"Of course, they're welcome to live here, but not on our shoulders."

For Michele Madden, 46, she'd be forgiven for feeling that's exactly what's happening.

In November, the single mom and her 10-year-old son were forced to move from their apartment building on Nelson Avenue across from Bonsor Recreation Centre. The 58-unit building was being demolished to allow for Concord Pacific's new highrise condo tower, Met 2.

It was a double-whammy for Madden. As the manager of her former building, it meant she was also out of a job. She's still looking for work.

They did find a new home they could afford, in an Edmonds-area house. But that's  only because their landlord told them they'd have to move in a year or so as that too is slated for redevelopment.

And in another example of how close-knit the Maywood community is—"it's like a family"—Madden says her son continues to attend the school near Metrotown mall. The trip is 30 to 45 minutes one way by foot and transit and the transit fare is eating into their budget.

But her case isn't so unusual. Of the former tenants in her old building, some went back to their home countries, two went into seniors homes "before their time," some are living with relatives until they can find a place of their own. Residents of only two units managed to find a new home in the same area, Madden said.

Those who signed the letter to Burnaby council want them to do something to ensure what they have doesn't disappear. Both Najei and Madden suggested that the lost affordable rental housing be replaced within the new buildings as a requirement of rezoning.

But that's easier said than done, said Coun. Colleen Jordan, chair of Burnaby's Civic Development Committee.

"You cannot replace $500 a month apartments in that neighbourhood with $500 apartments in a new building," Jordan said. "It's not possible."

City staff have looked at the problem from all sides and the economics just don't work. If the developer is required to include rental housing in a project, the rent would have to be something outrageous like $2,500 a month to make it feasible, she said.

The only way to bring the rents down is through subsidies, and that is the responsibility of the provincial government, through BC Housing, she said.

"If we require developers to do this then they just don't build."

And while that might be welcomed by residents of existing buildings, it generally means those complexes end up neglected and eventually become fire and safety hazards.

All the older buildings in question were built decades ago when the federal government offered funding and tax credits as incentives to developers to build rental housing. That funding is now long gone.

The only real power the city has is in deciding on land use through zoning. Several years ago, Burnaby asked the province to let it create a rental-only zone, to ensure any rental buildings torn down could be rebuilt as rental.

But the province refused, Jordan said.

She noted that the current community plans for the Maywood area restrict highrises to Beresford Street. If nearby low-rise buildings are torn down, they'll have to be replaced with new low-rise buildings.

There is a moratorium on rental buildings being converted to condos while they're still standing. But if a rental building is demolished and rebuilt as condos "there's nothing we can do to stop them."

Only three occupied rental buildings have been taken down in the area for highrises, Jordan said. The construction boom there started after an apartment complex on Dow Avenue burnt down several years ago.

Without incentives, it's rare to see new rental buildings being constructed.

The proposed first tower in the redevelopment of Brentwood mall is supposed to include 300 rental units. If it goes ahead, it will be the first major addition to Burnaby's rental stock in 20 years, Jordan said.

"But it's not going to be $600 a month. It will fill a need but it's not going to replace the Maywoods of this world."

wchow@burnabynewsleader.com

twitter.com/WandaChow

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