Victoria developer GMC Projects makes the argument for high-quality rentals over condos

The company believes in creating community inside and outside its buildings.

Credit: GMC Projects

GMC’s Portage West building in Victoria

The company believes in creating community inside and outside its buildings 

When Jordan Milne joined GMC Projects in late 2006, the company was really just him, his father, Lorne, and controller Glenda Infanti. The Victoria-based real estate developer focused on office and industrial properties back then, but the younger Milne was ready to try taking it in a new direction.

As a millennial, he was inherently opposed to the idea that home ownership should be seen as a sort of status symbol. Milne, who now serves as president and CEO, elected to gear GMC’s holdings toward purpose-built rental properties

“The vast majority of our rental housing in Canada was built in the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s,” he says. “It’s quite dated, and a lot of it wasn’t and still isn’t at an acceptable standard. We realized there was the opportunity to provide rental housing and wanted to be at the forefront of providing really thoughtful, high-quality rental communities for people to live in.”

Today, GMC has 11 employees and owns and manages 175 rental apartments in four different properties, with two more in development. Its buildings include Brixton Flats (pictured) in Vancouver’s Chinatown, which consists of 56 Passive house–designed rental residences, a 4,000-square foot rooftop with a pet zone, communal barbecue space, garden boxes, apple trees and four distinct gathering areas, as well as commercial space on the ground floor.

There’s also Portage West in Victoria, which sits on the Gorge Waterway and features an outdoor waterfront pool, outdoor kitchen and barbecue space, a waterfront dock, and communal kayaks and paddleboards. 

In short, as Milne describes it, GMC has put a premium on community development, inside the walls of its buildings and beyond. “Right now, one of the fastest-growing mental issues we have in this country is social isolation, and that’s partly because one of the fastest-growing household demographics is the single household,” he maintains. “So we thought, How could we create rental communities that had really thoughtful, high-quality common space to really bring neighbours together, where you actually meet your neighbours and interact with them?”

Milne compares that with the typical rental building, which he says is full of people who take the elevator upstairs while maybe waving at the one or two folks they know in the complex: “There really isn’t an atmosphere encouraged around really getting to know your neighbour and being part of a community.”

GMC believes its approach delivers an added benefit: creating a stronger neighbourhood. “We know that anybody who rents one of our apartments lives in the community, they’re not renting an apartment and living in Shanghai; nobody is speculating in the apartment,” Milne contends. “We’re actually providing housing to somebody who’s a part of the community, who serves the community.”

In an unpredictable and often pricy real estate industry, GMC offers up units at what Milne deems “market rates.” He also disputes the stigma sometimes attached to landlords.

“The word ‘affordable’ is a nebulous word—it means something different to everybody,” he says. “We believe we provide good quality and value for what we create, but we are focused on trying to provide housing for the middle-class worker and middle-class family. We don’t have $5,000-a-month penthouse suites. I know a lot of rental developers that would be happy to show the payroll and say, Hey, look, of that $1,500 a month you’re paying, maybe $125 goes to the landlord.”

At the same time, Milne says that GMC has done its best to get financing from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. so it can offer lower rents, but there’s something of a disconnect. “We would love to offer up affordability when we propose a project to the city,” he says, noting that developments like Brixton Flats, a stone’s throw from the intersection of Main and Hastings streets, will always face a certain amount of pushback.

“There are ways we can do that through affordable financing with the CMHC. The problem is that you can’t get a guarantee with the CMHC until you’ve already got the zoning,” Milne laments. So it’s a bit of a catch-22. If you offer it up to the city and they commit to it being 10 percent below market rent, but you don’t get CMHC financing, you ultimately can’t build it.”

Milne is currently trying to secure CMHC financing to offer 10 percent below market rate on a 31-unit rental building in Victoria called the Charlesworth. “But we couldn’t offer that to council in our zoning proposal that was approved in the summer,” he says.

More government issues could be imminent with the recent provincial election giving a majority to the BC NDP. Housing was a hot topic leading up to the vote, and Milne wasn’t completely sold on any of the parties’ platforms. But there are certainly some aspects of Premier John Horgan’s plan that he doesn’t commend.

“I was really discouraged with the NDP’s decision to freeze rent through the entirety of 2021,” Milne says. “The challenge for landlords these days is we have rising expenses, city councils are freezing property taxes, insurance rates are affecting rental buildings. We have this paradox of increasing costs but flattened revenue. It’s going to be a challenge, and the NDP has picked winners and losers by doing that.”