Pros & Cons

The first phase of the Agnes Greenway project has been installed, and is getting a bit of feedback online. That’s good – the City hoped to receive feedback on this important piece of infrastructure as a part of how it is being rolled out. I will write another blog post about that as soon as I get time, but before I do, I want address this niche-popular meme created by Tom Flood that appeared in my twitter feed, and excuse me for feeling attacked:

…and add a bit of a retort from the viewpoint of a City Councillor oft criticized because I like the idea of installing protected bike lanes, and agree with almost all of the “Pros”.

Right off the top, I need to say, protected bike lanes are expensive, and cities are struggling right now with so many overlapping challenges and priorities. Yes, I hear, understand, and accept the argument that an integrated bike network will save us money in the long run and improve livability to far outweigh the costs, but that takes nothing away from the current challenge of the immediate capital costs required for a safe network. Proper bike lanes are not a few planters and green paint (the latter of which is inconceivably expensive – it would be cheaper by the square foot to make bike lanes of engineered wood flooring, but I digress). If we want them to be safe for all users, we need to install new signage and/or signals at all intersections. This can mean moving street lights and telephone poles and power conduit. Installing grade separations often means redesigning storm sewer infrastructure. We may need to move or re-engineer bus stops, curb cuts, pedestrian islands, street trees, and, yes, parking. When you expand this out to kilometres of bike route and scores of intersections, these changes are not cheap.

The retort to this, of course, is they are cheaper than road expansions. Which is kinda true, but not really helpful. This infrastructure is almost always built in urban areas like Downtown New Westminster: a built-out City that is essentially out of the building-new-roads business. I don’t mean that rhetorically; we have a policy goal to reduce road space in the City and convert it to active transportation and other uses, therefore we don’t really have a “road building” budget line. This means we can’t just re-allocate from there to a “Separated Bike Lane” budget line. It doesn’t work that way. Yes, we spend millions every year on road maintenance and upkeep, but taking away from that in a significant way will widen an infrastructure deficit (unmaintained roads get much more expensive to fix when the road base fails and safety is impacted when signal lights and road markings are not kept in good working order) and so much of the spending is on infrastructure that supports transit users, cyclists, pedestrians (including those with accessibility barriers) that it is difficult to argue for where cost cutting here can occur without impacting everyone – not just the car users we usually associate with “roads”.

The presumption in the Pro list above that bike lanes make sidewalks safer is a presumption reliant on very well designed bike lanes. Integrating safer cycling infrastructure with safer pedestrian infrastructure is a serious challenge, as the number of “conflict” zones increases. Cycling advocates will recognize how pedestrian bulge design often makes cycling feel less safe on some arterial roads, but are less likely to recognize how important those bulges are to improving the safety of other vulnerable road users. Conflicts inevitably arise between what cyclists need to feel safe and what other users (especially those with mobility or vision impairments) need to feel safe in the pedestrian space.

Emergent technologies are making this more difficult. At the same time E-bikes are opening up the freedom of cycling to many more people, modified scooters and e-bikes travelling at speeds wholly inappropriate for sharing space with those for whom we are trying to build AAA “All Ages and Abilities” space create uncertainty. I think most people are comfortable sharing safe bike lane space with most traditional cargo bikes (left), but not with electric powered cube vans disguised as tricycles that are starting to appear (right):

I’m not sure how we design for all of the variations on the spectrum, or even if we should. I have harped before about the need for a Motor Vehicle Act that reflects emergent technology, but we have a lot of work to do here. Public perception of safety, and resultant political support for separated bike lanes, are going to be influenced by how we do that job.

There are really good reasons to put the backbone of a safe cycling network in the same place your transit network already is. That is because your community and transit network have (hopefully) developed over time in a symbiotic way. Ideally, transit takes people from where they live to where they work, shop and go to school along as simple a route as possible to provide best service the most people. All good reasons to put cycling infrastructure exactly there. This complicates things, as transit and cycling routes are really challenging to integrate. Lane widths and turning radii that accommodate efficient bus movement don’t make the lanes safer for cyclists. Line of sight and signal challenges abound. Bus pull-ins create conflicts, floating bus stops create accessibility concerns and rely on sometimes expensive grade-separation. Do we move or adjust bus routes to accommodate this other mode, or choose less optimum routes to avoid transit conflict? I think the answer is a little from each column, but the Transit Authority and transit-reliant residents may not agree.

Which brings us to one of the least discussed issues or urban transportation: curb allocation. There are so many competing priorities for this precious resource in urban areas: the limited space on each block face where road meets boulevard. It is fine for cycling advocates to say, uh, “forget parking” (as I have myself on more than one occasion), but you can’t scoff off that this space is needed for everything from the aforementioned bus stops to loading zones for your Uber driver to assuring accessibility for Handi-Dart to having a place for the becoming-more-ubiquitous delivery trucks to stop while they offload your Amazon consumables. Bike lanes want to be on that curb space, and designing for these conflicts is not easy or without political cost.

There is no way around it, building bike lanes in a built-out urban area like New Westminster means taking something away. We simply don’t have the space to seamlessly slot functional, safe, AAA bike routes in without impacting the status quo of how that public space is used. Cycling advocates will usually reply that parking and driving lanes can be taken away, and in many cases, that is true. But when that means shifting a bus route that a senior relies on for their daily trips, or it means a disabled person no longer has the safe access to their Handi-Dart that they have relied upon, it’s really hard to be smug and tell people to just lump it.

I say all of this as someone who is feeling the burn of failure in my 6 years on a City Council because my community has not built the bicycle infrastructure I would like to see. The varying reasons for that are probably fodder for another too-long blog post. I also write as someone who is receiving the e-mails from people who are not happy to see the arrival of a new bike lane that has been in the plans for years, because it has disrupted their lives in ways perhaps not anticipated. I also get to enjoy the less sympathetic e-mails from people who seem empowered by the latest Bruce Allen rant about an alleged War on his Corvette – but those are easy for me to ignore, because I have been advocating for safe cycling infrastructure for a couple of decades and there is nothing new to be learned from those hackneyed arguments.

Unfortunately, there is also little to be learned from the increasingly hackneyed arguments of some cycling advocates (being a good “progressive”, I know how to hold my strongest criticism for my allies). Building safe cycling infrastructure is important, it is a good thing to do, and I lament we are not moving faster on it. But the political will to do so is not strengthened by pretending it is super easy to do, or that it is a cheap, easy silver bullet to fixing all of our urban challenges. It needs to be balanced with the many challenging needs local governments are dealing with right now. Bike lanes will help with some and will demonstrable make others harder. That’s the job of Governance, I guess.

So instead of throwing nameless Councilors under the proverbial bus by assuming their craven motivations, find those that are trying to move our urban areas in the right direction, and ask them how you can help them build the political will in your community to move bike lanes up the spending priority list. Because, trust me, there are many people reaching out to them every day telling them to do the opposite.

Council – Jan 18, 2021

Our Council meeting this week was efficient, helped along by a fairly short agenda with not a lot of meat on it (that will, apparently, be next week). The following items were Moved on consent without discussion:

Poet Laureate Program 2021-2023
New Westminster has a Poet Laureate, an honorary role where a local artist is provided a small honorarium and support to bring voice through literary arts to our community. If you have been at a major community event over the last three year, you may have heard Alan Hill reciting verse and telling story of the event. Alan is the 4th Poet Laureate, and his 3-year term came to an end in 2020, so after a bit of a COVID delay, we are starting a search for a new artist.

Major Purchases September 1st to December 31st, 2020
Every 4 months we publicly report out on from whom we bought majors items or services from as part of our transparent procurement process. Here’s how we spent the money.

Recruitment 2021: Appointments to Advisory Committees, Commissions, Boards and Panels
Here is where we report out on who has been chosen to serve on City Advisory Committees, Boards, and Panels. It is a bit of a strange year with COVID, and some terms were extended due to the inability to have full meetings last year, but there is also a bit of a refreshment on most committees. Alas, we were also not able to have a Volunteer Appreciation dinner, so we will have to ramp it up next year after everyone has their shots. It’s been a long time since we go the community together to celebrate our community.

Amendments to the City’s Secondary Suite Requirements: Amendment Bylaws for Consideration of Readings
The City has a pretty progressive secondary suite policy. That’s no feather in my cap, it has been that way since the late 1990s, and has provided a significant contribution to our more-affordable housing stock. With the building code changing in 2019, we need to update our requirements to match these changes, and in the meantime staff hope to streamline and simplify the process in City Hall a bit to formalize a secondary suite.

Essentially, this limits code enforcement to life safety and livability issues for exiting secondary suites, and removes from our local rules those that are regulated by the BC Building Code. At the same time, regulations to improve livability (such as separation of heat systems, providing separated outdoor space, etc.) will be applied to new builds.

As these changes impact the City-wide Zoning Bylaw, these changes will go to a Public Hearing. If you have an opinion, let us know!

632 Carnarvon Street: Development Variance Permit Application to Vary Off-Street Parking Requirements
A Childcare operator wants to operate in the “Fisheries Building” across from the Law Courts on Carnarvon, but there isn’t sufficient off-street parking space for that use based on the zoning bylaw. Well, there may be, but the operator also needs an on-site outdoor play space according to Fraser Health.

This requires a Development Variance Permit, which we will consider at our February 8th meeting. If you have opinions about childcare spaces and parking downtown, let us know!


The following items were Removed from Consent for discussion:

COVID-19 Pandemic Response – Update and Progress from the Five Task Forces
This is our regular report of what our internal task forces are doing in regards to the COVID pandemic response.

Many things reported out here are happening a bit in the background (until there is enough detail worked out to provide a full Council report) including ongoing work with BC Housing to try to find a viable location for an Emergency Response Centre for up to 50 temporary supported homes with applications for additional funding underway with CMHC, and some progress has been made on a Health Contact Centre to house harm reduction services for people living with opioid addictions. More to come on these programs. There was some discussion about how we will manage Childcare programs over the Spring Break, as regular parks and rec programs are still COVID-limited, and staff is working on it!

BC Building Code Update: Tall Wood Encapsulated Mass Timber Construction
The BC Building Code is being modified to allow larger mass timber buildings, up to 12 stories, and a few Cities have already opted into this. There are some sustainability advantages to mass timber construction, some that may not have been realized yet as the technology is evolving. Up to now, our process to approve this technique is a bit complicated, where if we opt into the approval process, it adds this to the options for developers in town to fill the 6-to-12-storey gap where current construction methods are not particularly economical.

Council supported us moving in the direction of opting into this, but wanted a bit more info about potential costs. As it will involve different permitting and inspections than existing established building techniques, there may be some staff training cost (especially in Fire Inspections), but in general practice inspection and permitting costs are meant to be covered by fees on the builder, not general tax revenue, so this creates a bit of uncertainty for Council. So we decided to support opting in in principle and asked for better reporting on potential costs before we add staffing costs to a financial plan.

Single-Use Item Reduction Update
Council asked staff to develop a strategy around the reduction in single-use plastics, and it appears senior governments are working on similar strategies, so we want to align, and not waste resources on redundancy. There have been nascent attempts in other municipalities to bad plastic bags or straws, and these have not been problem free (legal challenges in Victoria, questions about ableism and the role plastic straws play for people with some disabilities are two off the top of my head).

This work has been delayed by COVID, and at the same time we have changed our shopping and eating patterns which have likely exacerbated the issue, as we are using more single use plastic than ever.

The provincial government announced late last year that they will change the Community Charter to support a local-government approach to single use produce bans, unfortunately at the same time the industry is telling governments they want a synchronized senior government approach. They also suggest expanding the existing EPR program to include these plastics, effectively putting the plastics industry in charge of plastics, and in the face of clear evidence that recycling is not a sustainable solution to this problem. At the same time, the Prime Minister assures us the federal government takes this issue very seriously, so we can count on them not doing anything.

The report did not go into Metro Vancouver’s role. They are ultimately responsible for solid waste in the region, but their role has traditionally been about managing where waste goes (recycling, incineration, landfilling) and not about reducing at the front end. They put together a Single Use Item Reduction Toolkit that suggests ways 21 local governments could set up their own bylaws to ban or put fees on items and take on the expensive and cumbersome enforcement role. This is contrary to the results of every consultation that has been done, where businesses and consumers have made clear they want a region-wide consistent approach.

New Westminster does not have a representative on the Zero Waste Committee at Metro Vancouver, so I moved that we ask staff to put together correspondence to the Metro Vancouver Board and Zero Waste Committee asking them to take a more active role and develop a region-wide single use plastics reduction strategy that takes the Principles of the Single-Use Item Toolkit and integrates them into a regional regulatory regime.


And after reading a few Bylaws, that was the work for the evening. See you next week!

Assessments 2021

Assessments are here. For those who own homes, this means a letter arrived in the mail telling you what the assessed value of your property was on July 1, 2019. It also tells you what the assessed value was over the previous three years. Some people are very upset to find their property has gone up in value, which means their property taxes are going up. Others are very upset that their assessed value has gone down, and their investment is losing value. At least, that is what I glean from Social Media, but maybe I need to get out more.

I have written before about the relationship between property assessment and property taxes, and about how the assessment process works, so this will be a bit of an update/summary of those posts. A bit of redundancy, but with new numbers.

First off, your assessment does impact your property taxes, but not as directly as you may think. The City has not passed a 2021 budget, so I do not yet know what the 2021 Property Tax rates will be, but in our last discussions, we seemed to be settling towards something like a 4.9% increase over 2020. I will round that up to 5.0% for the purposes of this discussion as long as we can all agree that is speculative and the numbers may change between now and when you get the bill.

That 5% means the amount of revenue the City will receive in property taxes from existing taxpayers will go up 5%, but it does not mean the cheque you write in July will necessarily be 5% higher than the one you wrote in 2020. First off, it only impacts the portion of property taxes that the City gets to keep. Last year, your residential Property Tax Bill looked like this:

So 58% of your property tax goes to the City, 35% to the provincial government through the School Tax, and about 7% to other agencies regulated by the provincial government. Everything else I talk about below here relates only to that to-the-City portion of the tax bill. To find out how the School Tax is set or how the BC Assessment Authority spends it’s 1%, you need to go to someone else’s blog. All this to say if the City put your municipal property taxes up by 5%, the amount of money you pay only goes up about 2.9% (that is, 5% of 58%).

If you look at your Property Assessment letter, you will note that the average change in property values in the City of New Westminster was a 3% increase. Because the City calculates its property tax rate based on this average value, a 5% increase will be based on this value. If your house went up in value by the average, then a 5% tax increase means the municipal portion of your property tax bill will go up 5%. The relationship between these two numbers is linear, so to calculate your potential increase, subtract the average value increase from your own value increase, and add the 5% increase the City is proposing:

My assessment (1940 SFD on a 5,300sqft lot in the Brow) actually went down by 11% since last year. So my Municipal taxes would go down by (-11)-(3)+5=  –9%.

My friend in Sapperton (1920 SFD on a 4,000sqft lot) saw her assessment go up by 20% over last year, so her Municipal taxes would go up by (20)-(3)+5= 22%.  Yikes.

Assessment is a dark science, and every year there are weird local effects of property values in one neighbourhood going up or down relative to others, and it is not always clear what the causes of these changes are. A recent example is the Heritage Conservation Area in Queens Park which was either going to cause housing prices to go through the roof and make the neighbourhood forever inaccessible to young families, or was going to crater the value of the houses dooming young families to inescapable debt, again depending on which Social Media account you followed. The reality is, it had little perceptible effect when compared to similar properties in Glenbrook North or the West End over the last 5 years. The market is bigger than one neighbourhood.

Properties actually sell “above assessed value” or “below assessed value”, a metric that is often used as an indicator of a market trend, since assessments are always at least 6 months old. However, it is important to remember that, in aggregate, things just don’t shift as much as they do in one-off conditions. If the person up your street who spent $50,000 on a new kitchen sells their house, they are likely to get more than the neighbour who has a black mold farm in the basement, even though both houses may look the same from the outside. Assessments are approximations of how the “typical” or median house of the size, age, and lot dimensions in your neighbourhood should be valued, not an evaluation of your wainscoting. Individual results may vary.

If you think your increase or decrease this year is unfair, there is a process to appeal your assessment, but you can’t dawdle. Local governments have to know the official assessed values by April so we can set our tax rates and get those cheery bills into the mail, so the Assessment Authority has to provide official numbers by the end of March. Therefore you only have until February 1st to file an appeal, but if you think you might want to do so, you should contact BC Assessment immediately and get the details about what you need in order to make that appeal. The important part is that the onus is on you to provide evidence that the appeal is wrong, not vice versa.

Ask Pat: Wards

KJ Asks: Hey Pat, why don’t we have wards in New Westminster? Is that the only way we can get a Councillor from Queensborough?

Your timing is a little off. The discussion of a ward system usually come up some time during municipal elections. It is often raised by a neighbourhood group that feels it gets less benefit from City Council largess than it deserves (so, pretty much every neighbourhood), with the suspicion that a ward system would help.

In many jurisdictions in Canada, municipal councilors are not elected “at large” to represent the entire City like in New West, but are elected to represent a single neighbourhood or group of neighbourhoods called “wards”. Instead of voting for your favourite six from across the city, you vote for one from your neighbourhood only. For some reason, this is not common in British Columbia, and excepting Lake County (which has 4 wards and two “at large” councilors, to the chagrin of some, there are none in BC. Surrey is looking at it, though.

Section 53 of the Local Government Act makes it possible for a City to pass a bylaw to switch from the default “at large” system to a “neighbourhood constituency” system, with no specific requirement for a referendum to make the switch, though the Provincial Government does need to sign off on the change. Running a ward-based election is a little more complicated (efforts need to be taken to make sure voters are voting in the right neighbourhood) and potentially a little more expensive, but there is no technical reason I can find why a City couldn’t do it.

There have been some suggestions made about why cities shouldn’t do it. Mostly, it is argued that the ward system actually reduces the diversity of representation and provides more power to established political systems/parties. Those are balanced perhaps by arguments that local neighbourhoods may have more direct representation, or at least the majority of the people in that neighbourhood do. I guess there has been enough written about this by others that I’ll leave it to you to decide which system is better, and that is not the question you asked.

What I’m more interested in is what wards might look like in New West if we went that way. In theory, we would try to have balanced population in each ward and do our best to keep traditional neighbourhoods whole. Having 6 council positions and 71,000 residents in the last Census, that would mean about 11,830 residents per ward. The problem is, we have 6 Council positions and something between 10 and 15 neighbourhoods, depending on how you choose to chop them up. Even the City’s OCP, there are two “neighbourhood maps”, neither of which align with the current list of Residents Associations. So there is definitely some ambiguity going in:

So I decided to have some fun with the 2016 Census data, which breaks the City into something like 92 census tracts. The tool census mapper by Jens von Bergmann makes it easy to look up various census data at different scales, so I relied on that data. I used to be a GIS guy, but don’t really have GIS tools at home to do this eloquently, so I took the data from census mapper and did a little traditional pen and paper work (I knew I would finally use that Geography degree!) and simple drawing software to sketch out what wards (if New West had them) might look like.

Gerrymandering aside, my basic first task was to think of how to clump neighbourhoods. My first attempt was to start at each end (Queensborough and Sapperton) and draw a ward for each of them that expanded to get as close as possible to the magic 11,833 number within the existing census tracts (71,000 residents divided by 6). Clumping downtown and Quayside together made sense to me, and the rest I just tried to draw lines that split up the middle third by population without too many squiggles in lines and trying to keep traditional neighbourhoods intact. It was not easy. Here are my 6 wards with the 2016 population:

One of the surprising things to come out of this exercise was to see how populated the Brow of the Hill is, even compared to Downtown and the Quayside or Sapperton. Alternately, Queens Park would need to append all of Victoria Hill, Fraserview and a significant chunk of the Brow to meet the population threshold required to fill a Ward.

One thing people may not realize that Section 118 of the Community Charter says a City of New Westminster’s size should have 8 City Councilors. Apparently, when New West hit the 50,000 population threshold about 20 years ago, they had a plebiscite about adding to the size of government, and you can all guess how that went. But if we were to shift to a ward system, it may be a good time to review what a Council of 8 would look like so I did a bit of a map with wards of ~8,875 residents:

In some ways, this works a little better. Queensborough would have a case for its own ward, and clumping Fraserview/Victoria Hill with the east end of Downtown makes more sense to me than clumping it with Queens Park.

Of course, population is growing faster in some neighbourhoods (Queensborough and Downtown) faster than others (Connaught Heights actually shrunk in population between the last two censuses), so future shifts to a ward system would shift a little to reflect this. I also wonder how we would ever create a transparent and fair ward districting system, because if former-GIS-guy City Councillor doing it using Microsoft paint based on 5 year old Census data is not the perfect system, I’m not sure what is.

There is also the small problem of my being the second most popular Councillor in the Brow of the Hill.

As for the Queensborough question, I would make two points. First, there is nothing in the Local Government Act that says a representative of a ward needs to live in that ward, though it would surely be an advantage electorally. Even without a ward system, I would suggest for a person from Queensborough to get on Council, they would need to run. Going back through the last 4 elections, 46 (!) people have run for City Council in New West, some multiple times. Only one of those people (to the best of my memory – I stand to be corrected here) lived in Queensborough. That’s not good odds. Alternately, looking back at the last three elections for School Board Trustee, 32 candidates have run, only one person from Queensborough has run, and she won handily in her first attempt. So the odds are good?

Council – Jan 4 2021

A New(!) Year(!!) is here, and we had Council Meeting right off the bat. The open agenda was fairly short, so it was soft landing back into the real world. We started with a piece of Unfinished Business:

New Westminster Police Department letter dated November 26, 2020 and report regarding Response to the Calls for Justice – Listening and Learning through Respect and Understanding
This report was sent to Council from the Police Board in response a motion we passed a little while back asking several of our partners to respond to the Calls for Justice that arose from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Our request to the Police Board was to respond to the Calls for Justice relevant to policing, and champion and lead a regional police task force to address them. This report provides a summary of the work being done, some of it relevant to the Calls for Justice, some that more generously might be characterized as community outreach. This second category is important and positive, but not specifically relevant to the Calls for Justice, and in not differentiating these, in some ways take away from the value of the report.

I think the parts of the report that speak to relationship building are good, and indeed this probably reflects that the Department has already understood the need for this work, and I think emphasizes a strength the NWPD has from which further work can build. However, fear a bit the report is stuck in the present (if that makes sense) in that it does not do enough looking back at the historic role policing played in building and supporting the systems that failed Indigenous women. It also talks more about what the force is doing now, and less about what the force would do differently if we were able to move past systemic racism.

That said, we did not provide a critique or specific feedback to the report in the meeting, as we determined it was better to have a formal review of the report through Council’s Reconciliation and Inclusion Task Force, who can provide recommendations to Council, and I suspect this is going to be a more detailed conversation between Council and the Police Board.


The following items were Moved on Consent:

718 Twelfth Street (Canadian Islamic Cultural Society): Renewal of Temporary Use Permit – Consideration of Issuance
There is a hall on 12th Street that the CICS has been using for religious assembly of a relatively small group for a couple of years on a Temporary Use Permit. It isn’t a permitted use in the Commercial zone it is in, but Council has previously asked staff to look at this designation and whether this type of use on upper floors of commercial storefront buildings may be appropriate – but we just haven’t had a chance to do that work yet. Council is being asked to consider a three-year extension of the Temporary Use Permit to both give staff time to do that police work and to give the CICS a chance to figure out if they want to stay there or go elsewhere.

1135 Tanaka Court: Rezoning for Cannabis Infused Product Manufacturing Facility – consideration of First and Second Readings
A company wants to use a light industrial property in Queensborough to manufacture cannabis-infused food products (“edibles”). If it was a food manufacturing facility, they wouldn’t even be coming to Council, but the regulations around cannabis are still prohibition-based, so we need to go through an extra zoning process, in this case a zoning amendment. This is a first and second reading, and will go to Public Hearing, so I will hold my comments until then.


Our Bylaws readings included the following for Adoption:

Zoning Amendment Bylaw (Patio zoning relaxations) No. 8246, 2020
This Bylaw that extends the current relaxation of patio rules through to the end of 2021 was adopted by Council. Better put on a wooly hat!

Zoning Amendment Bylaw (805 Boyd Street) No. 8214, 2020
This Bylaw that allows “self-improvement schools” in the big box Queensborough Landing area was adopted by Council.


We had one late addition piece of New Business:

Westminster Pier Park Fire Recovery: Request for Construction Noise Exemption
The Pier Park fire clean-up is complicated. A very short version of the story is that a creosote-and asphalt fire dropped debris in to the river, and we need to clean that up to the satisfaction of the Ministry of Environment, and that work really needs to be done in a way that protects fisheries habitat, and preferably before the salmon start to run down the river. Our contractor is concerned about timelines, and wants to have the ability to do this work outside of our regular construction hours, which needs a construction noise bylaw exemption because part of the work is on City titled lands. Council moved to allow that.


Now everyone get back to work and we’ll see you in two weeks.

Ask Pat: Making Home

ASP asks—

Hi Pat – What are your thoughts on Kennedy Stewart’s pilot project to build up to six housing units on lots zoned for single-family homes? Also, do you think something like this could work in New West?

I will avoid wading into City of Vancouver politics here, but if you buy me a beer (post pandemic) I might regale you with my strongly held opinions about the way this was handled from a political point of view. Today, I’ll instead try to answer the questions from a public policy side. I have not done the deepest dive into this (see all the caveat-form ass-covering below) but am basing my critique on the proposal as outlined here on the Mayor’s own website.

Skipping past the “pilot 100 lots first” part of it, the big idea was to pre-zone standard single-family lots in Vancouver to allow up to 4 living units in what I assume would be a fourplex or clustered townhome configuration. The new building would operate as a kind of Co-op ownership model where the price of three of the units were based on market prices (which would be, presumably, less than the Single Family Detached house it replaced) and the price of the fourth would be tied to some regional determination of middle-income affordability for initial sale, and for perpetuity through a Section 219 Covenant on title or other mechanism. In some larger lots, this could be expanded to 6 units (4 market, two moderate-income).

To assess this, I want to break it into two parts, while recognizing they are intrinsically linked: land use and affordability.

Land Use
There are about 40,000 Single Family Detached homes in Vancouver (data from here), out of a total of about 280,000 households, yet SFD is by far the most dominant land use by area. It is likely that most of these SFD have more than one dwelling unit in them, be that a basement suite and/or a laneway house, with varying levels of legality, but it still means less than a quarter of the living units cover a vast majority of the residential land in Vancouver.

I have sometimes pushed Gordon Price’s buttons on this, as he speaks frequently of the “Grand Bargain” inherent in the politics of urban planning in the Lower Mainland for the past couple of decades: we will allow bigger towers, mostly on SkyTrain lines, as long as you keep your hands off of the sacred and ill-defined Neighbourhood Character of our single family houses. I suggest that the “Cities in a Sea of Green” narrative of the Livable Region Strategy has boiled down to more localized “Towers in a Sea of Single Family Houses”. This unfortunately has far-reaching effects on housing variety and flexibility, the cost of providing things like utility and transportation services in a community, and the viability of our communities.

We have already accepted (tacitly at first, but now more formally) that basement suites and carriage homes are acceptable, and that they provide a valuable from of more affordable housing that the region would be hard-pressed to function without. With the overall shrinking of the size of families even compared to 20 years ago (never mind the Vancouver Special peak of the 1970s) the reality is that many of our Single Family Detached neighbourhoods are shrinking in population, even as the region’s population swells. Corner stores, community schools, recreation leagues cannot operate on a shrinking population base, especially if we continue to shift our mode of travel from the private automobile to more sustainable forms.

So putting four small families in well-designed compact homes of the 1,000 square foot scale on a single 4,000 square foot lot (FSR 1.0) with 50% lot coverage is, in my mind, a preferable form of land use than similarly-sized single family homes with a legal basement suite. Maybe not everywhere, as no one housing form solves all of our housing needs, but in huge swatches of that RS-1 zoning map, this change would make for better, stronger, more resilient, and equitable neighbourhoods.

Affordability:
When a random Vancouver-Special-having single family detached lot in East Vancouver has $1.7 Million in land value and $100K in improvement value, it is hard to see how “working class” affordability fits into this model. The mortgages required to buy a starter home like this costs something like $6,000 a month, which puts the annual mortgage cost perilously close to the median annual pre-tax income of Vancouver families (about $75,000). If we think of an East Van Vancouver Special as a luxury only 5% of the population can afford, then we perhaps have to talk about why we are allowing the vast majority of the residential land to be preserved for this use?

Of course, many of these houses provide for an increasingly inequitable form of serfdom where basement suites act both as “mortgage helpers” for the gentry, and limited-franchise housing for the peasantry. This proposal would, I think help in closing that gap by introducing a more equitable Co-op type model at the single-lot scale.

This relies on a few things that are uncertain, which is why I suspect the Mayor’s proposal was for study and piloting as opposed to wide-spread adoption. Making these projects economically viable so a median income family mortgage fits the market component housing would require them to be salable in the $700,000 range. This may mean pre-approved design (we could call it a “New Vancouver Special”) and perhaps even some training of the building community to find the most efficient way to build a Step Code compliant building of this scale and form.

I would also throw in a caveat that cities have become reliant on development to fund the infrastructure expansion to support population growth – and I’ll use the building of better sewers here as my example. Going from 35% to 50% lot coverage means we need to address things like storm run-off at a different scale. It also means sanitary sewers have to be upsized or we will need to shift building codes to reduce the volume of sewage generated. When a City permits the building of a high-rise or even low-rise apartment building, we can suck tens of thousands of dollars out of each unit in the form of DCCs and CACs to pay for this work. With thousands of individual small projects across the City (if we are going to treat these small projects like we currently do replacement single family homes), the balance between keeping those re-builds affordable and providing the necessary infrastructure backbone is even a bigger challenge. I suspect it can be done, but there are details to be worked out here. This needs work.

The other big caveat is the potential loss of a stock of low-income housing in the form of those legal and illegal basement suites in single family homes across the City. In theory, the one-subsidized-unit-per-lot part of this plan will offset that, but I want to see some numbers. The limited franchise of the renter in the illegal basement suite situation is still better than those people being unhoused in a rental market with persistent sub-1% rental vacancy. Though I resist the whattaboutism of expecting any single new housing policy to solve all housing problems, we do need to put the policy into the context of the multiple housing crises in our region. In practice, I suspect the uptake of this type of new housing would be slow to start, giving time to assure we are building appropriate supportive housing for anyone displaced – but this only adds to the urgency of building that type of housing instead of taking away from it.

Would it work in New West?
It would work differently, but I’m not sure it could work. And again I’m going to try to avoid the politics of it here (I have no idea if the community or Council would embrace this idea) and try to look at it as a policy.

Land values in New West are still quite different than in East Van. A standard lot in the West End of New West has an unimproved value of about $1M, and in Lower Sapperton closer to $800K (to pick two neighbourhoods of mostly-single-family homes where you could see something like this work). So off the bat you may think it would be easier to pull off here, especially as you consider our median family income is about the same as Vancouver’s. However, this also means knocking down an old house and building a new SFD on it (with a carriage house & basement suite, as we currently permit) can already provide three residential units at a buy-and-build price that is still in reach for a wider range of income levels, though still not the median income earner. You would have to compete with that option to convince a builder to invest in the build of a new four-plex or six-plex model.

This would make it more imperative that savings could be found and risk reduced through streamlined approval and standardization, which is complicated in New West. We have a rich diversity of “standard” lot sizes here: 130×50’ in Queensborough and the West End, 120×50’ in Connaught Heights and Glenbrooke North (unless you have a lane, then 100×50’ is typical). Sapperton is typically 45×112’ or 40×100’. Though Upper Sapperton may make the most sense, their lot dimensions and slopes may make it most difficult. We also have some aging infrastructure problems (such as ongoing sewer separation work) and some building-on-steep-hill problems that impact building costs and make standardization harder. Finally, I think having 10% of the population and revenues of the City of Vancouver makes it harder for New West as a City to do some of the planning and design work to make this the most viable option, and would still be a less attractive market than Vancouver for private industry to do that work. It is much harder and riskier for New West to be the bleeding edge on a program like this.

The Vancouver Special was developed in Vancouver (and adopted in some adjacent communities) because it was a governance and market response to needing a bunch of affordable-ownership housing during rapid growth. I like where this proposal went, because it applied that kind of thinking to our current housing situation. To answer your question in TL;DR form (after the fact!): I like the idea, I don’t know if it would work, but I wish Vancouver had given it a try.

As a final caveat, I want to say I am almost perfectly the wrong person to ask about this. I am not a builder, a professional planner or a land economist, but am an elected official expected to approve policy based on the best advice of these professions. That probably means I am speaking here from a Dunning-Kruger knowledge nadir. I would love to hear more experienced people talk about this model, and point out the complications I am too knowledgeably unaware of.