Opening Doors

I finally had a little time to condense down a bunch of thoughts and notes about the Opening Doors report that was delivered to the Provincial Government last year. I read the report when it came out last summer, and noted how it landed in an overstuffed news cycle to be almost ignored by anyone who wasn’t already a housing wonk. I might have winged a bit on line at the time, but I was not overall as critical as some of my neighbours across Tenth Ave.

Last month we held a Workshop at New West Council to talk through the report recommendations with staff support, and prepare a more formal response to the provincial government (you can watch a video of that meeting here and see the report and presentation City Staff prepared to inform that workshop here). This brings me to my regular warning that the comments that follow are mine, not the official position of New Westminster City Council or anyone else, and you might want to watch that video to see some of the more nuanced discussion other Councilors brought to the discussion.

The report needs to be put into the context of how and why it was created. It was an Expert Panel put together to provide advice to the BC and Federal Governments (delivered to the respective Ministers of Finance, notably) so it weighs heavily on things senior government can do. The Experts on the Expert Panel were, perhaps shockingly, bereft of municipal experience, and their decided expertise in finance and property development resulted in their firm application of Maslow’s Hammer. I also chagrin that the progressive *economic* quick wins proposed were the only part of the report that the senior government Ministers of Finance rushed to make comment on – and that was just to say no to them at the moment they were proposed.

But I’m already getting ahead of myself. Let’s look through the major policy directions proposed, from the municipal perspective. There were 5 major themes, and 23 recommendations, and you can read through them all if you like, but much like the conversation we had at the Council workshop, I’m going to summarize by order of government, because we all have work to do to address what is a national crisis at this point.

Things the Feds can do:
The roots of our current homelessness crisis are found in the early 1990s when Paul Martin looked at the comparatively modest housing cuts under a decade of Mulroney, and decided he could do better. The 1994 Martin budget got the federal government right out of the business of building housing. When a rapidly growing and urbanizing country like Canada goes from building 15,000-20,000 social housing units a year to less than 1,000 there are going to be devastating effects. And here we are.

Source: https://policyfix.ca/2011/10/07/where-has-all-the-affordable-housing-construction-gone/

So, with the Feds having the, by far, deepest pockets, it is not surprising that the one thing the Feds could do first is start using those funds to build housing. To quote directly:

the federal government make long-term funding commitments, as was done until the mid-1990s, rather than offering short-term capital grants. We recommend that the scale of these funding commitments reflects what is required for the construction of new social housing units to return to historic levels, when nearly 10% of all national housing starts were social housing units

There are also great recommendations here about making Federal Lands available for housing in high-demand communities, giving the non-profit housing sector more tax incentives, harmonizing programs that may speed housing being brought on-line (like federal/provincial/municipal building codes, fire codes, energy efficiency codes, etc.). But, still, someone has to pay for the housing that the market is not going to provide.

There is also a recommendation around incentives that stands out to me:

federal and provincial governments create a municipal housing incentive program rewarding the creation of net new housing supply wherever demand occurs… their primary purpose is to recognize municipal costs incurred in growing the housing stock and reward growth of housing supply where it is needed.

This addresses straight-on a significant downloading concern all Cities have in investing in affordable housing. Given an historic lack in Federal and Provincial funding (only beginning to be abated now), creative cities looking to be proactive have tried to leverage local powers to get housing funded. This means directly spending on housing, giving our limited land base up to affordable housing projects, or leveraging affordable housing as a community amenity attached to new market housing. This last one definitely has populist appeal, because it makes people feel we are making the “greedy developers” pay for it, but the reality is we are simply taking money that would have otherwise been used to pay for other community amenities – parks and recreation centers and libraries – and as we dip into those resources, we lose public support for growth, because we cannot provide amenities that assure a denser City is livable and full-service.

So this recommendation seems to suggest that Cities that meet housing growth targets are prioritized for federal funding. I actually hoped it would go a little further and suggest that federal infrastructure granting programs like ICIP should specifically hinge on high-demand communities like New Westminster meeting their housing targets.


Things the Province can do:
When Martin/Chretien gutted federal funding for housing in the early 1990’s, BC stayed in the business of building housing for another decade or so, until the Liberal Government of Gordon Campbell put an end to that in 2002. Though programs are now coming back in a meaningful way, we are left with a big gap of 20 years of underbuilding to our needs.

All of the points above about what the Feds can do also apply to the Province – they can provide funds, land, and incentives. Though their pool of funds is somewhat smaller, they are in the right place to note and be proactive about regional needs, and indeed the money saved by giving people safe, secure homes comes right back to the Province through savings in health care and other social support spending.

One aspect of this that is somewhat missed in the panel report is the opportunity for the Province to get back into the business of supportive housing. By the current model, the Province may provide funding to private developers to include affordable housing in their market housing proposals and/or provide funding for the not-for-profit sector to deliver and operate the housing. This is based on the neoliberal idea that government saves money by paying someone else to do something instead of doing it themselves. This is the model that brought us disastrous results when a pandemic hit the care home sector, and a model we still somewhat resist for healthcare. But this is still an operating assumption for housing that adds complication and uncertainty to the delivery of housing, and makes it harder to get housing built.

This report skates around the demand side of the equation. I know this is a politically charged discussion in a growing country with ambitious population and economic growth models, and I am not going to delve into the fanciful economics of a certain UBC landscape architect or the xenophobic ravings of familiar populists. Instead, I would suggest the place where demand management comes in is the federal and provincial taxation structures that reward the commodification of housing, while at the same time providing no benefit to renters or those who are unhoused. For whatever reasons these various structures (homeowner tax credits, capital gains exemptions for housing, etc.) were developed years and decades ago to encourage people to buy and stay in houses, they no doubt provide a perverse incentive during a housing crisis where most cannot afford the ticket to entry while taking hundreds of millions of dollars out of the government’s coffers that could be better applied to providing housing to those in need. This is the part of the Expert Panel Report that senior governments rushed to say they were not going to enact. See recommendations 21 and 23:

21.…make changes to tax programs to bring the treatment of renters and homeowners into closer alignment. This would include reviewing the impact of the capital gains tax exemption on principal residences… and extending comparable support to other forms of wealth building;
23. …phase out the Home Owner Grant. Monies saved from this should be used to fund social housing in addition to the commitments made in the 10-year plan.

Alas, the Culture of Contentment assures that no government, no matter how progressive their campaign, will be willing to address this disparity any time soon.

Another important piece missing from this report is the need to protect renters and keep people from becoming homeless in the first place. Again, the Province has made tentative steps in the right direction here, but is not where the City of New Westminster and other local governments have been asking them to be in stopping renovictions and demovictions.


Things for Local Gov’t to do?
I’m going to mix together our Regional and Local government parts here, and only note that the Expert Panel Report skips regional government altogether, though they are a significant provider of affordable housing in the Lower Mainland and other regions of the province. They are also the level of government that sets regional land use and housing policy, but we’ll get to that.

The part to remember is that this is a report to senior governments, and the question here is more “what can senior governments to do to either compel or make local governments approve more housing faster?”. This might sounds strange to many in New West, where we are meeting (and slightly exceeding) our regional growth strategy targets for housing, rental and affordable housing, and population growth. If anything, I feel people are starting to feel a bit of growth fatigue related to construction impacts. However, we are one of the few municipalities hitting these targets (as I talked about at length here), and housing demand is still far outstripping availability – so what can the province do to get those other municipalities to keep up?

Right off the bat, we know the first recommendation doesn’t work:

the B.C. government impose statutory time limits to all stages of the property development process, municipal or other, for all types of development. Similar limits imposed
in Ontario and Alberta can serve as examples

Putting an artificial timeline of, say 90 days on a Rezoning application as Ontario did, fixes nothing. The arbitrary nature of the limit belies the complexity of many rezonings, ignores that even the Province cannot commit to providing referrals within that time limit (in the case of EMA freeze-and-release provisions, or MOTI approval for development near highways as only two examples), effectively undermines the ability for an elected Council to do what the Community elects them to do. It reduces a local government’s ability to evaluate and benefit from land lift related to rezoning, and undermines any principle of meaningful community engagement over development. The net effect is that most rezoning applications would be turned down, not that most would get approved faster. It does this all while adding a new layer of bureaucracy – the tribunal through which applications not meeting timeline could be appealed.

Fortunately, more of the recommendations around introducing “affordability adjustments” to the Housing Needs Reports, aligning our OCP updates with these needs reports, provincial streamlining of development permitting processes province-wide and the such, are doable, reasonable, and would likely have wide-spread buy-in by municipalities, though they may take some work on behalf of all parties.

An identified theme is that Municipal and regional housing targets actually have to come with some force. We are dealing with a regional problem, and need to solve it regionally. There are a variety of sticks and carrots the Provincial Government can apply, and a lot of funding incentives for infrastructure to better support the pressures cities face as they densify. Indeed, changing how the province incentivizes growth would also result in significant greenhouse gas reductions and reductions in the cost of many different forms of service delivery. There is a big win in here, but it would require some political courage to step into what local governments (and regional governments) see as their turf. When half the mayors in the region are elected on straight-up or veiled promises to curb growth, political battles would no doubt ensue, but a crisis like this does not allow half of the region to say “not our problem” as has been the reality for a decade. They know who they are.

There are two aspects of how Cities approve housing that the Provincial government can definitely influence, as they are regulated at least in part but Provincial regulations: how Cities finance growth, and how our permitting programs work.

On the financing side, the report includes this recommendation:

conduct a full review of local government revenue sources and spending responsibilities… includ[ing] consideration of additional or enhanced funding sources for infrastructure and amenities that are more predictable and do not rely on rezoning or the development process. Preference should be given to means that capture land value through taxation, rather than homebuilding

To frame this a bit, Municipal governments collect Development Cost Charges (“DCCs”) on new growth, Voluntary/Community Amenity Contributions (“VACs” or “CACs”), and a whole raft of different fees and changes on development. It’s a bit of a complex mess, and outside of DCCs, not particularly well regulated. This creates not just cost, but uncertainty and complexity for builders and great variances across the province and region. One recommendation would be for the Province to clean some of this up. perhaps by expanding the DCC program to make it more flexible and reduce the reliance on VACs/CACs. This sounds easy, but is actually something that would have to be addressed with great care, as the balance between community and private benefit from growth (never mind the public perception of that balance) is precarious and dynamic, and Mencken warned us about seemingly simple fixes to dynamic human problems.

The second aspect of change could be in the permitting processes themselves. Given the financing issue is managed (see above),then strategic pre-zoning takes a lot of risk away from builders, and reduces the time taken to get from planning to occupancy. This type of strategic pre-zoning probably doesn’t want to occur until we have a funding model established to assure the community knows it is getting its share of the inevitable land lift (and Cities have a way to fund the parks, playgrounds, roads, theatres and libraries that make the community livable), and stricter and clearer design control is in place, as the City will functionally be ceding much of that control when it gives away zoning. There are incremental changes Cities can make in the short term (like New West, where we have given Development Permit authority to staff without an extra trip to Council), but some major shifts in the permitting process that are recommended (like reforming the problematic Public Hearing) would require changes to provincial legislation.


The summary
We have a housing affordability crisis because we are not building enough homes to meet demand. We have a homelessness crisis because we are not building enough non-market and supportive housing to provide appropriate shelter for people who are forced out of the bottom of the market as prices rise. These are two overlapping crises that require parallel approaches to fix.

The first problem is related to a complex mix of jurisdictional and political roadblocks, some easier to overcome than others, but even with the existing legislative framework and tax structure, municipalities can build to meet demand now. some of us are. If the Regional Growth Strategy is any guide, Municipalities like the City of North Vancouver and New West have shown that the solutions are available, but some municipalities simply don’t want to take part. We need to level that playing field.

The second problem is much easier to solve. Build housing for people who cannot afford to be in the market, like this country and this province did in the decades between WW2 and Mulroney/Chretien austerity, or as the Baby Boom generation calls them, the Good Old Days. Fortunately, this easier-to-solve problem can go first, and even the most reluctant local government can’t stop it if the senior governments are committed to fixing it. As a bonus, it takes the pressure off of the harder to solve supply/demand problem of market housing. But to solve that second problem, we first need senior governments to be more honest about the goals of our economic policies, while local governments need to be more honest about whether they actually want to solve the problem.

This report, for its strengths and weaknesses, could open doors to some of those more truthful conversations.

Council – Jan 10 2022!

A New Year, the same old Council Meeting report blog, starting with the same old “sorry I’m late, but things are busy!” lame excuse. Our January 10 meeting had a fairly light agenda, but started with a big presentation from staff:

Budget 2022: Five-Year Financial Plan 2022 – 2026
This is the last step in our annual budgeting process, the approving of a Bylaw that sets out the five-year financial plan as required by provincial law. There are lots of details here, and I should probably pump those over to a different blog post – coming soon!

Joy and Whimsy Initiative, Director of Parks & Recreation
2021 was a hard year for community. Not just our community, but the very idea of community. Many of the organizations and institutions that pull us together were struggling with shifting Public Health concerns as we stepped out and back into pandemic response. It was also a year where many of the Climate Change cheques we have been writing for 100 years started to get cashed in unpredictable but totally predicted ways. Trust me from the correspondence I receive in this job, people are anxious, uncertain, stressed. They need reason to smile.

Fortunately, the City’s grant process to community groups pivoted to help support events and ideas that drew community together within the limits available, and the City’s own Arts and Culture and Parks and Recreation folks developed programs to add to the joy and reduce a bit of the heaviness of the year. This report form Staff outline the successes of the programs. I heard a lot of positive feedback from the community about these small programs, and thank the community partners who helped make this happen.


The following items were Moved on Consent:

Heritage Revitalization Agreement (323 Regina Street) Bylaw No. 8304
This homeowner in Queens Park wants to build a larger-than-permitted Laneway House on a largish corner lot in exchange for permanent protection of the existing house. This will go to Public Hearing, so I’ll hold my comments until then.

Rezoning Application for Duplex: 122 Eighth Avenue – Preliminary Report
This homeowner in Glenbrooke North wants ot build a largish duplex where there is currently a smaller house. This is just a preliminary report to see if Council has any red flags, and it will have to go through consultation and committee review, and possibly a Public Hearing, so I’ll hold my comments until then. Frankly, I’m wondering why a property development that requires no variances from what is permitted even has to go through this onerous process, and why the density being proposed in such a high-services neighbourhood is so low.

Rezoning Application for Infill Townhouse: 337 and 339 Keary Street – Preliminary Report to Council
A developer want to build 9 townhouse-style homes on two lots in Upper Sapperton, and this is a preliminary report to see if Council has any read flags before it goes to consultation and detailed review. This looks like a positive family-friendly “missing middle” approach, the only unfortunate part being the space and livability loss due to the need to accommodate cars. Alas.

Update regarding Downtown Livability Strategy
I brought a motion to Council back in October, asking staff to be proactive at addressing some short-term and longer-term livability issues in Downtown. This is an update report on short-term measures that have been rolled out in the last few months. Primarily the interdepartmental team (Engineering, Police, Fire, Bylaws, Planning) have been emphasizing tactics (things we can and need to do now) over strategies (things we think we might want to do). These include ramped up outreach to people living unhoused, have worked to connect with and support the businesses operating downtown, worked with partners to respond to the impacts of mental health and addiction on residents, and have worked to improve cleanliness and improve access to public toilets. Staff have been re-assigned and had hours adjusted to make these things happen, and there is a constant effort to evaluate and shift how things are done to get better results. There is also some medium-term work being addressed, such as better coordination with TransLink on the station areas and looking towards more permanent public toilet options.

There is a lot here in this report, but I’m really proud of how all the departments of the City are working together to best support the entire community here, and how partner agencies from the BIA to BC housing are engaging. It is ongoing work, but we are already seeing results. Now if Metro can get that damn sewer project out of the way…

Uptown Active Transportation Improvements Projects: Design and Engagement Update
After a *lot* of public engagement, we are at a place where staff are comfortable moving forward with some concrete changes to the Crosstown Greenway and connecting this to the High School – a key Active Transportation connection. There has been a monumental amount of engagement here with alternate models demonstrated, it is time to get to work.

Some of the work is going to be done using less expensive material and a relatively rapid response (similar to the Agnes Street Greenway) that nonetheless provides protection for active transportation users. There will also be some loss of parking, which will no doubt disappoint some folks, but these corridors are vital for pedestrians, for transit users, and for cyclists (the transportation modes prioritized in our Master Transportation Plan), and displacing a few parking spaces is consistent not only with the MTP, but with our OCP and the City’s Bold Steps on climate action. If we are not willing to give up a block or two of reduced parking to achieve safe, protected, accessible active transportation, then we will never get there with any of those plans.


The following items were Removed from Consent for discussion:

Alcohol in Parks Program: 2021 Review
This report outlines the public feedback received on the alcohol in parks program last year. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive (more than 80% or respondents approve the program – a higher proportion of respondents than even told us they took advantage of it!) There is a slight bias towards expanding the program vs. shrinking it. Staff also did not note any increased workload, enforcement, or other problems. They are recommending keeping the program where it is, and looking to improve litter and recycling opportunities related to the areas of parks where the program is offered.

Amendments to the 2022 Schedule of Council Meetings
Staff have recommended a slight shift in Public Hearing dates, and I did not agree with this change, preferring we keep with the original schedule. With these changes we would have 7 ½ months without a Public Hearing. I don’t know what projects – affordable housing, rezonings, new developments – are on the queue for that period, but I am not comfortable with the risk of creating a backlog at a time when we are still facing a housing crisis, an affordability crisis, etc. The city needs to keep working and moving this important work forward.

BC Superweek Pro-Cycling Series: New West Grand Prix
There is a *lot* of uncertainty in regards to whether the Grand Prix can happen in 2022. As this race is part of BC Superweek, which is a professional event relying on Continental-level talent coming to BC to compete, we just don’t know what Public Health and travel restrictions will be in place in July. That said, it is unlikely that an event in Downtown New West can happen in 2022 as a couple of construction sites are in the way and the schedule for the Pattullo Bridge road closures in not yet certain.

So we have asked Staff to not yet give up on the race, but to continue to engage with the Superweek team to determine what a timeline to certainty is, and when we would have to commit time and resources if we chose to go forward in 2022. At the same time, Staff are asked to evaluate alternate locations for 2022 if the (epic, hilly, and unique) Downtown course is not viable. As talked about above, I want us to not shrink away from events if they can happen safely, as I think people need a reason to get together and celebrate their City.

So we are not committing to do it yet, but we are not yet committing to not doing it.


We then read some Bylaws, including adopting the following:

Development Cost Charge Reserve Funds Expenditure Bylaw No. 8307, 2021
As discussed on December 13, we need a Bylaw to authorize expenditures from the City’s Development Cost Charge reserves – the money developers give the city to pay for the infrastructure needs related to growth. This is that Bylaw, and it is adopted by Council.


Finally we had a Motion from Council:

Smoking Bylaws Review Mayor Cote

THAT Council request staff to conduct a review and scan of smoking bylaws in municipalities in British Columbia and report back to Council with a preliminary assessment and options to enhance New Westminster smoking bylaws.

We made a few changes to our smoking bylaws around when the federal government legalized recreational cannabis, but these bylaws are a bit complex, here and in every other jurisdiction. We get quite a few complaints about nuisance smoke, so it is definitely timely for us to have a review and compare our Bylaws to what is happening around the region, and to see if there is anything further we can do to reduce these conflicts.

And that was it for the first meeting of 2022. Happy New Year everyone.

Assessment stress

The first week of January is when the BC Assessment Authority releases their annual report on property values, including your personal assessment and regional trend data. More often than not, this is followed by some hyperventilation on line and in the media: How the hell does this keep happening? How unaffordable can housing get? What can be done? I’ll avoid those topics in this post* and let the media and pundits answer those in the way that serves their interests best. I just want to talk about New West, assessments, and taxes, since Council is going to be talking annual property tax increases on Monday.

The City is working towards a budget with a 4.4% tax increase. I’ve written about how we got to that number, and will write more after next week’s meeting, but until then I am going to assume that is what Council is going to vote for, and use that number as a placeholder to talk about the below.

A 4.4% tax increase does NOT mean your property tax bill will go up 4.4%. It might, but it is more likely to go up a little more or a little less than that, depending on what type of home you are paying taxes on, and how its assessment compares to the average across the City.
Here are the numbers from the BC Assessment authority for the “average” property in New West:All residential properties went up 13.1 %, but Single Family Detached houses went up more than this (21%) and Condos went us much less (8.2%).Since tax increases are based on the average value, this means taxes will be going up more for most SFD, and less for most Condos. Indeed, at the current proposed rate, the average Condo may not see any increase at all.

I’m going to use fake numbers to demonstrate how this works, because that level of detail is unnecessary to make clear how this works, and complicated math makes explanation complicated. This really isn’t that complicated. However, I note there are two confounding factors I need to mention here, because they matter. The City adjusts its tax rate based on all assessed land values, and I am only dealing with residential here, and am ignoring commercial and industrial. Also, I am only dealing with the part of your property tax bill (63%) that the City sets and collects, the blue part in this pie chart:

The rest is set by the province, and the City neither has control of it nor sees the money, so I can’t talk too much about them except to note they are there.

Ok, with those caveats aside let’s imagine the City collected $100 Million in taxes last year, and the combined value of all the properties in the City was $10 Billion. The City would need to set a tax rate (called a “mill rate”) of 10 to collect those taxes. This is the math:

($10 Billion in properties) / $1000 = 10 Million;
($100 Million in taxes) / 10 Million = (mill rate of 10)

As a property owner who owns, say, a $100,000 home, you use the mill rate like this:

($100,000 property value) / 1000 = 100;
100 x (mill rate of 10) = ($1,000 in taxes)

So lets then lets assume the next year the City Council decided it needed $104.4 Million to run the City, and therefore property taxes have to go up 4.4%. If the property values didn’t change at all, this would be simple, as the Mill rate will go up 4.4%:

($10 Billion in properties) / 1000 = 10 Million.
($104.4 Million in taxes) / 10 Million = (mill rate of 10.44)

But lets imagine, instead, that the City gets a report from the BC Assessment Authority that says the combined value of all properties in the City went up by 10% over that year. That changes the math:

($11 Billion in properties) / 1000 = 11 Million.
(104.4 Million in taxes) / 11 Million = (mill rate of 9.49).

Taxes went up, but the mill rate went down, because the inflation in property tax was lower than the inflation in property values. This will be the case in New West in 2021 where average values went up 13%, but taxes are only projected to go up 4.4%).

Now, we can talk about how that change in mill rate impact individual properties, becasue they do not all go up in value the same as the average. If in the last example (average property increase of 10%, tax increase of 4.4%) the property you own increases in value the same as the average, then the mill rate applies to you exactly as it does to the average, and you end up paying 4.4% more taxes. But what if your house goes up 2x as much as the average, and your neighbour’s house doesn’t go up at all? You end up paying a different amount of tax:

(remember, I’m using pretend numbers to make it easy to spot trends. Really, a typical home in New West was a little over $1 Million last year, the mill rate was 2.829, meaning a little under $3,000 in Municipal property taxes were paid on that home)

This will happen across New West this year. As the BC Assessment report that I mentioned in the opening showed that SFD houses went up 8% more than average of all city wide residential property values, so the 4.4% tax increase for the average SFD will be in the order of 12%. At the same time, the average Condo value increased 5% less than average, meaning that property taxes for the “average” condo should go down a little bit. If that doesn’t seem fair to you, all I can say is I didn’t invent the system, I just report it.

*(supply and demand; very unaffordable because the most comfortable are being made more comfortable through this; we can start building differently)

Addendum: The New West Record points out that the BC Assessment news release says the “typical” SFD home in New West went up 24% in value, which is a different number than the 21% they have in their Market Trends table or their interactive map (where my table above is from). Not sure what that is about, maybe a typo, maybe a mean-mode-median thing. Anyway, take the exact numbers with a grain of salt?