Earth Day 2022

In the zeitgeist of these times, one’s opinion about a day celebrating the intrinsic value of the planet that sustains us is probably influenced by the flavour of political leadership you prefer. But one thing that seems to bridge all political divides is the idea that trees are good things. That having more trees is better than having fewer trees. That we want to live near them and have them live near us.

So I want to mark Earth Day 2022 talking about trees.

We had a little event in Queens Park today, where Acting Mayor Nakagawa, the federal Minister of Natural Resources and the provincial Minister of Energy, Mines, and Low Carbon Innovation celebrated new trees in an established forest (more about why that is important below), and it gives me an excuse to talk about optimistic leadership.

The proverb is that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the second best time is today. There is nothing more hopeful and optimistic than planting a tree. We know the benefits of the tree will not be enjoyed today, that the shade of the tree will not be provided for a decade or more. It takes years for the full noise-abatement, flood-prevention, air-cleaning, habitat-restoring, fruit-providing, carbon-sequestering values of a tree to be realized. The planning here is well outside of any election cycle. So it is an expression of hope to commit to, to fund, to plant a tree you may never sit in the shade of.

In New Westminster, we are planting trees like never before. Literally thousands of them. Our Urban Forest Management Strategy is in the rapidly-getting-trees-planted stage. Concentrating first on currently under-shaded neighbourhoods like the Brow of the Hill and Queensborough, the City is protecting established trees on public and private property, requiring new plantings on development lands, and (most importantly) planting new trees on City-owned lands, including parks and boulevards.

The reason we had Ministers in Queen’s Park on Earth Day in 2022 was around two great programs happening right now. Both are supporting our Urban Forest Management Strategy, and both are supported by valuable external grants we were able to secure to make New Westminster (literally) greener specifically because we have these clear strategies and goals.

The first is our program to restore natural areas in our parks with native plantings, supported by the Tree Canada National Greening Program. Through that program, we got assistance to support the restoration of the ground level of some of our established forests, such as in Hume, Glenbrook Ravine, and Queens Park. These are areas where the tree canopy is well established, but old. These “single generation” forests are majestic, but when the trees are not diverse and are all the same age, they become susceptible to disease, and are not buffered for natural secession. By changing the ground-level conditions and introducing both young trees and other ground-cover, we build a more robust and healthy forest. This makes the big trees healthier, and assures that we will have younger established trees to fill gaps when older trees naturally age out of the forest. This program will see 25,000 saplings and plant plugs put in the soil in 2022!

You may have noted the signage around Queens Park where these areas are being restored. The signage is there to help people understand why we are asking people to not walk or ride their bikes through these area, and to keep your dogs out of there, so the new plants and restored soil can do its thing:

The second program is a more city-wide Urban Reforestation and Biodiversity Enhancement Initiative. This is the result of a $1.7 Million grant from the (federal) Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program and (provincial) COVID-19 Resilience Infrastructure Stream (ICIP – CVRIS) grant programs. This is going to fund a huge amount of our target tree planting for 2022 and 2023, and allow us to establish a new 1-hectare pollinator pasture in the City.

We are on pace, thanks in part of these types of grants, to beat our target for 10,000 established new trees in the City by 2030. We know this is not the complete solution for climate disruption, but along with our ongoing efforts to reduce our corporate and community GHG emissions, we recognize that sequestration through trees will become an increasingly important part of reducing atmospheric GHG. At the same time, they make our community a more livable place. If we maintain the momentum of the last couple of years, we will exceed out Urban Forest Management Strategy target of 27% forest canopy cover by 2035, and this will be a completely transformed City by 2050.

There are ways you can help out! As important as they are to our long-term goals, new boulevard trees do not, unfortunately, have a 100% survival rate. The boulevard is a tough place to be a young tree. There often isn’t a lot of soil to hold water over dry summers, dogs pee on you, things bump into you, and there is little protection from wind, hard sun, and other indignities. We plan for some attrition with new plantings, but you can help reduce that rate and increase the chances that the lovely new tree near your home joins the ranks of the established. You can become a Tree Steward by signing up to Adopt a Street Tree! See the details here.

This can be your non-partisan Earth Day gift to the planet that sustains us, and to a generation you have not yet met who will enjoy the shade your tree provides in the decades ahead. Happy Earth Day.

3 delegations

As I mentioned last blog, we had a few public delegations at Council on Monday that were notable. I don’t often write about public delegations here unless they result in direct Council action, in which case they make it into my regular Council Reports. But anyone can delegate on any topic in New West, so we often don’t know what is coming, and are not prepared to directly address the issue raised in the council meeting. It is also a weirdly pre-election political time, and as such, more of these delegations will be seen in context of October 15th. So with the benefit of a few days of reflection, I might like to look at the points raised.

First, a candidate for Mayor made his first appearance in Council chambers to ask Council to put the 2030 Olympic bid to a referendum of New Westminster residents. I, frankly, did not know how to respond to this request.

For context, there are four First Nations (Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Líl̓wat) putting together a bid to host the 2030 Winter Olympics, relying heavily on existing infrastructure built for the 2010 games. They have invited the municipalities of Vancouver and Whistler to enter MOUs to define how they can work together to achieve the bid goals. New Westminster is not a party to those MOUs, we have not (yet) been invited by the host nations to enter those discussions, nor are the details of the bid established enough for us to have an informed conversation about its viability.

So when one suggests residents of New West be engaged in a referendum on this, I am not sure how we would even phrase a question without sounding profoundly colonial and setting back relationships we are respectfully trying to build with those indigenous communities on whose land we live and work, and whose land on which the broader “we” were very comfortable holding our own Olympics a decade ago without (to my knowledge) doing a referendum of Indigenous Peoples. Further, I don’t know how we would operationalize any answer (yes or no) without violating core principles of reconciliation at a time when we are building relationships. So the request was not timely, and was not something I can imagine us putting resources towards right now.


The second delegation was from a long-time Council Watcher reminding us that the Community Charter (Section 118) says a City over 50,000 people should have eight councilors, unless we have a Bylaw saying otherwise. Back in the early 2000’s New West made a decision when the population went over 50K to not add two new councilors. In 2005, the City Council of the time put a non-binding plebiscite question on the ballot, and 70% voted against an increase in council. We have not, in my time at least, had any conversation about revisiting that decision. That was 17 years ago, and now that we are over 80,000 residents, it seems reasonable for a resident to ask whether we should review that decision.

My reflex response is that I just don’t feel the public is in a place today where a strong majority sees “more elected people” as the solution to any problem. Maybe that is cynical, and I could hear an argument that more elected officials results in better and potentially more diverse representation. So am going to stay agnostic on this for now, and just look at the numbers.

There are 19 Municipalities in BC with population over 50,000. Of those, seven have 6 Councilors (37%), twelve have 8 Councilors (63%), and one has 10 Councilors (Vancouver, which has its own Charter, so it doesn’t count here). Here is how they plot in population vs. council count:

Of the seven municipalities in BC with a population larger than 50,000 and six Councilors, four have a larger population than New West (Delta, Chilliwack, Maple Ridge, and the District of North Vancouver) and two are smaller than New West (Port Coquitlam and North Vancouver City). There is one municipality with population smaller than New West with eight Councilors, and that is Prince George (which despite a current spurt in growth, has effectively the same population as it did in the 1990s).

So what I take from this is that New West in not currently anomalous in its number of councilors, but would be one of the smallest municipalities with eight if we made the shift. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the number is perfect, or that the rules the way they are set up is optimal, only that New West seems to be within the category of nominal in regards to Council count. Let the conversation in he community ensue…


Finally, we had a presentation from a representative of the Uptown BIA expressing concern about the proposed Uptown Active Transportation improvements. This followed up on a letter sent to Council by the BIA.

The current plan is the result of lengthy public and user group consultation, and addresses the point that a new High School and major park destination is not well connected to our local or regional active transportation network. Direct-as-possible routes from the Crosstown Greenway on the west (through Moody Park, already built) and east (along 200m/2 blocks of 6th street) were identified as active transportation priorities.

There are some businesses on that block of 6th Street that are concerned about the change, because there will be a reduction in street parking. This is not surprising, as separated safe cycling infrastructure is often anticipated to bring a negative impact to retail areas. This despite there being extensive evidence from around North America and the rest of the world that merchants vastly overestimate the importance of cars as the mode their shoppers use, and that safe cycling infrastructure that displaces curbside parking does not hurt adjacent businesses, and may actually be a positive.*

That said, the updates on 6th Street are going to initially be installed using temporary hardware, similar to the Room to Move installations that occurred primarily Uptown during the Pandemic summers to test out where the balance between pedestrian and car space can be adjusted. Those informed some of the more permanent installations you see now on Sixth Ave where sidewalks are being expanded. The mobility lanes will be separated by more than paint (which is required to make them safe), but in a way that we can make inexpensive changes to iterate the design to make it work better. Part of that evaluation should include impacts on the local businesses, and I hope to continue that conversation with the BIA.

* References from:
New Zealand
Ireland
Toronto
Seattle
New York
Toronto, again
Portland
Los Angeles

Census 2021

The 2021 census data is starting to trickle out. The first release of data is on population and housing, which is obviously a hot topic in the Lower Mainland. This means there are a lot of news stories about what has changed since last census in 2016. However, because of the work I do, I prefer to look at the change over the full decade since 2011. This is because 2011 was the “baseline” population level that the 2040 Regional Growth Strategy for Greater Vancouver is pegged. Since every municipal Official Community Plan was developed in context of the 2040 RGA, and since we are currently updating to a new 2050 RGS, I thought it would be good to re-look at Greater Vancouver population change in comparison to the RGS with the new census data.

Regular readers (Hi Mom!) might remember me doing something like this last year with the 2020 Stats Can population estimates. As it turns out, actual counts are more accurate than estimates*EDIT – see below*, and an update is required. Here is the table of Municipalities with 2021 Census population sorted by the rate of growth since the 2011 Population used for the Regional Growth Strategy (yes, I excluded the minor Municipalities like Anmore and Electoral Area A, for simplicity, laziness, and because I can).

Where to start? Overall, the region (excepting those small Munis ignored above) grew by an overall 11% over that decade, falling far short of the predicted growth of 18%. This means there are at least 157,000 fewer people living the in Greater Vancouver than expected. Only three Municipalities added more population than the RGS expected: Maple Ridge, the City of North Vancouver and White Rock. That last one might be a surprise, but remember White Rock had the lowest predicted growth over the decade, and so their growth being on par with the regional average put it way above what was expected.

Note that North Vancouver District and Port Moody have essentially not changed in population over the last decade (though found two very different political pathways to this lack of change) and West Vancouver lost population. The overall result is that every region of greater Vancouver fell short of the predictions, excepting the Northeast corner of the regional district.

The story locally is that New West also surprisingly fell short of the RGS goals, though only by a small amount. Nonetheless our 17% growth rate was one of the fastest rates in the region. This is perhaps more remarkable when you note the only Municipalities growing at a faster rate happen to be the 3 easternmost ones – those with the greatest access to greenfield into which to sprawl.

Which bring us to the other New Westminster headline of this census release: New Westminster being touted as the major municipality with the second highest density in Canada. This is interesting, but I may argue this is a bit of an artifact of the data and political jurisdictions.

We are surely a dense urban community, which is a natural result of being the nucleus of a rapidly growing urban area for more than 150 years. Our footprint is compact (under 16 square kilometers) and we don’t have farms or large undeveloped areas of forest, having chopped most of those down about 150 years ago. Our urban form was mostly established before the automobile era, and was not extensively re-drawn with Motordom.

However, this does not make us that different from many older urban areas of Canada. But in looking at the data, we need to remember that satellite centres of Toronto or Montreal are amalgamated into one larger municipality. Shown at the same scale using Censusmapper.ca and population density data, it doesn’t immediately appear that New West (as a 79K population commuter suburb of Vancouver) is much denser than, say, the arguably comparable (population 72K commuter suburb of Montreal) neighbourhood of Verdun.

I’m not ready yet to say what it all means, as there is more data and mapping to come out. However, New Westminster is part of a region facing a long-standing housing availability crisis, and more acute housing affordability crisis. We may be bringing on supply as fast as anyone in the region (and faster than most) but at 79,000 people, we are still only 3% of the region’s population, and addressing the supply crunch is going to take more than New West can do alone. We need more action across the region.

At the same time, I am proud to say that New West is bringing in not just supply, but a diverse type of supply. Market condos are meeting the region’s most aggressive Family Friendly Housing policies. We are approving more Purpose Built Rental than we have in decades, and we have truly affordable housing options being built across the City as fast as the funding for these units becomes available. Though the value of land has shifted regionally past where rowhomes and townhouses represent “affordability” for most families, we are starting to see a big uptake on this type of build in traditionally Single Family parts of the City, and this long-standing gap in supply is finally being filled. We are also bringing this supply on while protecting the more affordable housing in the City, for the most part avoiding the mass displacement of people from existing lower-cost housing through strong policy. We have a lot of work to do, but we are on the right track.

*EDIT *: TIL: I’m completely wrong on this point.  Census population estimates may actually be a more accurate count of the number of residents living in a municipality, because they account for the way the census systematically undercounts. Read more here, if you care. Fascinating!

Budget 2022

One of the changes we have made in the City in recent years is moving the budgeting period up a little, meaning we are able to get the 5-year Financial Plan bylaw through Council in January, where we used to do it a little later in the spring. The true deadline for us to get this work done is the annual financial reporting deadline to the province that comes in May, but it is better practice for us to do this work earlier in the year so that staff can more easily develop annual work plans around an approved budget, which will hopefully lead to some efficiencies and make it easier to get things done in City Hall.

Council gave first readings to the 5-year financial plan last meeting, which means the budget is, effectively, passed. The headline (4.4% tax increase) has already been told, but I promised to write a bit more the Budget and how we got there. The 2022 budget part of the 5-Year Financial Plan looks like this:

On the revenue side, we are anticipating an overall 8.9% increase in revenues over the 2021 budget, with the increase in property tax revenue at 4.4% (after all, only about 37% of the City’s revenue comes from property taxes). As has been much discussed, New West is unique in having an electrical utility, so that $50+ Million in annual revenue always makes it look like our revenue per capita or per household is higher than other cities in the lower mainland, when we are usually about average after adjusting for the Electrical revenues, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

On the expenses side, this is where the City is spending that money. 2022 Expenses are about 4.8% higher than last year:

The biggest change this year in our General Fund (the part property taxes go toward) is to insurance rates. As always, we are subject to inflation on everything we buy, and inflation was high this year for the things cities like to buy, from fuel to lumber (our “basket of goods” is quite a bit different than the CPI). So a tax increase equaling 2.7% (out of the total 4.4%) is a combination of negotiated wage increases in the 2% range and inflationary increases in the cost of the business of running a City. On top of that, the same global insurance market situation that has caused your Condo and/or house insurance to skyrocket is also impacting the City. We will be paying $1.5 Million more on insurance in 2022 than 2021, which adds another 1.6% to the tax increase on that line item alone. We had a few service enhancements adding up to the equivalent of about another 0.8% increase, but saved some money in not operating the CGP and staff found some other savings in internal functions, meaning we effectively offset most of that 0.8% with savings.

On the utility side, we are seeing a continued trend toward increases higher than CPI, driven by increases in regional utility service costs and our need to keep the local assets maintained. I wrote about how our Utility funds work with some flow charts to show where the money goes a few years ago here, and though the numbers have gone up a bit, the effect is the same. Notably, both in the Water and Sewer we are a little ahead in both capital spending and building up our reserves than we were back when I drew those diagrams, so the financial health of the utilities is improving faster than expected, which I hope translates to a moderation in rate increases in the years ahead.

With $262M in Revenues and $216M in Expenses, we end up with a budgeted $46M increase in financial equity. But it would be premature to call that profit, because diligent readers will remember my constantly talking about our aggressive Capital Plan, which requires us to be converting that equity into capital assets, better translated as “building stuff”. The big number to note in the reconciliation of assets part of the table is the $170M in Capital expenses. it bears repeating that this is the big year for a couple of capital projects. We are budgeting $54M in 2022 towards the təməsew̓txʷ Aquatic Centre, almost $43M in upgrades to the electrical grid (including a new substation in Q’boro and replacing all of our meters), $7M in road rehab and $6M in new mobility lanes. If you want details on everything, look at the tables of planned capital expenses starting on page 64 of this report (warning – it’s a big download). It’s all there. More graphically, the $170M 2022 budgeted capital pan looks like this (with the black square representing $1M):

So, the City may plan to put $46M into reserves this year, but we also plant to take $76M out of reserves to pay for about half of that capital plan. This is based on a strategy that balances between drawing from reserves (“spending our savings”), borrowing against the asset value with long-term debt (“securing a mortgage”), and getting others to pay for it (grants form senior governments, money from developers through DCCs, etc.). I’ve written about how municipalities approach this balance in this older blog post. In practice, the balance looks like this:

So to wrap up, the City of New West is once again somewhere in the middle in the region as far as tax rate increases, has weathered the economic uncertainty of the pandemic, and is moving ahead aggressively with some long-awaited capital improvements.

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.

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?

Resilience

I never remember feeling like this before. The bad stuff is piling up. People and governments are being tested in ways I don’t think anyone anticipated, though it was easily predicted. What’s on my mind is not the bad news happening (there has always been bad news), but in the shift in mindset about the bad news. Maybe it was Trump, maybe it was COVID, maybe it is the algorithms in our news feed or there was truth to the theory that David Bowie was holding the good in the Universe together. I don’t know the cause, but I have been thinking about how a shift in language I noticed might give insight into a change in out collective mindset, and what it means to be in a leadership role at this time.

I am involved in a few organizations that bring Local Governments together. I’m on the Executive of the Lower Mainland Local Government Association. We bring local government leaders together to network, share resources and knowledge, and advocate for the things we need (money and/or regulatory change) to make our communities work better. I am also the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Community Energy Association. We are a not-for profit with a growing professional staff that empower local and regional governments to achieve energy and emissions reductions targets, through planning support, coaching, and actual implementation of programs that move the dial on Climate Action.

In both of those organizations, we spend a lot of time strategizing the best way to serve our communities. We are both receivers and dealers in Buzz Words. In that part of the work, there has been a shift that was so subtle, I didn’t even notice at the time, and was swept up in the change such that I even changed my own language and thinking without noticing. Only with hindsight, and only recently, have I started to think about what we may have lost.

The shift is how we stopped talking about (and building towards) sustainable communities, and are now talking about (and hoping for) resilient communities. Perhaps this is not a revelation. Google “resilience is the new sustainability” and you get an awful lot of hits, most of them of the eco-marketing genre. Resilience is the new buzz, sustainability is passé.

This has been in my mind of late because [gestures to everything happening around us] and how wordshift / mindshift is not limited to those organizations above, but in communications being used by the government in face of overlapping catastrophe. The increased reliance on “resilience” as a planning idea, a community goal, a vision, means something different when you recognize just don’t talk about sustainability any more, it turns to dark thoughts.

Sustainability, use as a buzzword aside, has a clear definition that can be traced back to the Brundtland Report and can be simplified to “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. There is a hope in sustainability. A vision that we can do better right now in ways that will make things better in the future. It’s planning for a prosperous future, like planting a tree under whose shade you may never personally sit. It tells the next generation that we care, that we are cognizant we are passing to them a legacy of our decisions, and we are taking responsibility for that legacy.

Resilience is something different. So shockingly different that it is amazing we have so easily slotted it in to replace sustainability. Though definitions may vary based on context, the one we are talking about in community planning and governance is something akin to “an ability to recover from, or adjust easily to, misfortune or disruption”. This is a different vision, one that sees a lot of bad shit coming down the pike, and we can do nothing to stop it, so hold on tight, and we’ll try to get you some pillows to soften the blow. It is different than hope, and if it isn’t exactly despair, it is at least stripped of optimism.

These days, our emergencies feel like Matryoshka dolls. Last week’s emergencies are sitting within last month’s emergencies, sitting within the emergency that has been going on for two years, surrounded by a decades-long building emergency that is, ultimately, the cause of last week’s emergency. And will be the cause of next week’s.

How did we get here? After decades of talking about, instead of applying, a sustainability lens to addressing that big emergency, we are left with trying to build resiliency to the inevitable emergencies that we know are coming. It is an admission of failure at providing the basic stability of yesterday to those living tomorrow.  If we weren’t successful at the sustainability, why would we believe we are going to be successful at resilience? How did we let this shift happen without us noticing it? Without even comment?

These questions are rhetorical, but the answers are there for us. There is the generational failure where hoarding was seen as the best path to assuring the next generation’s prosperity. There is the neo-liberal outsourcing of solutions for pressing problems to a market that was wholly unequipped to think long-term because we had to be creating something to hoard. There is an intentional erosion of trust in institutions from science to education to governance to journalism that has disarmed the warning systems that should have shown us this future. There is a paucity of leadership, replaced with caffeine hits of populism.

Worse than a lack of vision, there is a fear of vision. A suspicion of vision. We are at the same time clamoring for change and terrified of change. Ideas like “maybe we can fix homelessness by building homes” are seen as radical, fanciful, and ultimately unaffordable. So the change we are getting is the one we could not avoid. At the heart of it all is the feeling that we, one of the most prosperous societies in the history of the globe, can’t afford change. We need to keep digging the hole, because hole-digging is what’s going to pay our way out of this hole. Yes, I’m looking at you, TMX.

If there is hope in this, it is that there are people who see past this. There are leaders in our community, in our province, in our country who are talking about what we can do, not what we can’t. Because shit has to change, and this dread you are feeling doesn’t need to be there. We can’t settle for resilience. Sustainability is not a pipe dream we should let die, it is the survival of all we value, and it is the promise we should be making to the next generation, and to ourselves. It’s the path away from this dread.

It’s the work we have to do, now more than ever.

Getting to AAA

Last month I put forward a motion (passed unanimously by Council) asking that we commit to planning and building a AAA Active Transportation Network in New West. I thought I would take a bit of time to outline what that means (from my point of view, anyway, because I am always cautious not to speak on behalf of all of Council) and talk about why I think it is important for us to do it now.

As I am often using terms more familiar to transportation advocates than your average person, maybe I could start by talking about the italicized-in-blue term I just used. Because this is not just about bike lanes. Though it may include bike lanes.

AAA” stands for All Ages and Abilities, to differentiate it from infrastructure built specifically for me – the “avid cyclist” stereotype. I’m a healthy middle-class middle-aged sorta-fit guy who has been riding bikes pretty consistently for more than 45 years. I have raced bicycles (mostly mountain bikes; remarkably unsuccessfully), I have commuted by bicycle in big cities and small towns, ridden next to highway traffic over mountain passes sometimes more than 100km in a day. I even spent some time as a bicycle courier in downtown Vancouver, back when that was something people did. Because of this history, I have a high tolerance for danger and an inflated sense of invincibility. I don’t need bicycle lanes or special infrastructure to get me riding my bike. I’ll ride anyway (and probably irritate a few drivers on the way, but we’ll get back to that). AAA bike infrastructure isn’t for me.

Transportation advocacy used to be about people like me – wanting to make trips safer for a American Wheelmen (yes, that was the name of an early cycling advocacy group, and by early, I mean until the 1990s). But there has been a shift in North America since then, following after a couple of decades of progress in Western Europe, to shift towards making cycling infrastructure work for more people. Ideally, everyone who chooses or might choose to ride a bike (or trike, or quadcycle, or handcycle, etc.), but may not be avid about it. Like the way many people drive cars or ride buses, but aren’t avid drivers or avid passengers.

There is also advocacy around “880 Cities”, the idea that if you build a City that is safe enough to make an 8 year old and/or an 80 year old comfortable and independent in public spaces, it is making the space safe and accessible for everyone. You can read into that that people should be able to ride their bikes to school, even in elementary school (like I did as an 8-year-old). An 80-year-old should be able to ride as safely as they can walk, to expand their reach and options in a community and make them less reliant on cars (like my Mom does, with the help of her E-bike). To build for these users, we need to build AAA.

This corresponds with talking about Active Transportation Routes instead of the more restrictive “bike lane”. This means infrastructure should accommodate adult trikes or recumbents for people who may rely on the extra stability they offer. It should also be comfortable to share with people who rely on scooters, electric wheelchairs, or similar lightweight controlled-speed rolling devices. Multi Use Paths (MUPs), where pedestrians are mixed with rolling users should be built in a way that accommodates both user groups and their distinctive needs. Moving bicycles off of busy roads and onto sidewalk-style MUPs makes the bicycle riders feel safer from the larger, faster vehicles, but it may do so by making bicycles the larger, faster vehicles making some pedestrians feel less safe, unless a MUP is built what that in mind.

Finally, we need a network. Bike lanes are like roads, sidewalks, and pipes: they don’t do as much good until they are connected to something. Some people note they don’t see a lot of people using the Agnes Street bike lanes, or the bike lanes in front of the new high school, but both of them represent an important first piece of infrastructure that isn’t yet connected to a network. For users like me, it’s great to have those sections of increased safety; for less confident users, 100m of missing safety between two great bike lanes can be the barrier stopping them from riding on either. This is the issue being addressed by current region-wide “Ungap the Map” campaigns.


So, where is New West now? We are six years into the current Master Transportation Plan, and have made serious progress in pedestrian safety and accessibility. Though it lags behind a bit, we are starting to see some key parts of our planned cycling network come into place. However, the planned bike network envisioned in the MTP is no longer, I would argue, the vision for a AAA Active Transportation Network we would choose to develop if we were starting today. We can, and should, do better.

By way of sketching on the back of an envelope, our current network of infrastructure that meets AAA standards looks something like this:This is a map I sketched up using MSPaint just for discussion purposes. This is NOT an official City of New Westminster map, and possibly not even accurate.

There is some good stuff there, but it is disconnected and incomplete. Of the AAA we have, it leans heavily on the MUP-in-the-Park bikes-are-for-recreation model of the 1990s.

In my mind, a complete AAA network built off of our existing system would look something like this:

Once again, not a map created or endorsed by the City of New Westminster or anyone else. I just sketched this up to facilitate a discussion. Actual plans will probably look different than this.

Note that there are two kinds of future AAA Active Transportation routes shown in my sketch. Those shown in Yellow would comprise separated and protected bike lanes and/or MUPs (like the Agnes Greenway or the CVG past Victoria Hill), where people rolling or riding are not expected to share space with cars. The other type is shown in blue, where bikes might continue to share road space with cars but only if there are specific structures to significantly calm the traffic and force cars on that route to move at bicycle speed. No cars passing bikes, no person on a bike placed between a moving car and a parked car, and intersections designed to be safe by people using all modes. There are several routes like this in Vancouver (I think sections of the Ontario Street or 10th Ave bikeways in Mount Pleasant qualify), and maybe London Street through the West End is the closest example in New West (though there could be some improved calming and signage there). There is some work for us to do to establish the standards we want to apply to safety/comfort of these routes to call them AAA, including the level of traffic calming we can achieve vs. the need to separate.


Finally, I want to emphasize that the time is now to do this work, for a variety of reasons.

One result of the pandemic is that it resulted in a generational shift in how people around North America move about their cities. Bicycle take up has happened at an unprecedented rate, such that stores across North America ran out of bikes and parts to maintain them. Add to this the battery and technology revolutions that have brought reliable e-assist bikes and other personal mobility devices that open up active transportation to many people who did not see that as a viable option previously.

Some communities have seen more rapid pick-up in this shift than others. And surprisingly (unless you have ever been the Madison Wisconsin or Boulder, Colorado), it is not warmer climate or flatter topography that correlates with this take-up, it is the availability of safe infrastructure. Like roads – build it and they will come.

Examples abound, but I’ll limit myself to two: In Paris, Mayor Hidalgo introduced Plan Velo, and committed to 1,000km of cycle paths, a key part of the 15-minute City vision, transforming her city into one that is now seeing close to a million bike trips a day. Recently, emboldened by a landslide re-election, she doubled down with another $300M investment in expanding bike lanes. The City of Lights is becoming a City of bikes.

Closer to home, the work Victoria has done since adopting a 5-year plan for a AAA bike network in 2016 has been equally transformative. With most of the network now installed, it is seeing incredible take-up, and Victoria has established itself in a few short years as one of the most bike-friendly cities in Canada.

At the same time, senior governments in Victoria and Ottawa are funding Active Transportation projects as never before, so we don’t have to pay for this alone. But right here in New West, we have introduced an ambitious climate action plan, framed around 7 Bold Steps. These goals will not be achieved unless we start shifting how we move around, and how we allocate road space in the City, and only a complete AAA Active Transportation network will get us there. The time is now to commit to this work, and to ask staff to give us the data we need to integrate that commitment in to our 5 year capital plans.

Rental Astroturf

I’m going to get a little polemic here. A friend sent me a note asking about this Facebook post, and why New Westminster has such a low grade in supporting renters:

The post is actually a paid advertisement from a shadowy group calling themselves The Rental Project, and I’ve seen their work before. It’s not surprising that my friend saw this ad. He is a renter who spends some time online talking about the housing crisis, and The Rental Project spent more than $56,000 on Facebook ads in the last couple of years selling bunk like this in the Greater Vancouver area. $56K on Facebook will definitely get you some notice.

Perhaps it’s not really fair to call this group shadowy, because they don’t even come out into the shadows. At the surface, it looks like a grassroots group of people supporting renters and the needs of renters in Metro Vancouver. Indeed, looking at comments on any of their Facebook posts ads and you see responses from people concerned about affordable housing and policies to protect renters. But look at The Rental Project’s webpage. There are no authors, no links to members, no indication who is collecting their data, writing their reports, or paying their staff to design $56,000 in Facebook Ads. It’s not even clear who you are financing if you choose to click the prominent DONATE button.

This is Astroturf. A campaign made to look like a Grassroots effort, but clearly green-coloured plastic standing in place of grassroots. The reality of who is behind it is the story behind New Westminster’s “D” score.

If you look at the “report” being promoted in this ad, the first thing you may notice is that it is lacking in any cited sources or links for their information (though I have no reason to believe the numbers they report are untrue), and that the data and commentary that supports the letter grade headlines is inconsistent and incomplete. There is no mention of an author, and no way to connect to them to ask questions. The word shoddy is easily and fairly applied.

They award New Westminster  a grade of “D” – their lowest grade (though they failed to grade the Langleys, Delta or White Rock). I’ll come back to the rest of their comments in a bit, but I want to look closer at the only actual quantitative data they provide, a short table in the end of the report:

I need to emphasize again that there are no citations, no indication where the numbers here come from, but even if we take them at face value, it shows New Westminster (Grade D) is filling rental need at a rate compared to population growth (their measure, not mine) greater than almost any other community listed. We are more than twice as good at meeting the demand as North Vancouver City (Grade A-) and three times that of Burnaby (Grade B). The only graded Municipality with a better rate of new rental vs. growth is North Vancouver District (Grade C) who achieve that statistic by growing at less than a third of the rate of New West. Invite no-one in, and you don’t need to build new housing. I’m not sure how that serves renters during a housing crisis, though.

Keen observers may note the comparisons here are bereft of actual population numbers (it would make sense that municipalities with 700,000 people should be building more rental on raw numbers than municipalities with 70,000). There are also a few municipalities missing, so I expanded the table out a bit to give a little more context. What do we learn?

here is my population data source: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/data/statistics/people-population-community/population/population-estimates

New Westminster is building more rental per capita than any municipality rated. Much more than most.

So why the D grade? Why are we graded lower than Richmond, whose numbers they don’t provide but they describe as “gain[ing] the  fewest number of rental homes in the entire Lower Mainland in 2020,” and West Vancouver, “did not increase the number of rental homes in the city in 2020. A divided council prevents the municipality from making the gains it needs”? Why the specific hate for New West?

Because we have protected the most affordable housing in the City.

This goes back to who is behind the well-financed Astroturf campaign . It is not organizations working to protect renters by supporting rental development in the community or preserving the affordability of rental across the region. It is an organization protecting the financial interest of Landlords, especially those using lower-cost rental as an investment vehicle, and those investing in REITs.

A few years ago, New West passed aggressive anti-demoviction and anti-renoviction Bylaws. The Landlord Lobby came after us hard. They bought advertising saying we were killing rentals, they came to Council and warned us of dire consequences for future rental development, they took us to court. And they launched Astroturf campaigns.

Their main argument was that these Bylaws were illegal, and that these types of policies would prevent any new rental being built. They were wrong. Not only are we still, three years later, leading the region in getting new Purpose Built Rental in the ground, we have had several major development projects shift from for-market-strata to Purpose Built Rental since these Bylaws passed, increasing by hundreds the number of PBR units in the pipeline, and being built as we speak.

These bylaw changes are so powerful that the Landlord Lobby has challenged them in court (and lost). Meanwhile, other cities from Port Coquitlam to Victoria are following suit and writing their own bylaws to provide the same protection in their communities. New West showed such leadership here that the provincial government changed the Residential Tenancy Act to provide some (but not all) of the protections we introduced in our Bylaw. At the same time, our Bylaw changes have literally prevented hundreds of lower income households in New Westminster from being demovicted or renovicted.

No wonder the big money REITs are scared and investing tens of thousands of dollars on political action. Their business model is based on finding “undervalued” rental properties – ones renting for less than the maximum market will bear – so they can jack rents and make a quick profit off putting lowest income people in the City out on the street. When that’s your business, it isn’t hard to find $50K to spend on Facebook ads that blame the unaffordability of rentals on the government. And to be clear, if that’s not the business model, if investors just want to invest in rental property, maintain it in good repair, and assure people have access to rentals at a variety of affordability levels, then they have nothing to fear from New Westminster’s Bylaw changes.

I’m damn proud of the staff of New Westminster for putting these Bylaws together, our legal advisors for assuring they are robust and defendable, and our Council for being bold enough to take these measures to protect some of the most vulnerable residents in our City when literally threatened by lobbyists for landlords and property speculators.

We can do more. Like every City in the region, we can and should be doing more to support affordability through this ongoing housing crisis. Self-evaluation is an important part of this – given funding constraints and limited land and conflicting priorities, it is important to track how we are doing compared to our cohort municipalities. As long as we are still building Purpose Built Rental at a region-leading rate, as long as we are also assuring affordable and supportive housing projects are coming to the City and are supported by our policy choices, and as long as we are preventing unnecessary renovictions and demovictions that turn homelessness into an investment vehicle, I will proudly wear the “D” grade from this deceitful Astroturf campaign as a badge of pride.

UBCM 2021

One of the things that kept me too busy to blog last month was the annual Union of BC Municipalities meeting. As with many of my Council colleagues, I attended the meeting virtually, and had a bunch of accessory meetings around the main UBCM meeting events. It’s a little tardy, but here is my slightly Inside Baseball run-down of my extended UBCM week.


Minister Meetings
UBCM presents an annual opportunity for Local Government elected folks (with staff support) to meet with Provincial Government Ministers (and their staff) on pretty much every topic under the sun. Depending on the Local Government and the Minister, this may be asking the senior government for money to support projects, for changes in legislation, for partnership on specific initiatives, to share concerns or to get clarity on programs. As this was a pandemic meeting, and therefore remote, we were not as rushed to meet during and in between UBCM events, so most Minister meetings happened in the week before the actual UBCM conference.

The City had several meetings with Ministers, attended by different members of Council. I was fortunate to be able to meet with Minister of Municipal Affairs, and along with Councilor Trentadue, provide her a summary of some significant Capital Works we have planned- including upgrades to the Massey Theatre and renewing a vision for connecting our Riverfront from the Queensborough to Sapperton Landing. We also talked about a potential for regional coordination of fire boat services.

Though I could not attend, the City also had meetings with other Ministries, including with the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and the Minister of Public Safety in regards to reviewing how we can better address the community impacts of homelessness and addiction and take the load off of Police for this work that really needs a compassionate heath-focused approach.

In my role on the executive of the Lower Mainland Local Government Association, I was also able to meet with Minister of Environment and Climate Change Action Heyman to talk about our members’ recent resolutions regarding the end of CARIP and the need for some more tools to Help Cities Lead and our hopes that the next stage of Clean BC will include these supports.


Resolutions
This session stretched over two days is where Members vote to endorse or not support Resolutions proposed by member municipalities. In sense, this is meant to represent the collective desires of Local Governments across BC, but should usually be seen through the lens of the slightly strange political structure of the UBCM. Any municipality can put a resolution forward, but the Resolution Committee of the (elected) UBCM Executive vets them and prioritizes them for voting, even recommending if Members should vote for specific ones. The voting members are not weighed by population or any such thing – essentially any elected official who registers for the meeting and shows up for the resolution session gets a vote. So eleven possible votes from Vancouver, seven possible votes from New Westminster, five possible votes from Pouce Coupe.

You can read all of the Resolutions here. The City of New Westminster had two resolutions:

NR36: Single-Use Item Regional Regulation

Whereas enactment of bylaws to regulate single-use items by individual municipalities could lead to a mosaic of regulations across the region and in BC, which may lead to confusion and inconsistency for residents and businesses in the sale or distribution of these items; And

whereas greater consistency could be achieved by implementing a regional approach; And

whereas regional districts do not have the authority to establish bylaws or regulations in relation to the sale or distribution of single-use items:

Therefore be it resolved that UBCM request the Province to engage with regional governments to develop legislation which would provide regional districts with the legislative authority to restrict the sale and distribution of single-use items.

NR45: Inclusion of Allied Health Workers to Help Combat the Opioid Crisis

Whereas the opioid crisis and mental health challenges affect at least 1 in 5 BC residents and has been compounded by the COVID-19; And

whereas evidence shows that access to upstream services such as counselling related specialties and physical/occupational therapy decreases opioid use and/or provides better health intervention outcomes, but these are not accessible to many residents as they are not covered and are much too expensive through fee for services; And

whereas communities are currently struggling to meet the needs of our residents, between funding of community programs and increased mental health calls for first responders, which already comprise between 20-30 percent of local government expenditures and are not often the most appropriate service to support people in crisis:

Therefore be it resolved that UBCM request that the Province expand access to and funding for allied health professionals, particularly mental health counselling specialties and physical/occupational therapy related specialties, through expansion of team-based care through not-for-profit delivery including community health centres, available to all BC residents regardless of their immigration status and income, throughout the province; And

be it further resolved that the Province increase support and funding for Peer Navigators as part of the BC Mental Health and Addictions Strategy

Members of the UBCM voted to endorse both of these motions.

I was also there to champion two resolutions from the Lower Mainland LGA:

EB35 Help Cities Lead

Whereas emissions by buildings account for 40-60 percent of a community’s green-house gas (GHG) emissions, and current actions in British Columbia to reduce GHG emissions from buildings are insufficient to achieve the province’s GHG targets for 2030 and 2050; and

Whereas the November 2020 mandate letters to ministers include direction to provincial ministries to move forward with three of the five policy measures included in the Help Cities Lead campaign to drive GHG reduction in British Columbia’s building sector:

Therefore be it resolved that UBCM call upon the provincial government to immediately introduce legislation supporting the three measures identified by Help Cities Lead and addressed in ministerial mandate letters: GHG requirements for new buildings, PACE financing, and home energy labelling; and

Be it further resolved that UBCM call upon the provincial government to introduce empowering legislation to permit local governments who so choose to implement the remaining two measures identified in the Help Cities Lead’s campaign: GHG requirements for existing buildings and building energy benchmarking.

NR32 Renewed Vision for Fraser River Estuary

Whereas the Fraser River Estuary is a diverse and productive ecosystem, supporting over 100 species at risk, including salmon and southern resident killer whales, and, is under increased development pressure and impacts of climate change, including flooding of industrial and agricultural lands, and would benefit from a regional planning approach that balances the needs of the ecosystem, people and the economy; and

Whereas Indigenous people have lived in and stewarded the Fraser River Estuary since time immemorial, and know the various species, habitat, and ecosystems as integral to their existence and identity, and are integral to the planning and governance of the of the Fraser River Estuary:

Therefore be it resolved that UBCM call on the federal and provincial governments to allocate the necessary resources and appropriately fund and support a renewed Fraser River Estuary Management planning process that will collectively protect the ecosystem of the Estuary through inter-agency collaboration; and

be it further resolved that the planning process includes, but is not limited to: First Nations, federal government and provincial governments.

Both of these Resolutions were also endorsed by the Membership.


Conference

The other part of the UBCM is all of the stuff you would usually have at a conference: Workshops, panel discussions, and Plenary sessions where we get speeches from important people, from John Horgan to Rick Mercer. I would have to say one difference this UBCM compared to some previous events was the openness of the NDP cabinet members all the way up to the Premier, even taking Questions from the (digitally) assembled crowd, instead of just doing a speech. It may be my bias, or it may have some relationship to our coming out of the peri-Pandemic times and the virtual nature of the meeting, but I get the sense that the shine is not off the NDP (yet?) for most local government officials, and the reception to them was warmer than in previous years, and with previous governments.

Unusually, I was on a panel this year (see photo above) talking about the Heat Dome event, what went wrong locally, and what it means for decision making ahead. I also attended a few other sessions, including a Town Hall led by the Minister for Local Government with a few other members of cabinet on Building Resilient Communities (which was frustratingly neoliberal in its definition of the problem, and its proposed solutions), a Workshop on Climate Action and the Municipal Pension Plan that turned out to be an hour of excuses about why they won’t do the fossil fuel divestment many of their members want. (Ugh).


The 2021 UBCM was virtual. The organization put together a really strong on-line portal to access the event, and it ran super smooth. The public face of the platform was so seamless and functional, it must have only been possible with a bunch of sweat, stress, and chaos behind the (digital) curtain. So kudos to the organizers for achieving that, and i hope the folks who made it work get the thanks they deserve.

Although I missed having those important informal social connections with my Local Government cohort from across the province, I did walk away from UBCM, once again, recharged and excited about the work ahead. So many leaders are doing incredible work to support their communities, finding local approaches to global problems, it makes sharing both the successes and the frustrations so important. Especially over the last 18 months, it has been easy to get discouraged or disheartened about the challenges. Challenges seem to be piling up everywhere, from Vancouver to Pouce Coupe. But knowing there are so many people dedicating themselves to making their corner of the province work better, be safer, more prosperous, and more just, gets me back in the mood that we can make a difference.