Ask Pat: Renovation advice?

Darth asks—

If I wanted to add a second floor to my house where there is currently only an attic, what bylaws/restrictions/regulations/etc do I need to know about? Where is that information available?

This is one of those questions you probably shouldn’t ask a City Councillor, as there are better people to ask. Our work is to provide executive oversight of the City as a Corporation, and to set governance policy for the City as a Municipality. We approve changes to the Zoning Bylaw and make sure there is enough money to hire building inspectors, but the operational side of these things are managed by our professional staff. Though we interact with that every day, we are not (by sheer volume of the diverse things a City does) technical experts in every aspect of the City’s operations. But with that caveat, I’ll take a dive, because you asked.

The first thing you want to do is look up whatever info the City has on your house, and you might be surprised how much of it is publicly available on the City’s website. For example, you can go to the Property Information Inquiry page here:…enter your address and get a quick report on your house. It looks a little like this (note some redacted stuff because for some reason, it is de rigueur for folks to redact publicly available information like this to make it look like we are protecting our privacy):

From this you can learn some things, like your zoning designation (in this case, RS-1), your lot size (489 sq m), your floor space (220 sq m) and subsequently, your FSR (0.45). You can also determine whether that basement suite you have is legally registered (in this case it is, but it is not listed as a secondary living unit, meaning it is not being rented out), if that old shed out back is considered a “building” by the City (in this case, there is no secondary building on the site), or if there is specific Heritage Protection on your house (in this case, no).

You can also go to the City’s on-line Interactive Map called CityViews to do much the same by selecting “Run a report” on any property you select:

And you get some more info about the development of the property, including old building or development permits that may apply:

This is all interesting stuff, but how do you apply it? The thing for you to zoom into is your zoning entitlement. In other words, what does the zoning for your property say you are allowed to build as it currently stands, and how does that compare to what you have now? It really doesn’t matter if you are planning to renovate your existing house or build a new one, if you keep your plans within the zoning entitlement, your life is much easier.

In the case of the above house, the zoning is RS-1. To know what that means, you look at the zoning Bylaw which is available here. The RS-1 zoning Bylaw describes what you can do and build, but it is 7 pages long, and a bit complicated to read for someone new to this. For example, it is called Single Detached Residential, but you are typically allowed to have up to three living units on an RS-1 zoned property – A main house with a legal secondary suite and a laneway/carriage house – as long as they meet various size and design criteria.

One big criteria is FSR – the ratio of living space over the size of your lot. In the example above, the house has 220 sq m of living space on a 489 sq m lot, so 220/489 = FSR 0.45.  In RS-1 zones you are allowed an FSR of 0.5. Except you can increase this if you build a more energy efficient building (up to 0.55 for Passive House standard). This is assuming you can do so and meet the other criteria in zoning, like a maximum height (25 feet), minimum yard setbacks (distances between the building and the lot lines) and not exceed the maximum site coverage (35%). These numbers are all different for every zoning type, not all SFD in New West are RS-1.

So if you want to convert an attic to a living space, and if this attic space is not currently counted in your living floor space, turning it into living space may increase your FSR. If you already have 0.5 FSR, this may not be within your zoning entitlement. That is not to say you cannot do it – variances are requested and granted all of the time, and they are based on an assessment of the “reasonableness” of the variance. Yep, that sounds subjective, but it does relate to a bunch of policy the City already has in place, and you really need to sit down with a planner at the front desk at City Hall to find out what your options are. You can even set up an appointment to ask a planner this stuff. Don’t tell them I sent you, and as a tip, don’t say “Councillor Johnstone told me I can…”, because that is not something they want to hear. They don’t work for me, they work for the City, and are guided by policy and bylaws created by Council, not the whims of single council members.

All I’ve talked about up to here is zoning. There is also a bunch of Building Code stuff you may have to deal with, from assuring safe fire egress to assuring your site is prepped for sewer separation if your renovation exceeds a certain value. I can’t even get into that, except to say that the BC Building Code is enforced by the City, but not written by it. If it looks like staff are putting barriers in place to you getting the job done, they are more likely just pointing out the barriers that exist so you don’t trip over them. Neither you, your mortgage holder, your insurance company, or your neighbours wants you to be building something outside of building code.

If I was to give quick advice, it would be to hire a local Architect or Designer to guide you through this if the first chat with City Staff makes it look like your plan is viable. And architect’s job is to translate what you want (more square footage? a third bedroom? a brighter space?) into a set of plans that are compliant with the building code and the City’s zoning bylaws, or to help guide you through the process of seeking variances from either of those if needed or appropriate. They don’t just draw pretty pictures of buildings, they design functional and legally-conforming spaces, work with engineers and contractors to make sure they get built right, and act as liaison to the City to help interpret a pretty complicated set of zoning and building codes. They are worth the money for a project like this, and their advice is way more useful than that of a random City Councilor and his blog.

Ask Pat: Sticks & Carrots

Allen asks—

What do you think of the news that B.C. prepares to remove some housing approval powers from local governments? There are no denying that getting permits from a city is slow and difficult. I’m not sure whether take powers away from local government is good or bad, but in your opinion, how New Westminster can do better on issuing new permits?

I have been thinking a lot about it, but I don’t yet have any answers. This is mostly because Minister Eby has been rather vague about what types of changes he is looking to implement, and the target needs to be well understood to avoid unintended effects. I’ll try to unpack what doesn’t fit in the headlines.

First, I need to note my comments are from the point of view of a member of a City Councils that is meeting our regionally-agreed-upon commitments to building new housing. We have leadership and staff that have weathered the challenges of meeting our Regional Growth Strategy obligations in approving new Purpose Built Rental, market housing, and family friendly housing, while we are finally cracking the nut on new “missing middle”. We have not just approved new non-market affordable housing, but have made City lands available and fast-tracked approvals to assure that when funding arrives for non-market housing, we are inviting it in, and we have made clear we want more funded in our own back yard. We did this without massive expansion into greenfield (because as a 150+ year old City, we don’t have much greenfield) and without massive displacement of vulnerable residents from the older, most affordable housing in the City.

That is not to say New Westminster doesn’t have more work to do, or that the crises are over, only to note that the work we have done in the last decade is region-leading (if the City of North Van will share the podium). This work has not been without push-back from some of the community. Every day we hear as much from people telling us we are going too far, too fast, as we do from people asking us what we are doing to address housing. Have you looked at Facebook recently?

At the same time, we are a City of just under 80,000 people in a region headed towards 3 Million. With only 3% of the region’s population, less than 3% of its tax revenue,  and much less than 1% of its land area, New Westminster is not going to fix the regional housing crisis.  The region is thousands of units a year short of approving what is needed to start to stabilize the market, and are thousands of non-market units short of what we need to provide stability to the most vulnerable populations. So when facing push back or predatory delay, I can see why the Minister responsible for Housing is getting hot under the collar, and is ready to start swinging a big stick to get municipalities to do their job.

Without the benefit of more detail about what that stick looks like, I am concerned that the perception being created (as it may not be what he intends, only the way he is being interpreted in the media) is that of threats, and I can only hope from the New West perspective that Minister Eby will find carrots to compliment that stick.

People in New West know what we need to help the new housing find broader public support in the community; we know what those carrots are. Clear financing for new school locations; support for transit and funding for active transportation to reduce the traffic loads new growth would bring without those investments; prioritizing existing infrastructure funds supporting everything from sewer upgrades to library expansions to new park space, so communities meeting their regional commitments have the upper hand in grant applications. And, yeah, legislative tools to give well-meaning Municipal Councils and staff the flexibility to approve good projects faster.

How can we do better on issuing new permits? The question is really wide-reaching, so the best answer is equally far-reaching. If the conceit of your question is that New West is not building fast enough (and I’m not convinced your entire community agrees with you there) then there is work we can do to accelerate the process. I have had long conversations with architects designing new apartment buildings to homeowners doing relatively small infill projects, and there is no doubt they feel there are approval steps or consultation standards that are not obvious in why they are needed. Developers will tell you this extra time costs them money and pushes up prices, but accelerating the process may cost the City money (as we would need more staff), or compromise important policy goals, so there is clearly a balance to be found. I think the best shorter-term improvement is in creating more certainty about the time for approvals. But again, Development is complex, and we have a culture of public engagement in New West that is difficult to rush.

The one assumption to put aside, however, is that the Province can meaningfully force an acceleration of these processes. Unless the province removes from Municipalities the one ultimate authority they hold – zoning – it will be wielded by different Municipalities to achieve the policy and political goals of the community. And, alas, constructive delay of change is a policy goal of some local governments. As a Lawyer, Minister Eby certainly understands that removing zoning power opens a Pandora’s Box of problems, because zoning authority is interwoven with local government and provincial government regulations. A single example I am professionally very familiar with: without local government zoning control, the entire provincial contaminated sites identification and management system will have to be redesigned. There are scores of other Provincial and Municipal regulatory systems that are similarly buttressed by zoning. Unpacking that would be a very difficult process.

That is not to say the Province is powerless, far from it. I think that Minister Eby will need to be surgical and strategic about the sticks he wields, though I would not begrudge him wielding it to get our region back on track to addressing our overlapping housing crises. I only hope he also brings those carrots, because local governments need community support to do good work, and long-term benefits of meeting our regional commitments to housing are becoming a harder sell to the comfortably housed who vote.

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!

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.

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.

#elxn2021 Housing

Are we all enjoying our election now?

I spent a bit of time this weekend looking at platforms, and thought I would review the housing policies announced so far, seeing as how housing policy was in the news a bit this week, housing policy is interesting to a local government type like me, and I happen to live in a community where there are persistent numbers of unhoused and precariously housed people, where the rental vacancy rate is stuck at an unhealthy under 2%, and where the housing market is becoming out of reach for a larger number of current residents and people who would like to live here.

Canada has a Constitution in which housing and municipalities are provincial responsibilities. We need to keep this in mind when talking about federal campaign promises, especially in areas where the federal government wants to intrude into local government planning processes. The reality is they will need to work with provincial governments to make any changes in things like zoning laws or “red tape” around the building approval processes. They do, however, have significant financial resources to fund housing, and can leverage that to incent provincial and local governments to make changes if they want access to those funds. They also have significant, almost unlimited, taxation powers to similarly incent changes in how the housing market operates.

What are the major parties proposing to address the housing crises?


The Conservative plan has been recently touted by some members of the Bro Wing of the Vancouver YIMBY crowd, and there is a lot in the housing section of their Platform on the Supply Side. The “Housing Problem” is framed as “supply is not keeping up with demand”, which suits the traditional YIMBY narrative. Alas, the primary tools to deal with that seem to be stopping foreign speculators and making mortgages easier. Oh, and building 1 Million new homes in three years.

Let’s start with that aspiration. Canada currently “starts” about 250,000 homes a year, and we have (if we want to compare to our G7 cohort) a housing deficit of about 1.8 Million homes. If we are meant to read this 1 Million in 3 years as all homes, that means about 250,000 over the current rate for the next three years, or a 33% increase in homebuilding. This is ambitious, based on the current reality of the building industry and material supply situation that is challenged to keep up with existing construction. If it is meant to be read as 1 Million over the base rate, then we are talking about a 130% increase in the current rate of building, which would be impossible outside of adopting a serious wartime reconstruction effort, and seriously inflating the cost of construction, so let’s assume the former.

Anyway, there is little detail on how they would do even the more modest 33% increase. The aspirational goal is not reflected in any of the details in the rest of the plan. Call me a cynic, but I don’t see the modest suite of boutique tax credits and crackdown on foreign speculation as leveraging a massive boost in housing starts. Add this to the climate targets as great numbers we will never reach.

There is a good bit in the plan incentivizing Transit Oriented Development by tying federal transit funding to Municipalities approving density near that transit. This is a good idea theoretically, though I am not sure what the mechanism would be. In the BC context, I suppose they could ask a Municipality commit to a more growth-oriented Official Community Plan, but the negotiations between adjacent communities (such as, say, West Van and the North Vancouvers) over who had to take what density over what part of a new Transit Line would surely bog down any kind of negotiation about transit expansion. As we have learned from some current examples, OCP commitments can be ignored by a City with little or no penalty, and you can’t stop building a transit line if a new Council is elected and reneges on the promise when the NIMBY voices arise. The chicken and egg debates should be interesting to watch. Also, this would seem to do nothing to get new transit built to already dense communities, nor to densify communities where transit service already exists. A good idea theoretically, but in practice likely to become one of those “Red Tape” things that will only be an impediment to both housing and transit. Let’s let the Transit agencies decide what transit they need.

There is a telling bit in the platform that is window into the mindset of who this platform is written for (perhaps as much as the uber-suburban photo they use as the header for this section of the platform – I stole copied it for my header here). When listing off the “Everyday Canadians” (they didn’t say Old Stock) that were impacted by the housing shortage, they include “…the retired empty-nesters wanting to downsize without losing all their home equity to pay for an overpriced condo”. This only-houses-are-homes mindset pervades the platform, including the plan to stop foreigners from buying “homes” for two years (and maybe longer), while providing tax benefits to encourage foreign speculators to buy up rental properties. Add this to the boutique tax credits they want to give landlords to “encourage rental investment”, and steadfast resistance to extending capital gains taxes to houses, and it became clear the need to put roofs over heads is secondary to securing the value of the housing stock as an investment. Then they will make it easier for you to get a higher-risk mortgage to get into that market. Though gas on the fire is something every Party promises.

As far as the non-market part of the housing spectrum, the entire Conservative platform seems to be 1,000 beds for people recovering from addiction. There is no serious plan outlined here to get the federal government back into funding housing in the way it did during the housing boom years of the last century, and the embarrassing conflation of addiction with homelessness is, well, embarrassing. It appears the Million new homes will have to rely on the Invisible Hand to wield the construction hammer.


The NDP Housing platform got a bit of guff from the same Bro wing of the YIMBY crowd last week, as Jagmeet Singh put out an unfortunate tweet that didn’t hit the tone they were hoping for – both playing up the vaguely xenophobic “stop foreign speculation” angle also prevalent in the Conservative platform, and floating a renters tax credit that is strangely absent from the actual platform. The Platform itself is as lengthy on housing as the Conservative one, and identifies the “Housing Problem” through a slightly different lens – that of the 1.6 million Canadian Households that are precariously housed (spending more than 30% of their income on housing) and the fastest-growing housing prices in the G7.

The big aspirational goal is 500,000 units of affordable housing in the next 10 years – perhaps not ambitious enough, but much more likely achievable than doubling our housing starts overnight. And by emphasizing the affordable component, they both indicate this is largely above the baseline of new building happening now, and is perhaps being more clear on where they see the Federal Governments role – inserting themselves more actively in the part of the housing spectrum where the market is failing to fill the need.

The primary tool here is fast-start funding specifically directed at affordable housing providers and Co-ops. To me, this is the place where the Federal Government’s major tool (they hold most of our money) is most useful. From the post-WW2 plan to build houses for returning soldiers to the 1970s investments in Co-op housing, it was always the federal government’s ability to finance large capital investment that made housing affordable for all. It is no coincidence that our housing crises began when the Federal Government got out of the business of building subsidized housing in the Chretien/Martin years. We can push the market to provide more housing, but unless we provide options for those the market has left behind, we are not going to get to where we were 40 years go on housing. It is also great to see the NDP talking about change CMHC rules to support innovative ownership models, such as co-housing and co-ops to bridge the gap between renting and traditional home ownership, between supportive and market housing. This is an area where Canada lacks innovation.

The anti-foreign ownership part is a 20% tax on non-resident purchases, but no outright ban, and of course a similar tip of the hat to stamping out money laundering The throwing-gasoline-on-the-fire part is slightly less ambitious than the Conservative plan, with a return to 30-year mortgages and an increase in the homebuyer credit for first time purchasers. They would also like to waive sales tax on affordable rental units – a small savings, but clearly directed and in the right direction.

The thing about the NDP Platform is that Housing section is supplemented with mentions of housing in the addressing poverty section (because putting a roof over someone’s head is a the first step to breaking the cycle of poverty for many), in the sections addressing the needs of veterans and seniors, and later under infrastructure investment. There is also a separate and very comprehensive section addressing the unique housing challenges in indigenous communities (both on reserve and off). There is a sense through the platform that housing is at the centre of a lot of inequity issues across our country, and that we can’t keep applying the market-only approach that got us into this mess and hope to get out of it.


I cannot comment on the Liberal plans, because we haven’t seen any yet. Just as I was about to hit “publish”, they roll it out, and there is a lot there! I will take as read the context of what they have offered as Government over the last 6 years as the housing market and homelessness have gone off the rails. It is banal at this point to say Liberal Platform Authors often overestimate the willingness of Liberal Governments to do things, but here is where their plan points.

The “Housing Problem” is summed up as “…for many – young people in particular – the dream of owning their own home feels like it’s moving further out of reach“, and indeed a theme of the Liberal Housing Platform seems to suggest renting is something people are forced to do in that whacky time of life, and government’s job is to support renters in overcoming this temporary set back and encouraging them to buy a house. It really is that dismal. Renters can enter some arcane rent-to-own scheme (supported by giving money to landlords, natch) or can set up a First Home Savings Account, because the one thing people under 40 spending more than 30% of their income on housing have is $40,000 of extra cash to save for a downpayment. A Home Buyers Bill of Rights only calls into contrast the lack of a similar effort to protect the precariously housed in rental housing.

There are many things here to help people enter the spiraling housing market: increasing the first time homebuyers credit like the NDP and meddling with the mortgage insurance market. There is also a two-year foreign purchasing ban just like the Conservatives, a tax on vacant foreign-owned property, and the ubiquitous tip of the hat to money laundering crimes. There is also an anti-flipping tax which will make at least one of their Vancouver candidates unhappy.

When it comes to the supply side, the Liberal ambition is to spend $4 Billion on “accelerating” building of 100,000 Middle Class homes (their underline emphasis, not mine) by 2025, which by my math is an increase on the existing baseline by 10%. There is some weirdness in here about providing this to Municipalities to do things like hire planners, and forcing cities to use vacant land for homes, but Middle Class homes is not something we lack in a community like New Westminster or something our planners spend a lot of time or energy on, nor is it something out inclusionary zoning efforts are directed at. there is a subtext in here I just can’t square with what our actual needs are.

But it’s the homelessness and the non-market portion of the housing spectrum where this platform really falls flat. The approach is “more if the same” towards a goal of reducing homelessness by 50% by 2027. A program that is, I note, not working and an ambition that is embarrassingly lacking in ambition. This is not a National Housing program or ambition appropriate for a G7 country, one of the wealthiest countries on earth.

ASK PAT: Omnibus edition

I want to clear some Ask Pats off the queue, some that have been there for  a while, but I don’t really have detailed answers to, but are just sitting there in draft form filling me with the angst of failed promise, so here we go:

JC asked—

Hi Pat I read your great article on the “cycle” route on the Perimeter Highway and you were bang on. Do you know that there still is so much garbage in the “bike lane” that it is almost impossible to ride and I was so scared as a seasoned cyclist from the speed of the trucks (at least 110 kms ) that my life could have been taken early. Nothing has been done obviously since your article. Who would I call in regards to this extremely dangerous “cycling” route?

I don’t know.

The Ministry of Transportation? Nope, they privatized off all of the road maintenance in a neoliberal flourish a couple of decades ago.

Maybe Mainroad Lower Mainland Contractors? Nope, as it seems they cover all Provincial Highways in the Lower Mainland, except the North Fraser Perimeter Road.

Try Fraser Transportation Group / Mainland Fraser Maintenance LP, who is contracted to “the Concessionaire, Fraser Transportation Group Partnership led by ACS Infrastructure Canada Inc.”, whatever that means, but I assure you is a completely different company, I think. They have a useful phone number: 604-271-0337. Let me know how that works out.

By the way, driving on the SFPR from the ferry last week, I saw two separate, unrelated, vehicles broken down and parked in the “cycling lane”. Long enough for some safety-conscious crew to go out and put traffic cones around them so passing vehicles that may cheat into the “cycling lane” don’t accidently bump into them at 110km/h. Safety first.


Chip asks—

I’m 54, living in a 45 an up condo. I am the owner. My common law who I’ve just gotten back together with is 41. It says s if a spouse is younger the age restriction does not apply. Does this mean common law as well?

I still get occasional questions like this about age-restricted condos, because I wrote this piece several years ago. I honestly don’t know much about them that isn’t in that piece, or even if everything I wrote back then is still applicable. The only thing I can tell you for sure is that Local Governments have no control over them. So best ask the Strata, or someone in whatever Ministry of the Provincial government regulates them.


Tim asks—

Pat, I have a very nice car that I only use in the summer and drive on weekends. It is parked on the street in front of my girlfriend’s house. My question is: Can I put a car cover on it to protect it from the wear and tear of summer UV, dust, and rain or will I be ticketed?

Congratulations. I have a 1996 Honda Civic. Hatchback. But enough bragging, to your question: I don’t think there is a specific law against it, and I can’t find anything in the Street and Traffic Bylaw. If you are allowed to store your car there (i.e. you are parked as legally entitled), then I don’t suppose there is any reason you can’t cover your car. I suspect you want to have your parking pass or license plate visible to prove you are legally entitled to park there, as I don’t think bylaw enforcement staff should have to dig around under a cover to do their job, but you know, I’m not a lawyer, police officer or even trained in Bylaw enforcement. So as you review this paragraph and see the number of weasel words and claims of no authority I make, you might want to note that and recognize if you take this response in front of a judge and try to use it to plead you were given permission from a City Councillor and the ticket you got therefore doesn’t apply, I’m totally throwing you under the bus. Good luck!


Ross asks—

It’s great that the City has EV charging on the street lamps! But what’s less great is when ICE drivers block access to the chargers.

The charger on 3rd at 6th is blocked by ICE drivers more often than not. I get my hair cut at the barber shop in that building, and I’m only able to get my EV plugged in about a third (or fewer!) of the time. ICE drivers like to park in those spots because they’re still free parking, whereas the street parking on 6th has parking meters. What would it take to get the city to install parking meters on 3rd along that first block where the EV chargers are? It would disincentivize ICE drivers from blocking the chargers just to avoid paying for parking, and would increase the availability of the chargers for EV drivers without restricting the spots to be EV-only, and might make the city a few extra coins too.

It seems to work like that on Carnarvon at 6th, because I’ve *always* been able to get plugged in down there no problem. Can you help make this happen, Pat?

The City’s Streets and Traffic Bylaw says no-one can park at a public charging station for more than 2 hours at a time, but I know staff are working on an update of that Bylaw, and making it illegal to park an ICE at a charging spot was on the list of changes being discussed. This is probably better than parking meters, because we are already charging a nominal fee for charging, and I think two separate charges for the same spot would be confusing for folks. Interesting to think that we should probably expand it a bit from and ICE restriction to a “only park here when paying for charging” restriction. I can’t guarantee anything (I’m only one of 7 votes on Council) but I’m all for it.


Anyway, if you have a question about the City of New Westminster or City Council, be sure to hit that red button up top and send me an Ask Pat. It sometimes takes me a while, but I do try to answer. In the meantime, enjoy the first Federal election of the peri-Apocalyptic age, and try to avoid breathing the air.

Ask Pat: Vacant Land Tax

Boy, its been a while since I did one of these, and there are a few in the queue. Sorry, folks, I really mean to be more timely with these, but to paraphrase Pascal, I don’t have enough time to write shorter notes. No Council meeting this week, so maybe I’ll try to knock a couple off. This was a fun one:

T J asks—

Has anyone proposed some kind of empty lot tax to encourage developers or property holders to activate the properties into some kind of use? Prime example corner of 5th Ave & 12th St but many others throughout downtown we noticed over a weekend walk.

Yes, people have proposed it, but it currently isn’t legal.

Municipalities in BC are pretty limited in how they can apply property taxes. For the most part, we are permitted to create tax rates for each of the 8 property classes assessed by the BC Assessment Authority (Residential, Industrial, Commercial, Farm, etc.), and all properties that fall within a class are assessed the same rate. That means Condos, rental apartments, townhouses and houses pay the same mill rate because they all fall under Residential Class, and big box multinational retailers pay the same mill rate as your favourite mom & pop haberdashery. Local Governments aren’t permitted to pick and choose preferential tax rates within those categories to, say, favour Mom & Pop over the Waltons, or favour Rentals over Condos, or favour improved lands over vacant lands.

Since the tax you pay is based on the assessed value, owners actually pay less tax on vacant land than on “improved” land, because the assessed value of the land is a combination of the value of the land and the value of the buildings upon it. Playing around in the BC assessment website, you can see sometimes the building is worth as much as the land, in some cases the building value is close enough to zero that tax essentially only relates to bare land value. Therefore, investing in land improvement on vacant or derelict properties increases the assessed value, and increases property taxes. In a sense, the current property tax system incentivizes keeping an investment property unimproved.

Best I can tell, the Provincial Speculation and Vacancy Tax does not apply to vacant or derelict properties – but don’t take that as legal advice (this is a blog post, not official communications from a tax professional), though the BC gov’t website is a little vague on this specific point. Maybe you will have more luck than me getting clarity from the legalese.

Interestingly, the City of Vancouver’s Empty Homes Tax does apply to vacant properties that are designated for residential use. Vancouver was given that ability through an amendment to the Vancouver Charter, so it is not applicable to municipalities regulated by the Community Charter like New West, and the province doesn’t seem interested in expanding it to other cities (see below). Regardless, as this tax is designed to incent owners to bring vacant residential property in to use, it would also not work to encourage the activation of the commercial properties like you mention in Downtown New West.

But your question was whether anyone has proposed this? The way Local Government leaders would propose this is to send a resolution to the UBCM meeting asking the Provincial government to change the legislation to make it possible. If the majority of Local Gov’t elected types at the UBCM convention vote to endorse this resolution, it becomes an endorsed resolution – an “official ask” of government. My quick review of just some recent UBCM resolution sessions turns up resolutions in 2016 (“B3- Vacant Land Taxation”), 2017 (”B91 Tax on Vacant & Derelict Residential Properties”), 2018 (“A3 Modify Speculation Tax: Local Government Vacancy Levy”), and 2019 ( “B19 Extension of Vacancy Taxation Authority to Local Governments”) all asking for some form of taxation power for vacant land, all endorsed by the membership of the UBCM.

Every year, the Provincial government responds to these resolutions, usually with some form of “we’ll think about it”. This excerpt is from their response to the 2019 resolution:

So, yeah, don’t hold your breath.

That said, as the Provincial Government notes, Local Governments do have some ability to fine derelict or unsightly property owners, though it is a somewhat onerous and staff-time-consuming process to demonstrate nuisance, and the Bylaw does not extend to our ability to say one must build a building on a lot. You are entitled to own an empty grass field or an empty gravel parking lot, as long as it doesn’t constitute a nuisance. Any attempt to use this Bylaw authority as a de facto tax would surely not survive a court challenge.

New Westminster does have one special power, though, and it is found in a unique piece of Provincial Legislation called the New Westminster Redevelopment Act, 1989. I would call your attention to Section 3 of the Act, as it is a bit of a Mjolnir-like piece of legislation. But that is probably best saved for a follow-up blog post as we talk about the current situation in Downtown New Westminster.

Ask Pat: 22nd Street

GM asks—

Hi Pat, found you website and it is a hidden gem! So many great content. My name is Gilbert and I’m about to move New Westminster from Coquitlam. I’m about to purchase a house near 22nd Skytrain. I heard about the 22nd master plan and thought it could be good opportunity for me to enjoy the commute while ride along the development with the city. Do you have any insight on that area? Looks like the city suspend the OCP due to pandemic. Thanks in advance!

Right off the bat, I need to say: Ask Pats are bad places to ask for real estate advice. Besides me just being really slow to respond (sorry!), these are my blogged thoughts, not official City communications. Any speculations I may make need to be recognized as just that, and not something to base important decision-making upon. If you bought a house in New West, great! If you are selling one in New West, hope things go well. But for the love of all that is Hyack, don’t use this website to inform either of those decisions!

The area around 22nd Street Station is known as Connaught Heights, and is an interesting neighbourhood. It is the “last piece” of New Westminster, in that it was not even an official part of the Municipality until 1968, which is why it is slightly out-of-phase with the rest of the West End. One way this has manifest is the lack of sidewalks. Before the local economy went (to use the technical term) into the crapper around 1970, the City generally built sidewalks on all its streets. The 1970s downturn meant investments like this slowed down, and by the time it recovered we were into the modern “get new builders, not taxpayers, to pay for new infrastructure” phase of civic planning. With so little new building in Connaught Heights, it mostly didn’t get done. (The City has started a program to build sidewalks in Connaught Heights as part of the new Master Transportation Plan, supported by TransLink and starting with a new one up 21st Street).

There is other strange legacy stuff in Connaught. The BC Hydro right-of-way where a major over-ground utility line crosses sort of diagonally thought the neighbourhood leaving a somewhat fallow “green space” that some residents use for recreation. The re-alignments of the Queensborough Bridge landings, the swath the SkyTrain runs though, the cut of Southridge Drive and the weird connections to “old Marine Drive” make Connaught a bit of a stand-alone island of a neighbourhood from a transportation sense. This was made more so by varying ideas about traffic calming introduced over the years.

Whatever the cause, the neighbourhood hasn’t really changed in form since the Skytrain station was installed in 1985. It is still mostly single family detached homes, with one low-rise apartment building, a big church and a little school. It’s worth noting homes are still being replaced on a fairly regular basis, but always with larger lot-maximizing houses. This is not resulting in “growth” in the traditional sense, as the Connaught neighbourhood has essentially the same population it had 20 years ago (in the most recent census in 2016, Connaught was the only neighbourhood in New Westminster to shrink in population).

This is relatively rare for neighbourhoods with SkyTrain stations in the middle of them, and at odds with the regional emphasis of Transit Oriented Development. There are a few other stations with single family homes across the street 35 years after station opening, but with the possible exception of 29th Avenue in Vancouver, no transit hub has been as persistently low-density as 22nd Street.

Why? Someone smarter than me wrote a theses on the topic. It is especially interesting to read Chapter 6 of that thesis where a bunch of reasons why are discussed. Turns out the reasons are myriad, including City plans that didn’t encourage change, the difficulty of assembling single family lots, and a general sense that the community would resist significant change:

Sign on the lawn of a house about 20 feet from the main entrance to 22nd Street station.

In the Current Official Community Plan, most of Connaught Heights is listed as a “Comprehensive Development District” whose land use purpose is described as:

In a way, this makes it similar to the Brewery District or the Sapperton Green area. The vision would be to create a single “Master Plan” for the area so that new housing, utilities, amenities, and transportation can all be planned together. There is a map in the OCP that gives some preliminary vision of the neighbourhood, with mixed use centered on 7th avenue, with the RH and MH being high density (towers), RM being middle density (likely 6-storey) and RT being ground-oriented townhouse style:

However I need to emphasize this is a very preliminary guideline, and through the Master Planning process, a more refined land use plan would be developed, taking into account transportation, amenities, interaction with the SkyTrain and adjacent road network, protection of green spaces, etc. etc. It may end up very different than this map, or even different than what pops out of the Master Planning, as priorities and economics change over the life of a long-term project like this. The initial plans for the Brewery District did not anticipate the shift to Purpose Built Rental that the community has seen, for example, and we have still to work out some details of the last building on that site.

The difference between this and the Brewery District or Sapperton Green is that the latter are owned by a single company, so the work to create this “Master Plan” could fall on them, with guidance from the City and engagement with the community. 22nd Street is still single family homes with separate owners, so if a Master Plan is to be developed, it will fall on the City to do that work. The OCP outlines a plan to start that work:

As you suggest, that planning work has been kicked down the road a bit. Partly because of limited staff resources, and Council’s decision to emphasize different work like supporting affordable housing, rental protection regulations, and supporting development review for projects already in the application process. This was more recently punted further down the road when we had to re-prioritize work in light of COVID and some other emergent policy development areas.

So, the area will change, lawn signs notwithstanding, but I really don’t know what the timeline is. Either the City will develop a Master Plan and the development community will respond by assembling lands to bring it to fruition, or the development community will find some unlocked value in the area and force the matter by assembling ahead of time and drive the Master Planning. However, a lot of pieces have yet to fall into place, and as we see the slow pace of development in Sapperton Green or perhaps a more similar parallel the “Eastern Node” in Queensborough, this type of change can take a long time.

Ask Pat: Making Home

ASP asks—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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