There were two items I promised follow-up from last council meeting. This one deserves a deeper dive because it was a complicated conversation that resulted in a complex discussion at Council with several amendments and re-directions, all because the public policy and eventual outcomes were not obvious.
This is a result of a decision back in 2021 by Council to put a “freeze” on HRA applications in the Queens Park HCA, and a staff recommendation that we now lift that freeze. And yeah, those acronyms are confusing. So I’ll try to unpack.
The residential neighbourhood of Queens Park has been designated a Heritage Conservation Area (“HCA”); one of the largest in the province. Because of the unique and provincially-significant collection of pre-1941 single family homes that meet the standard of having “heritage” merit, the neighbourhood and the Community Heritage Commission recommended the City put in an HCA a few years ago to provide extra protection to those homes. If you really want the background, here is my blog post from when it occurred.
Heritage Restoration Agreements (“HRAs”) are a planning tool that can be (and are) applied anywhere in the City. They are rather like a rezoning, in which a property owner asks to do something that is not permitted in the current zoning (i.e. build a duplex on a single family lot) in exchange for providing some value to the community or meeting some City policy goal. In the case of HRAs, it is essentially a rezoning where the “value” being exchanged is the permanent preservation of a heritage asset.
It is important to note that “designation” of a preserved heritage asset under an HRA is the highest level of heritage protection available to local governments in BC, and a much stronger level of heritage protection than is offered to the pre-1940 “protected” houses in the HCA. For this reason, alterations of heritage properties in the HCA usually come about through an HRA. If the owner of a pre-1940 HCA-protected house in Queens Park wants to make an exterior alteration, add a carriage or laneway house, lift the building to put in a full basement or put in dormers that increase the livable square footage of the home, they come to the City to ask for an HRA. Through an extensive review to assure the heritage merit is protected, and through a (by regulation) Public Hearing, the Council either permits the change in exchange for “designation”, or does not. HRAs are also used outside Queens Park, but within Queens Park HCA they are essentially the only tool to allow alterations of pre-1940 homes, so they are more common there while other neighbourhoods are more familiar with other rezoning tools.
Since the adoption of the HCA, some members of the Queens Park community felt that HRAs were being applied in a way that was not complimentary to the HCA principles. I’ve heard criticism that HRAs were being granted with no benefit to the community, that they were an “end around” of the regular rezoning process. I don’t agree with these assertions, but they did lead to a few fractious HRA Public Hearings, and staff suggested we “pause” the processing of HRAs in Queens Park for a bit of time to let some policy work be done to update HRA principles across the City.
Unfortunately, this HRA process work has been repeatedly delayed by staff shortages and Council’s decision to prioritize other housing work – putting together affordable housing applications, an inclusionary housing policy, 22nd Street Area master planning, and applications coming that will help us meaningfully address the critical housing needs identified in our Housing Needs Assessment. Frankly, the HRA work was going to take up too much staff time and consultation energy for the value (and number of housing units) they provide the community during a housing crisis. Because of this, the “freeze” on new HRAs in Queens Park has dragged on for two years. Staff brought this report to us recommending we lift the freeze, because the work to update the HRA system (now wrapped into a more comprehensive Infill Density Policy Review) is not resourced to happen until 2025.
This is a question of balancing procedural fairness (people should be able to apply for rezoning or HRAs and understand the process that is available for them) with the common-good and heritage protection principles of the HCA.
During the conversation at Council there was a proposal to refer this question to the Community Heritage Commission – an advisory commission the city has to bring subject matter expertise to exactly this question: how to best evaluate heritage merit and balance its protection against other City policy and priorities? There was also a suggestion that applicants caught up in the “freeze” in 2021 be unfrozen to allow them to proceed with HRAs if they are still so inclined, but to maintain the freeze otherwise until the policy work is completed. Finally, the recommendation from staff to lift the freeze was put on the table, with the proviso that HRA applications not be prioritized over more critical housing work reflected in our Housing Needs assessment and overall housing policy direction.
This was a lengthy conversation, and I don’t want to speak for others at Council here, because the votes were split in different ways as we moved through the amendments, and everyone clearly had different comfort levels on this balance we were trying to strike. Instead, I will speak to my motivations for voting as I did.
When the HCA was introduced back in 2017, I supported in on the strict proviso that it would not stop all housing change in Queens Park – that the HCA should work to facilitate heritage-informed development of more housing diversity in Queens Park, and not act as a tool to prevent housing diversity in the neighbourhood. In the blog post I linked to above, I said it this way:
“the HCA policy cannot stop all development, infill density, or other ways of increasing housing choice in the Queens Park neighbourhood. We need to accelerate our work towards increasing laneway and carriage house infill, stratification of large houses if they wish to re-configure into multi-family buildings, and protecting the multi-family housing stock that already exists in Queens Park. The HCA as adopted will not prevent that progress,”
On a similar vein, I voted against the HRA freeze in 2021 because I felt it shifted the balance too far towards stopping the evolution of Queens Park by not even allowing change if it worked to improve heritage asset protection.
My position has not changed much here, and I voted with the slim majority of Council to lift the freeze, as recommended by Staff. I was not opposed to referring to the CHC for feedback prior to the lifting of the freeze, but that was defeated by another slim majority of Council. I also support the general direction to staff that we don’t need to prioritize this type of low-density infill at this time, and that is NOT consistent with my previous feelings and votes at Council.
Simply put, we are not in the same place now as we were in 2017 when we approved the current Official Community Plan. At the time, infill density was seen as an important part of our housing strategy, to bring more affordable but still market “family friendly” housing diversity in the community. In the last few years, land values in New West have grown to the point where infill is going to play less of a role in meeting our housing needs in the next few years, as higher-density forms re going to be needed to hit that lower-end-of-market and family-friendly sweet spot.
Last Monday, our Council meeting included giving three readings to a Bylaw that changed the zoning of 422 Sixth Street. The boring, technical part is that the change involved taking what was permitted on the site (Commercial Zone C3-A, high-rise commercial and mixed use commercial and multifamily residential) and add to this “supportive housing” among the long list of permitted uses. But when it comes to providing dignified housing for people in need, nothing is ever boring. As this is emblematic of the entire regional housing crisis, and as Council spent several hours over several meetings putting up and taking down red tape around this simple land use change, I am going to spend some time unpacking this project timeline and Council’s decision making.
As this project is a bit of a hot button, I am going to once again remind folks this is a blog, not official City communications. Though I try my best to stick to the facts, everything here is my opinion and filtered through my memory and notes, and not written by or edited by anyone at the City, or anyone else for that matter.
The proposal that came before Council from the owner of the building at first seemed like a simple one. They have a four-story building where they operate offices on the bottom two floors. The two upper floors are underutilized and the current zoning allowed housing in those upper two floors. The owner has provided a variety of services around the region for more than 40 years (Childcare, food hamper programs, youth services, health and education programs, and housing). There is a desperate need for transitional/supportive housing in New West (according to our updated housing needs assessment, 358 units are needed by 2031, 35 a year), this operator had space, so they applied to senior government for funding to fulfill this need. They were awarded provisional funding by CMHC and BC Housing on the strength of their proposal, but needed zoning approvals by July first to add “supportive” to the already-allowable “housing”. And here we are.
Back in 2021, City Council brought forward OCP and Zoning Bylaw changes under the title “City-Wide Crisis Response” that were meant to make it easier for the City to respond with land use changes that are in support of addressing a Public Health Emergency or recognized Regional Crisis. Around the same time, the Province changed the rules to no longer require Public Hearings for zoning changes that are consistent with the OCP. When people talk about “streamlining” and “cutting Red Tape” to speed up approvals of affordable and supportive housing, this is what it looks like when the rubber hits the road.
The net effect of the changes above is that “No Public Hearing” is the presumptive default for OCP-compliant projects, though Council could move to have one if they deem it in the public interest. As a practice, New West is not having them for projects that are directly addressing stated Council priority (like addressing crisis-level need) and are compliant with the City’s Official Community Plan. This is an important step because it removes some of the uncertainty of the process at the very last stage of approvals. This does not, however, mean we are taking the public out of the process completely, but instead we will rely on earlier consultations that engage public concerns at an earlier stage in planning where issues can be meaningfully addressed. This is not without challenges (e.g. how early? A project needs to be developed far enough that there is something useful to engage the community on before we engage them; timing for senior government funding is often very, very tight, meaning consultation must occur faster than ideal), but ultimately it is a more meaningful engagement, and creates more certainty for the developer and the community.
The proposal for 422 Sixth Street first came to Council on May 8, and indeed had a tight timeline to approval, as the major senior government funding source required that zoning be put in place by the end of June. This was a fast timeline, but considered viable because the rezoning request was relatively small from a land use standpoint (again, the proposed use is aligned with the OCP and housing was already a permitted use above grade, just not “supportive” housing). After all, zoning is about land use.
At the May 8 meeting, there were a few minor questions raised regarding loss of office space, windows, and property tax implications, but no changes to the project or additional conditions were applied at the time, and Council unanimously agreed to move the project forward notionally and without a Public Hearing.
Staff then went ahead and launched a Be Heard New West page to elicit feedback on the project, put out social media calls for comment, placed an ad in the May 11 Record (where this topic was also the front page story), and sent a mailer to every household and business within 100m. All were asking for feedback by May 25 (two weeks) so the follow-up report could be prepared for the May 29th meeting, but also let folks know they could email or call or drop by City Hall for more info after this date.
Unfortunately, this is when a pamphlet prepared and distributed by an anonymous member of the community was circulated that provided misinformation about the project, raising concern for some residents or local businesses. The pamphlet curiously asked people to send feedback to me and to Councillor Henderson(?). This prompted a second City mailing to local houses and businesses correcting the record on some of the misinformation in that leaflet, and reminding people about where they could get their questions answered or provide feedback to Staff, Mayor and all of Council.
The project came back to Council on May 29th. This time I was clear with Council that this was the best opportunity to make changes that informed the Bylaws, if changes were requested. There was a staff report, we had some public delegations both in favour and opposed to the project, and a lengthy discussion at Council. Unfortunately, much of the misinformation in the pamphlet was also present during this meeting, as discussion included calling into question the capability of the operator (who has been operating in the City for 40 years), and vague inquiries about how undefined “problems” with the operator or residents would be addressed if they arise.
In the subsequent deliberation, there was a motion to add back in the requirement for a Public Hearing, which was not supported by the majority of Council. However, in light of the pamphleting, there was a request by Council to instead have genuine engagement and a dialogue with the community about the project. This included consideration of the introduction of a Community Advisory Committee and Good Neighbour Agreement on the model for the Mazarine Lodge. This latter motion for further public dialogue was supported by a majority of Council, but notably not by the members of Council who were asking for a Public Hearing. There was then a motion to move this project forward and bring Bylaws for Council deliberation after that public dialogue occurs. This motion passed (otherwise, the project dies here) but was also opposed by the two members of Council who supported a Public Hearing.
City staff put together two dialogue sessions, one in person and one online. I, along with several members of Council, attended both. I was also happy to see that many of the people who attended the council meeting on May 29th to oppose the project attended that session, and were able to engage in dialogue about their concerns. There were some excellent questions asked, and some challenges highlighted. The folks I shared a table with were happy to hear the details, and to hear that some of their concerns were unfounded based on the actual model of the project. I’m not going to say they all left in support of the project, I know some did not. But I did hear from several that the opportunity for a Community Advisory Committee was something they supported. Others I know went from totally opposed to still skeptical but willing to hear us out. I walked away feeling that we had the kind of two-way dialogue that would never have occurred at a Public Hearing, and that suggestions brought forward would result in a stronger Good Neighbour Agreement, and subsequently, a stronger project.
At the June 26 meeting of Council, staff reported back on those dialogues, and also brought Bylaws for Third Readings. This resulted in a two hour deliberation, and it got procedurally complicated. I’ll try to unpack as best I can.
As part of Council’s earlier direction, a preliminary Good Neighbour Agreement was taken to the public engagement, and drafted in collaboration with the service provider. At the June 26 meeting, two members of Council put forward amendments to the GNA, which was potentially problematic at this stage in the discussion, as the GNA was something developed collaboratively and with community buy-in. Making additions now around the details of staffing or how (if it was the desire of Council) to make the GNA binding as opposed to a voluntary agreement violated the spirit of those collaborative discussions. Worse, these amendments were being offered at a time that left no time to engage again with the Provider or funding governments about the impact of operational changes on the viability of the project, while timing on making them binding is especially problematic at this stage. This led staff to consult in camera and recommend to Council that tying the GNA to the Business License would be the most likely process to make it binding from a City functioning point of view.
On balance, Council did not support the majority of the proposed amendments, for a variety of reasons. I personally opposed these motions on their face (they mostly, in my opinion, frame people needing housing as people who need to be policed as opposed to people who need to be supported, which I find abhorrent), but also because this process was a violation of the mutual respect and collaboration that allows non-profit transitional housing providers to operate in the City. They are not an enemy to be contained, they are a provider of life-saving supports to be worked with. As such, it is a violation of the very Good Neighbour Agreement model that was being proposed here, which was already a demonstrable success in our community.
Council instead moved to support the implementation of the GNA and the Community Advisory Committee as voluntary collaboration tools that were developed through the community consultation process, as opposed to regulatory tools tied to the business license. The members of Council who proffered a number of amendments to the GNA voted in opposition to this.
Finally, the Bylaws were brought to Council at the end of the meeting for Three Readings, and Council unanimously supported the approval of the three readings. In a subsequent meeting on June 30th, the members of Council who were present (one had an excused absence for a family situation, two simply failed to show) unanimously voted for Adoption of the Bylaws, meaning the rezoning is approved.
In the end, the goal here is to provide housing that is needed in the community. This project is only 30 units, small in comparison to the need demonstrated in our Housing Needs Report, but it is also a vital piece in the housing puzzle – transitional units that help people move from shelter to more permanent affordable housing, or keep people from ever entering the shelter model. The model was not perfect, but it was approved by BC Housing for operational funding and by the Federal Government for capital funding, so it is a model the two levels of government are willing to support, and is vastly superior to having 30 fewer transitional housing units in the City. The tight timelines are (alas) a necessary result of our need to work within the Province of BC and Government of Canada funding models. This is what it looks like to work with those senior governments.
The rezoning here is specifically related to this being “supportive housing”, meaning the residents will be assured of having supports or wrap-around care if they need it, something they would not get from a private hotel SRO model, and cannot be provided consistently though the shelter model. This, along with fast-tracking and reduction in red tape for the development of non-profit housing that fully conforms with our OCP, are actions that were supported in the platforms of every single person who was elected to New Westminster Council. It was disappointing to see so many last-minute hurdles and Red Tape put in the pathway to approval of this project.
That said, I am really proud of the work Staff did to quickly pivot to a more collaborative and respectful community dialogue about the project when faced by a disinformation campaign in the community. It is this kind of dialogue that builds trust in the community that will make approval of future projects easier. It demonstrated the difference between a (by design) confrontational Public Hearing and a (well designed) dialogue with the community.
I especially appreciated a delegate coming to Council on June 26th to speak about their experience as a young parent in Queensborough through the approval, opening and operation of the Mazarine Lodge. They spoke of the fears that were spread in the community during that approval process, how they were addressed by the provider, residents, and community meeting together and having a process for dialogue, and how their entire community has benefitted. This is a model that works, and breaks down the stigma related to people who, after all, just need a home.
Who else spent a rainy long-weekend day digging through regional housing stats?
Metro Vancouver tracks regional population and housing numbers in order to meet their mandate and track progress on the Regional Plan that the 21 member municipalities share. One of the public-facing parts of this tracking is the Housing Data Book they recently published, building on 2021 Census data and other data sources. There are graphs, maps and the tables of numbers to back them up. Its a great resource. Following on Mayor Pachal’s lead, I thought I’d look at it from a New Westminster perspective.
Thing is, regional planning is not a competition. Though I have been oft quoted suggesting that New West is more than pulling it weight on the housing front, I look through these regional stats to help understand where we are doing well, and where we need to find better solutions. So here are some graphs and maps pulled right from the Metro report, with a few comments.
There is no secret New West is growing fast. At 11.2% growth between the last two censuses, we are one of the fastest growing communities in the Lower Mainland, and growing faster than the overall regional average of 7.3%:
One interesting point about our demographics is that New West is not young or an old city, but is a millennial city. The proportion of our population between 25 and 44 years old is second only to Vancouver proper:
And a you might expect for a City with lots of people in that parenting age, we are one of the fastest-growing communities for the 0-14 age range (and if you want to know how we differ from Port Moody – look at that number!):
New West continues to have a proportion of rental households (45%) well above the regional average:
And probably a combination of those last few data points results in New West having a median household income a little lower than the average for the region ($82,000 compared to $90,000, or 9% below):
but our median household income is growing faster than the regional average:
Now, that number is interesting. Between 2015 and 2020, median household income (inflation adjusted – using 2020 constant dollars) went up 17.1%. For the fun of it, I pulled up the data from the BC government on residential property tax burden (Schedule 707 available here) and found that per-capita property taxes over the same period rose about 13%. Using this calculator to adjust for inflation, per-capita property taxes only went up 8%. In short, incomes are rising much faster than property taxes.
Now on to this pretty cool bubble chart, that shows the correlation between population growth and growth in the number of dwellings, with the size of the bubble representing population in 2021. I added the red lines to show what parts of the region are growing in people faster than in homes (Surrey, Langley City, West Van, and yes, New Westminster ) vs the cities where homes are being built faster than population is growing (Richmond, Burnaby and Vancouver). Again, Port Moody’s quixotic lack of growth stands out.
I’ll jump ahead here to housing types, and one of the big headlines is that only 14% of New West households are in a single detached home, one of the lowest proportions in the region, Note that people living in secondary suites in those homes would be counted as “other” in this statistic. The 70% living in apartments is second only to Electoral Area A (which is predominantly UBC campus, so would include a lot of student housing):
And as you might expect, almost all new homes being built in the City are in the form of apartments and rowhomes (including attached and stacked townhouses) with no net increase in single family homes (but also no real decrease either, like we see in North Van District):
One place New West has been doing well is Purpose-Built Rental. We are getting more new rental built per capita than any other Municipality in the region, and more in raw numbers than any but Vancouver, while we are protecting the most affordable older PBR stock and are not letting it be replaced with condos (see the left part of the chart).
As a result, we now lead the region in Purpose Built Rental, with almost 26% of households in that housing type. This matters in a city where 45% of households are rental households, because PBR has one big difference over the “secondary” rental market (people renting out their condos or basement suites). That is in how they provide long-term housing security to renters. Any secondary market rental unit can leave the rental market at any time at the whim of the landlord, which is a precarious situation for the renting family. PBR brings increased housing security for the increasing number of working people in our community who cannot afford to buy.
This is especially important as the Vacancy Rate is still dire:
Which means upward pressure on rents is still a problem. Though, notably, New Westminster rents are not “in the top 10 in the country”, as they are not even the top ten in Metro Vancouver:
And here is why. New West cannot do it alone, our work to get us way over on the right side of those graphs above by building and protecting rental has not moved the regional needle, because we are only 3% of the population on half of 1% of the land area. When you look at rental inventory across the entire region this is the trend:
No meaningful change in raw numbers over 30 years. As the region’s population has gone from 1.5 Million people to 2.6 Million people, we have had no meaningful increase in the number of purpose-built rental homes. No wonder we are in a rental affordability crisis.
But cities don’t own all the blame here. This is largely a result of those destructive 1990’s Paul Martin budgets, when the Federal Liberal Government decided to get out of the business of housing, and of subsequent Provincial governments not stepping in to fill the gap. Without CMHC policy driving the building of new rental, with the province relying on the “the market” to fill rental need, with decades of being told home ownership is the path to financial success and tax structures that emphasize that, the market does what it does. The upward trend you see at the end is a result of the Province finally changing that two-decade practice, and (some) Local Governments shifting how we incentivize new building to make Rental viable again. But we have so much catching up to do.
Last week there were a few stories in the regional media (traditional and social) about CMHC’s recent release of housing data. One story that got my attention was this graph posted on Twitter by census data guru Jens von Bergmann (@vb_jens):
This appeared to show New West losing a large number of bachelor and one bedroom rental suites over the 2021-2022 survey period, while 2- and 3-bedroom numbers went up, resulting in a small net increase of units. A few people asked “what’s up with New West?”, and I honestly had no idea.
Not to bury the lede: there is no way New Westminster lost hundreds of rental units over this period of time. For this to happen, there would have to be either some massive conversion of rental units to condo (not something we permit in New Westminster) or major demo- or reno-victions (both of which are tightly regulated here, and we simply have not had any such applications).
So I had to look into this, and City staff looked into it as well, and conformed what I suspected. It seems like this was a data anomaly, thought it was not immediately clear what the source of the anomaly is. This did give an excuse to dig a bit into the data, which is available here.
I took the numbers for rental units for not just 2021 and 2022, but for the last 8 years, essentially since I was first elected to Council. Here are the raw numbers, and I highlighted the numbers that show a decrease in the last year that is reflected in the original post:
It appears that a couple of larger Purpose Built Rental buildings were misclassified in their unit counts when they were opened in 2019 and 2020, showing the significant jump in Bachelor and 1-bedrooms over those two years, and for some unknown reason, the more accurate data is being presented now. It’s a bit complicated how we can tell this, but the short version is that CMHC also provides unit counts by census tract and by construction period (e.g. “built in 2000 or later”). This allows us to look at how a couple of larger and recently completed PBR buildings were reported in the year they opened, and in there found an anomaly. It appears both 900 Carnarvon (Completed in 2020, 172 studio, 72 1-bed, 132 2-bed, and 22 3+bed) and 228 Nelson’s Crescent (Completed 2019, 0 studio, 85 1-bed, 77 2-bed and 24 3+bed) appear to not have been entered properly, as the number of new 2- and 3-bedroom suites added do not even add up to those provided by these two buildings (and they were not the only buildings to come on line during that period). This also explains some anomalous numbers reported last year about how New West was building way more bachelor and 1-bedroom rental units than our Family Friendly Housing Policy would allow – it is the same data error, now corrected.
As these numbers appear to have now been adjusted, it does show that looking at one year of unit completions from CMHC data may not be the best way to compare communities or track construction/approval trends, especially for smaller cities where one or two units opening (or being mis-reported) can skew annual numbers, and hide the deeper trend. To broaden the data a bit, I looked at the last 8 years (2014- 2022), non-coincidentally the time I have been on Council. I tried to re-create Jens’ chart with the unit count change over that 8 years, divided by 8 to give us an average annual unit change over that time:
And you can see why I have been saying no-one (except Vancouver) is building more PRB than New West. Of course not all of these communities are equal in size, or in population growth (see more on that here), and these net count numbers are not adjusted for those pressures.
If you want to look deeper at the numbers, they are here , and you can select by City. The numbers I have used are under the “Rental Universe” tab on the left. And just for fun, and if you want to check my math, here are the total numbers I found for over the 8 years (not the per year average presented above):
In summary, one part of the housing crises that New Westminster has been very effective at addressing is the paucity of Purpose Built Rental. There were a couple of decades there from the hollowing out of Federal Housing programs to the early 2000’s where almost no new PBR was being built, and indeed it was being lost. By policy and intention, New West has turned that tide and brought more rental to the market, while preserving the older more affordable rental, with visible results:
None of this changes that rents are going up at what looks like an unsustainable rate, and a rate disconnected from regional wages. Rental availability is fundamentally regional issue, not one New Westminster (with 3% of the regional population and 8% of the regional rental supply) can solve alone. Everyone needs to build more PBR, there is no new news there.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.