BCNPHA in the News

The Province: ‘Baby step’ or too far? Vancouver city council mulls social-housing move

Dan Fumano, The Province, April 19 (interview with BCNPHA CEO Jill Atkey)

As is often the case in housing debates, the proposal before Vancouver city council this week is being described in starkly different terms depending on who you ask. For some, a series of bylaw amendments intended to aid social-housing construction is a “baby step.” Others say it goes way too far.

Vancouver council is considering a staff proposal intended to make it faster, easier and less expensive to build social housing in certain mid-rise apartment zones. The amendments would allow non-profits to build social-housing developments of up to six storeys in these areas without requiring them to go through the expensive, time-consuming and public process of rezoning.

Current zoning in these areas — including parts of Mount Pleasant, Grandview-Woodland, Kitsilano, and Marpole — allows four-storey residential developments to be built without rezonings, simply through development permits. The question before council now is whether to allow non-profit rental or co-op developments to go two additional storeys higher without rezonings.

Last week, at the first night of the public hearing for the proposed amendments, council heard from several members of the public speaking both for and against the changes. Council will resume hearing from speakers Tuesday evening, to be followed by debate and decision.

Rezoning is the process through which a property owner can seek to build something not allowed under existing zoning rules, which often means higher, denser buildings. This process includes a public hearing, which can stretch over several nights, before a final public vote by council. It also adds considerable cost, time and uncertainty.

Prominent figures in B.C.’s non-profit housing sector addressed council last week, all supporting the proposal’s direction, but urging council to go further.

Building affordable housing is neither cheap nor easy, council heard last week, but a project’s financial viability can be aided by adding density, reducing costs and with a mix of tenants with a range of incomes paying different rents. Removing the need for a rezoning could, on its own, trim a year or more off the timeline for getting a social-housing development built, council heard last week, as well as saving roughly $500,000 per project. It would also remove a level of uncertainty and make it easier for non-profits to obtain funding from senior levels of government.

Vancouver Native Housing Society CEO David Eddy credited the city for recent changes to prioritize rezoning applications for social housing, saying it has improved timelines for non-profits. But, he told council, it’s still an expensive, time-consuming process, describing it as “absolutely brutal, life-sapping and energy-sucking.”

But opponents of the changes say they would also make the process less transparent and remove opportunities for public consultation.

William Azaroff, CEO of the Brightside Community Homes Foundation, said while he supports the directions of these amendments, he would love to see them go both higher and broader, allowing eight- or 10-storey social-housing buildings and in more areas.

Co-operative Housing Federation of B.C. CEO Thom Armstrong told council last week he had heard a range of opinions on the amendments.

“Some people say, ‘This is the end of democracy as we know it,’ and others say, ‘It’s so timid it’s not going to be worth the trouble.’ But of course it’s neither,” Armstrong said. “In practical terms, this is a great start in a direction we should have moved some times ago.

“Let’s be clear: this is a modest proposal. It’s really the least you can do.”

Not everyone agrees.

Bill Tieleman plans to address council Tuesday, although, he says, it might hurt his popularity in some corners. As a self-described progressive who has been affiliated with left-leaning municipal, provincial and federal political parties, Tieleman says some longtime contacts were unpleasantly surprised to hear his opposition to these social-housing amendments.

But Tieleman, president of the strategy and lobbying firm West Star Communications, says he opposes rezonings for six-storey social housing buildings, calling the move “undemocratic.”

“I don’t care whether it’s rental housing, social housing, condos, whatever,” said Tieleman, who lives in a Kitsilano condo. “I think people have the right to say: ‘I don’t think this fits in our neighbourhood.’ ”

But Jill Atkey, CEO of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association, says “there’s nothing undemocratic about this” — on the contrary, she’s looking to council to do the job they were elected to do.

“Residents have said: ‘We want more affordable housing built.’ We have a council that has committed to improving housing affordability. And this is a baby step in terms of improving affordability,” Atkey said. “People have attached this idea of attending a public hearing and voicing either their approval or opposition to the building that goes up next door as exercising their democratic rights. Those are not democratic rights. We don’t have a constitutional right to determine who our neighbours are.”

City staff say Vancouver needs more secure rental homes of all kinds, especially social housing operated by non-profits. Most — but not all — Vancouverites seem to agree.

Many people might also agree that multimillion-dollar single detached houses aren’t as acutely needed right now for Vancouver’s housing ecosystem. But those can be built on most of the city’s residential land without any need for a rezoning.

It’s still easier, from a process perspective, to build housing types the city doesn’t need, than the homes we say we want. Whichever way council decides this week will not change that fundamental fact. But it might shift the balance a little bit.

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