Vancouver to explore ways to fast-track social housing developments

Vancouver to explore ways to fast-track social housing developments

Analysis: The ABC mayor and councillors said the approved motion demonstrates their party’s commitment to cross-party collaboration.

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Vancouver city staff will explore making it easier and faster for co-op and non-profit developers to build up to 12 storeys in certain neighbourhoods.

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City council unanimously supported a motion Wednesday, introduced by OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle, that essentially seeks to tilt the scales a bit more to favour non-market housing developers by allowing them to build taller without requiring a rezoning and full public hearing.

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It was the second kick at this can for Boyle, after she introduced a substantially similar motion last year, which failed. This time around, with Vancouver’s new council, Boyle’s motion passed with input from the two Green councillors, and an amendment backed by the ABC majority.

The ABC mayor and councillors said the result demonstrated their party’s commitment to cross-party collaboration.

When the meeting recessed following the vote, ABC councillors and mayor’s office staffers congratulated Boyle, OneCity’s only representative on council, and gave a good-natured round of applause.

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“Look at us, working together,” laughed ABC Coun. Peter Meiszner.

The idea of the motion is to allow taller social housing developments to be considered and approved — or rejected — by city staff, instead of requiring non-profit builders to go through the time-consuming, expensive and uncertain process of a public hearing. This includes up to 12 storeys in certain apartment neighbourhoods, including parts of Mount Pleasant, Grandview-Woodland, Kitsilano and Marpole, and considering additional height and density bonuses for social housing in other zones too.

Generally, when a property owner wants to build something bigger than what’s allowed under current zoning, they must seek a rezoning, which entails a public hearing, where members of the public share their thoughts on the project — sometimes taking several days — before council approves or rejects the project.

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While some residents say that the public hearing process is a crucial piece of local democracy, it also takes time. And time is money.

William Azaroff, CEO of Brightside Community Homes, a major non-profit housing provider in Vancouver, told council on Wednesday about a specific project his group was building in Marpole. The development was six storeys, which would normally be allowed under the zoning in the neighbourhood, and Brightside hoped they would be able to proceed directly to a development permit, without needing a rezoning.

But because the property was on a hill, one side of the building was about 1 1/2 metres too tall to be allowed under existing zoning, which triggered a requirement for a rezoning and a full public hearing. The extra time that public hearing added meant a $4 million increase in the project cost, Azaroff said.

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“Had we been able to skip rezoning and save eight, 10, maybe 12 months off that project, we could have locked in much lower interest rates, we could have gotten tenders in before cost escalations,” Azaroff said. “Obviously this is a bit of an unprecedented time, but I think it’s just such a clear indication of how a policy like this can just create certainty and allow not-for-profits like Brightside to be able to move forward more quickly.”

That $4 million cost increase negatively impacts the quantity and affordability of homes Brightside can build, Azaroff said, but for a smaller builder, it would have likely killed the project altogether.

Dozens of speakers addressed council Wednesday about Boyle’s motion, with the vast majority in support. A handful of people opposed the motion, with some raising concerns about drug use in the supportive housing projects that could result from such policies.

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Today, many real estate developments are approved by staff without the need for public hearings. If a property owner wants to demolish a single-family home and replace it with a new, larger, single-family home, they need permits from city hall — but those permits are processed and approved by city staff, without any public hearings.

But which development decisions should be made in a public process by an elected council, and which should be delegated to unelected staffers? That’s a live question, and the answer can change over time.

Last year, Vancouver’s previous council approved bylaw amendments delegating decisions to staff for social-housing projects up to six storeys in these same apartment areas, where previously four-storey rental buildings were allowed without rezonings. That move was described by leaders in the non-profit housing sector as a modest, but welcome one. Others blasted it as “undemocratic.”

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Just a few weeks after the last council approved fast-tracking six-storey non-profit buildings in those zones, Boyle introduced a motion in May 2022 seeking to go further, by allowing up to 12 storeys in those areas. After several hours of sometimes heated debate, council rejected Boyle’s motion, with only the independent mayor, Kennedy Stewart, and COPE Coun. Jean Swanson voting with her in support.

Stewart and Swanson both lost their seats in this year’s election, as ABC Vancouver swept to power with Mayor Ken Sim and seven ABC councillors elected.

On Wednesday, the new council unanimously supported the slightly tweaked motion from Boyle — including the three ABC and two Green councillors who voted against her similar motion last term.

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Green Coun. Adriane Carr mentioned in council Wednesday that she and her fellow Green Coun., Pete Fry — both of whom opposed the similar motion last year — worked with Boyle behind-the-scenes to amend the motion to direct staff to research additional measures to protect existing tenants when properties are redeveloped.

Clara Prager, campaign lead for Women Transforming Cities who was addressing council at that time, applauded Carr and Fry for this cross-party teamwork.

“I think that is the spirit of collaboration that we really need to see more of in this council term,” Prager said. “Housing is a non-partisan issue, it’s not partisan, it’s a human right, and I’m really appreciative of that collaboration.”

ABC Coun. Mike Klassen introduced an amendment to Boyle’s motion on the floor of council, which included directing staff to report back on additional items, considerations and potential implications.

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Boyle said while she had some concerns Klassen’s amendment could create additional delay in the policy progressing, she was relieved his changes — which were supported by the ABC majority — didn’t fundamentally change the motion’s intention.

City staff will now research the directions in the amended motion and report back to council on next steps.

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