Current approval process: slow, difficult, and expensive
It confines apartment buildings to a small area, resulting in displacement of renters
I was aiming to keep yesterday’s op-ed on BC allowing the “next level up” at 650 words or less, so I ended up cutting quite a bit. A couple parts that I cut:
The current approval process
Right now, there’s a lot of land in our municipalities where it’s illegal to build anything other than a single-detached house, even if it’s in a highly desirable location where a lot of people want to live, like within walking distance of a city centre or a rapid transit station. To build anything else, like a small rental apartment building, you first need to get special permission from your municipal government. In many municipalities, especially those where the housing shortage is worst and prices are highest, this is very painful and time-consuming: “It’s easier to elect a pope.”
First you need to beg city staff to recommend that you be allowed to build it, which requires that the law be changed to make an exception for your project. Suppose you’re able to negotiate an agreement with city staff, which typically takes years. This negotiation includes supposedly-voluntary Community Amenity Contributions, which staff are aiming to maximize. The final step is a protracted public hearing attended by the neighbours who are most fearful of new housing, and therefore most motivated to show up. The agreement then has to be ratified by city council. At this point city council can kill your project by rejecting the rezoning, no matter how much time and money you’ve put into it.
Some examples from Vancouver:
Rental townhouses in Shaughnessy rejected, July 2019.
Public hearing for Fraser and 23rd, July 2019. A six-storey rental building near Fraser and King Edward. The NDP MP for Vancouver Kingsway, Don Davies, co-founded a neighbourhood association (the Fraser Street Neighbourhood Coalition) to oppose market rental buildings on Fraser, and went to city hall to speak against it.
Public hearing for 1805 Larch, December 2019. A five-storey rental building with 20% non-market apartments. Nearly 100 people signed up to speak, mostly against.
Peter Miller tried to build a six-storey, 35-unit rental building at 4th and Balaclava, 20% non-market. After eight years he got the rezoning approved (the public hearing took five days), in March 2021. He died in July 2022, at the age of 85: he'd spent more than 10% of his life trying to get this project approved.
The resulting laws are also a mess. Reilly Wood reports that the city of Vancouver has more than 800 site-specific zoning districts, each with its own bylaw.
Giving nearly every new building its own zoning bylaw creates some problems:
This doesn’t scale. Writing a new zoning bylaw takes a lot of time for a trained professional, and every new bylaw needs to be approved by council at a public hearing.
The more zones we have, the harder it is to make changes to our urban planning regime. Changing 1 zoning bylaw is really hard; changing 100 bylaws is nearly impossible.
No one person2 can read and understand 800+ zoning bylaws; we’ve long since reached a point where our planning code is beyond the grasp of professionals (to say nothing of us interested amateurs).
Why do we have such a stupid process?
(One big reason is that fixing it would require municipal governments to give up a major source of revenue. The city of Vancouver collected $2.5 billion in Community Amenity Contributions alone, completely separate from water and sewer upgrade costs, from 2011 to 2020. Another big reason is simply inertia: this is the way it’s been done for decades.)
Displacement of renters
Because the current approval process is highly discretionary, municipal governments end up concentrating apartment buildings in a relatively small area, to avoid changing the character of neighbourhoods that are exclusively single-detached houses. Gordon Price calls this the “Grand Bargain.” Nathan Lauster calls it the “Great House Reserve.”
This means that old low-rise apartment buildings end up getting torn down, displacing renters, in order to build high-rises. As Peter Waldkirch says:
Making it so that just about the only legal place to build a rental apartment is on top of an older apartment is dumb, cruel, terrible policy
This is what happened at Metrotown. Old three- and four-storey apartment buildings were torn down to build high-rises, instead of Burnaby allowing nearby lots with only single-detached houses and few if any renters to be redeveloped. You get a startling juxtaposition of old single-detached houses and brand-new high-rises:
After the 2018 municipal election, Burnaby did bring in a strong tenant relocation policy. When a developer replaces an old low-rise with a new high-rise, the high-rise must include 20% below-market rental apartments, the existing renters in the old low-rise get the right of first refusal for these apartments, and while the new building is under construction, the developer must help them find a temporary place and cover the difference in rent. Vancouver now has a similar policy for the Broadway Plan area.
One benefit of policies like this is that it’s an incentive to redevelop properties with few renters first, like parking lots and single-detached houses - having to relocate renters and cover the difference in rent increases the cost of development. A longer explanation.
The province’s transit-oriented development policy increases the land available for redevelopment, reducing the concentration effect: apartment buildings will now be allowed off arterials. If the province’s housing policies are successful in increasing the pace of redevelopment, these renter-protection policies will be even more important.