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Deciding which rezoning approvals to tackle first
It's more important than ever to build housing where it's most needed
Kenneth Chan, February 2023, describing the backlog of rezoning applications in the city of Vancouver:
Chief planner Theresa O’Donnell provided City Council with an update last week, stating that there are 296 active rezoning applications as of the end of January 2023 — about 100 more than typical.
About two-thirds of these rezoning applications are in the pre-application stage, while only the remaining one-third have progressed to a formal rezoning application submission.
The vast majority of these rezoning-related applications, 217, deal with major projects with condominiums, affordable housing, offices, and industrial space, which all take longer to review and process given that they are more complicated.
It’s a tough situation - the city’s spot rezoning process has always been a bottleneck, and now it’s getting even slower. At a council meeting on May 9, city staff made recommendations on how to decide which zoning applications to tackle first. Next week council will vote on whether to accept those recommendations.
Vancouver’s spot rezoning process, as described in Larry Beasley’s book Vancouverism, is basically hand-crafted - slow, labour-intensive, and site-specific. It doesn’t scale up.
When resources are limited, it’s more important than ever to build housing where it’s most needed. Matthew Yglesias, March 2022, describing the housing shortage in the US:
The quantity of new houses being built is lagging behind the number of permits, largely because builders are having trouble getting sufficient labor and construction materials for acceptable costs. This is to say that on some level, the housing market is feeling the general squeeze as a ton of demand rushes through an economy that’s been hit by a couple of big supply-side shocks.
One interpretation of that supply crunch is that YIMBY/NIMBY issues are less relevant today because of all these non-permitting barriers to house-buildings, or relatedly because remote work is probably going to reduce the link between high white-collar salaries and specific metro areas. I think both of these ideas are mistaken; if anything, we’re in a “now more than ever” situation. When material shortages are limiting the number of units that can be built, it’s an especially big problem that we can’t build houses where they are most needed.
So how should the city prioritize spot rezoning approvals?
One radical idea would be to copy Califonia’s zoning holiday and say, you can build anything anywhere, with unlimited density, so long as (a) it includes 20% non-market rental housing and (b) there’s zero displacement of renters in purpose-built rental housing.
Of course that’s quite extreme. A less extreme version would be to figure out, where would people build housing in this situation? Where it’s most valuable, i.e. where the price per square foot is the highest. So you’d want to prioritize those applications.
In other words, I’d suggest prioritizing by location. If a project will deliver housing in a location where prices and rents are particularly high - near a SkyTrain station, for example, or within walking distance of the central business district, or on the west side - then it makes sense to prioritize it.
Projects in these locations are also likely to be larger (because land value is higher, requiring higher density), so they’re more suited to the slow and expensive spot-rezoning process - “go big or go home.” Smaller projects should be handled through city-initiated pre-zoning, so that they don’t need to go through rezoning at all.
In a location where prices and rents are particularly high, economic viability is also likely to be higher, so the project is more likely to actually get built.
Finally, projects where there’s no displacement should be prioritized. It sounds like a lot of the rezoning expressions of interest are in the Broadway Plan area, with similar location and size. The Broadway Plan is designed to make it easy to build where there’s no renters, and hard to build where there’s renters. Prioritizing projects with no displacement, and delaying projects which replace older, cheaper rentals, is consistent with that goal.
Make low- and mid-rise projects legal by right
If the planning department has its hands full with rezoning for high-rises in the Broadway Plan area, it’s more important than ever to push forward with policy changes to make low- and mid-rise projects legal by right, so they don’t have to go through the labour-intensive rezoning process.
One specific change would be to make six-storey buildings within walking distance of SkyTrain stations and the central business district legal by right, as New Zealand has done.
Of Canada’s three largest cities, Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, only Montreal has an elastic housing supply, where people build more housing in response to higher prices. One reason is that Montreal builds a lot more low- and mid-rise housing, which is faster to plan and build. In Vancouver this is impossible, because almost all low- and mid-rise housing is illegal, and must go through the same rezoning process as a large high-rise project.
Streamline the rezoning process for large projects
Finally, even if planning staff is able to set priorities and make smaller projects legal by right, the basic problem remains: the handcrafted spot-rezoning process doesn’t scale up, and there’s a huge backlog.
A third goal, therefore, is to simplify the rezoning process for large projects. For example, for high-rise condo projects, set fixed CAC rates to be paid in cash (in addition to the 20% inclusive zoning requirement in the Broadway Plan area), rather than negotiating CACs. Review shadowing requirements - they reduce the amount of housing that can be built, and studies take time to both prepare and review. Examine the process for any steps which can be removed: even if taking out any particular requirement isn’t going to fix the problem on its own, streamlining processes requires continuous improvement over a long period of time, as Surrey has demonstrated.
"We have a problem": City of Vancouver facing lengthy backlog of building applications. Kenneth Chan in the Daily Hive, February 2023.
City of Vancouver Looking at New Rezoning Application Prioritization Process Howard Chai in Storeys, May 2023.
Comment by Richard Wittstock: “Market housing (you know, the housing that 95% of us live in) is not a priority. So the new normal is 18 months for a rezone. Another year for [development permit], and another 6 months to a year for [building permit]. Basically 3 years to a permit is your best case scenario now.”
Cost-Benefit Analysis as an Expression of Liberal Neutrality. Book chapter by Joseph Heath, describing how to maximize social benefit in a situation where resources are limited.