What the B.C. government should do about the housing crisis

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the audible gasps and expressions of shock heard throughout a packed downtown hotel ballroom during an Urban Development Institute (UDI) luncheon talk on escalating housing prices around the region.

Last week, I returned to another packed downtown hotel ballroom for another UDI luncheon talk. However, this time, there were no audible gasps or expressions of shock.

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The guest speakers were two very important people in the lives of the developers, bankers and real estate professionals gathered in the room: Minister Selina Robinson, responsible for housing, municipal affairs and TransLink, and Premier John Horgan.

While I am a UDI member and even served as president 30 years ago, I decided to forgo the glazed salmon and dessert to join the many journalists and reporters at a media table where we were served water. Prior to the speeches, there was considerable speculation as to what might be announced, especially since Premier Horgan had earlier met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Given the development community’s increasing exasperation with excessive delays in obtaining municipal approvals, I whispered to Postmedia’s Joanne Lee-Young that if there was going to be any announcement, it would likely be a provincial strategy to reduce approval times. I was wrong.

As Lee-Young subsequently wrote in the Vancouver Sun, Horgan described the luncheon as the development industry’s first chance to “kick the tires” and “see his government as being willing to work together with municipalities and developers.” As to how Ottawa and B.C. might get involved with addressing the housing crisis in Metro Vancouver, “there were more questions than answers.”

That was it.

As we left the room disappointed with the speeches, I announced I would devote this column to outlining what Robinson and the Premier should have told the audience.

Since both acknowledged the province’s need to help developers and municipalities streamline project approval processes, they could have echoed a recent announcement by Liberal leadership candidate Mike DeJong. If elected, he promises to legislate faster municipal permitting times for those seeking to build new homes, while offering more funding to planning departments to fix a "logjam" of 120,000 existing housing applications in and around Vancouver.

Alternatively, since the Premier told the crowd he did not want to be too heavy-handed with municipalities, he could have stolen a page from Todd Stone’s campaign book. Stone recently announced he would help with housing affordability by giving municipalities funding to clear planning delays.

If there isn’t enough space to accommodate more planners and plan checkers, one of my colleagues suggested they could be set up in temporary modular offices on parking lots.

In fact, city hall may not need to hire more planners. Instead, they could allow qualified “certified professionals” knowledgeable about zoning and building bylaws to sort through the backlog of projects and determine which are worthy of proceeding.

Another major UDI concern is the uncertainty and excessive costs related to “voluntary” community amenity contributions. I say voluntary since it is not entirely clear whether municipalities have the legal authority to demand cash and other benefits from developers seeking rezonings.

Initially, these payments were extracted whenever a developer wanted to rezone for new condos. However, now they are being requested for purpose-built rental projects, too, thus inhibiting supply.

I have a solution.

In March 2014, the B.C. government completed a report titled Community Amenity Contributions: Balancing Community Planning, Public Benefits and Housing Affordability. It contains many excellent recommendations, but now sits on a shelf gathering dust. 

I urge Premier Horgan and Robinson to read it, and agree to make the necessary administrative and legislative changes to end what has become a most uncertain and oftentimes unsavoury approach to financing growth.

Finally, Horgan should terminate the province’s universal homeowner grant program that gives money to wealthy homeowners in Castlegar or Prince George living in luxurious $1.6 million houses. He should also end the universal property tax deferral program, which offers extremely low-interest loans to people like me, regardless of income or assets. Keep the program, but target it to those in need.

Money saved from these two programs could be redirected to non-profit organizations desperately seeking funds to build affordable homes for low-income households.

geller@sfu.ca

@michaelgeller

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