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B.C. municipalities get incentives to speed up housing approvals

Rezoning slow, costly and ‘amplifies the voices of the few’
Long-standing promise: former B.C. municipal affairs minister Selina Robinson shows 1979 front page where then-minister Bill Vander Zalm promises to cut red tape from housing approval process, at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention Vancouver, Sept. 25, 2019. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)

Demand for housing can only be met by more housing, and for 40 years B.C. governments have agreed that municipalities have to get better at allowing it to be built.

Two years after the B.C. NDP government became the latest to promise solutions to high-cost, opponent-driven development processes, the first steps are being taken to get local governments to reform their approval systems. It’s a $15 million grant program to identify “best practices” in municipal government, with winners to be announced this summer.

The grants will support basics such as offering online development applications, creating how-to workshops for developers and reviewing internal procedures. It’s a long way from the advice of a federal-provincial expert panel, which includes cutting extra costs loaded on housing projects and setting provincial deadlines for approvals that can drag on for years.

Housing Minister David Eby and Municipal Affairs Minister Josie Osborne have made no comment on those recommendations since the report was released in mid-June. It points out that Alberta and Ontario have already put time limits on rezoning and subdivision applications, and older rental housing is being lost faster than new stock is being built.

The panel, chaired by former NDP cabinet minister Joy MacPhail and including development and financial experts, calls for provincial-led planning to pre-zone land and provide services for new housing, rather than a piecemeal rezoning system that “amplifies the voices of the few rather than the needs of the community at large.”

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Federal and provincial governments should make new infrastructure investments conditional on community plans and zoning bylaws that allow for increased density and a mix of housing, the report says. And it calls for reform of fees charged to developers.

“These fees, which local governments levy on new homes, play an important role in funding growth-related infrastructure and amenities such as sewers, drinking water, libraries and community centres,” the panel said in one of its five “calls to action” on housing supply. “However, some of these fees – notably community amenity contributions – can be unpredictable or inconsistent, causing significant uncertainty, raising costs and compromising supply.”

The report traces the shortage of lower-cost rental housing to the federal government’s decision in the early 1990s to withdraw from the non-profit and co-op housing projects, after Ottawa cancelled incentives for purpose-built rental housing in the 1980s. As existing housing has aged, census data show that “nearly 34,000 units renting below $750 a month were lost in B.C. between 2011 and 2016.”


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