As the housing crisis in B.C.’s Lower Mainland pushed prices skyward, the City of North Vancouver set ambitious targets to build new housing and rentals, then proceeded, over the past six years, to blow past them.
The small municipality of fewer than 60,000 residents, which occupies the lower half of the North Shore across Burrard Inlet from downtown Vancouver, saw 1,768 rental apartments and townhouses plus 2,830 condos and houses completed in the half-dozen years up to 2021, according to statistics provided by the city. That works out to an average of 354 rental units and 568 homes per year – way beyond the city’s nominal targets of about 260 and 280 for those categories.
Coquitlam, population 148,000, has had almost 7,400 new homes built in the past five years, not too far off its target of 9,925 for the next five years. And it has seen an almost unbelievable 3,579 housing starts so far this year.
Those numbers are in stark contrast with the plans of the neighbouring District of West Vancouver, where city planners have estimated it needs to build just 196 new homes a year for the next five years, even though West Vancouver has about eight times as much land as the City of North Vancouver.
In West Vancouver, where 73 per cent of the workforce has to commute because there are no local homes available, 2021 saw just 107 housing starts.
This week, after appointing a minister to lead a new, standalone housing ministry, Premier David Eby once again signalled that his patience will be limited for municipalities that just don’t get the urgent need for more housing. Early next year, his government will begin to work with eight to 10 municipalities it deems most in need of a nudge. After that first round, other municipalities will follow.
There is urgency: Housing pressures on the region will only increase after B.C. saw some of its highest migration numbers in decades last year by people from within Canada. Added to that, international students are returning in droves now that the pandemic is easing. And the federal government has set its highest immigration targets in decades – 500,000 a year by 2025.
“We are in a really serious housing crisis – and we can’t leave any housing on the table,” Mr. Eby said this week as he announced his new cabinet.
But how municipalities calculate their housing demands, then set targets and go about meeting them, has been an uneven exercise.
North Vancouver Mayor Linda Buchanan and Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart want to see the housing burden spread more evenly. The imbroglio over increasing density is never fun.
As a councillor, Ms. Buchanan was accused of conflict of interest because the developer of a condo project she backed almost a decade ago contributed an amount equivalent to about 0.6 per cent of her campaign budget.
Mr. Stewart notes that there’s rarely love in the room when developments are approved, as building apartments and townhouses outpaces the construction of schools and hospitals.
The Housing Supply Act introduced in October says the province will work collaboratively and sensitively with cities to help them increase new housing in their communities. But, ultimately, the new legislation allows the province to set housing targets that may differ from those cities set for themselves and step in to overrule municipal decisions to reject certain projects.
“It’s going to take a little bit of the pressure off us,” Ms. Buchanan said. “Because the City of North Vancouver can’t be the only one doing this. We all have a role to play because we know there’s great need. And we really just don’t have the luxury of sitting around talking and then shutting the door to the generation behind us.”
Mr. Stewart echoes the sentiment, saying it’s been difficult not to feel that cities like his are taking on the lion’s share of the work of housing the constant flood of new arrivals.
“We know some of our neighbours are not as forward on this as we are. And it’s incredibly challenging for those of us adding development and taking the hit for not enough schools, not enough hospitals.”
The Housing Supply Act will, among other things, create a rigorous system for assessing how much new housing every city and town should aim to build. The province would monitor the progress and, if necessary, override local councils to get there, though just how that would work remains murky.
All B.C. cities were required to complete, using 50 specific data sources, a housing needs report by April, 2022, but the process has not always produced comparable projections.
One pitfall is assuming that what was built in the past, or what the population growth has been historically, can serve as a guide to what should be built in the future.
Jens von Bergman, a mathematician and census data analyst who has consulted on housing needs assessments outside B.C., said some cities may have had artificially low growth rates in the past because there was simply no housing for new residents, as councils approved a minimal amount of new development over the years.
Many cities may give the appearance that everyone is being housed, when the reality is that many adult children are reluctantly living with parents or roommates because there’s nowhere else to go.
As well, said Mr. von Bergman, needs reports often don’t take into account certain dynamics of the housing market, like the fact that, as household incomes go up, people consume more housing. With every 1-per-cent increase in income, people will buy bigger homes with more space – about 1.5 per cent more space. That means the same number of people will take up more room.
Other experts and mayors said it would be unfair to base future targets on what municipalities have built in the past, since that would bake in inequity by making those who pushed hard in the past do even more.
Murray Rankin, who was housing minister until this week, said the new provincial team is well aware of all that and will be working on defining targets and expectations with some nuance to them.
“We don’t want to penalize success,” Mr. Rankin said.
He also said that just looking at past population growth is not enough. “We have to look at what is the pent-up demand.”
Mr. Rankin acknowledged that the province needs to get its own house in order, ensuring that it is not holding up housing construction with years-long waits for environmental permits and social-housing dollars.
So far mayors, even in low-growth cities such as Oak Bay and West Vancouver, which are frequently accused of not pulling their weight, say the province appears to be taking a thoughtful and helpful approach.
“I’m optimistic we will have good, meaningful discussion and they won’t be trying to impose things that are completely insensitive to the community,” said the newly elected mayor of West Vancouver, Mark Sager, who has already had a couple of conversations with ministers.
But, he warned, “if they did do that, we’ll have to respond in a very negative way.”
Mr. Rankin said that, while many people in B.C. are on board with the idea that cities need to make room for new housing and residents, there will always be some people who aren’t.
“That there will be places where the legislation will not be welcome is not a surprise,” he said.
In Mr. Eby’s mandate letter to incoming Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon, the Premier notes that the province’s strategy prioritizes building housing for middle-income families, individuals and seniors and giving local governments new tools to clamp down on short-term rentals. He also refers to creating an “effective flipping tax to fight increased costs caused by short-term flipping by investors.”
The letter also requires Mr. Kahlon to work with the Minister of Municipal Affairs to expedite provincial housing approval processes.
Mr. Eby said at the swearing-in of his new cabinet that change is coming.
“Any time you make changes, there will be anxiety. But I want to reassure people of two things. One is we believe there’s a housing crisis. We are taking action on it. And the second is we will monitor the changes we’re putting in place to respond to any issues that arise.”