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If Vancouver is going to improve its complicated approval processes to get more social housing built faster, city council will need to make some difficult decisions about priorities, Mayor Kennedy Stewart says.

“There are going to be long-standing practices seen as untouchable that are going to have to change,” Mr. Stewart said following a Globe and Mail investigation that found that thousands of promised social-housing apartments remain unbuilt and unapproved in spite of a four-year effort by the city to build more low-cost housing as quickly as possible.

“I think there will be a discussion at council that we haven’t had in 50 years about [whether] our priorities [are] the same as what they were before,” he added. “We’ll be bringing this to a head.”

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The mayor also said that will mean dealing with dozens of overlapping policies, some of them decades-old – many of them, he said, “piled on” in the last decade, including increasingly stringent regulations related to shadows and trees.

“I think there are going to be some tough choices. This council is going to have to decide what to do about all of those.”

The Globe found that 3,000 out of almost 5,000 social-housing units officially approved from 2016 to 2019 hadn’t been built by the end of 2020. Another 1,000 were held up in the approval pipeline, including hundreds that had been pledged to be built by this year under the direction of the city’s recently created Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency.

The delays are something the mayor said he first became concerned about in 2019, which led to his motion earlier this year asking for a complete list of all rental projects – both private and non-profit – that have come before the city’s planning department but not made it any further.

Like most large cities, Vancouver has always faced complaints about bureaucracy and delays for permits and approvals when it comes to building housing.

But many in the sector agree the situation has gotten much worse, from private and non-profit developers homeowners trying to do improvements or build infill houses, to small businesses trying to get approvals for changes of use or building permits.

Concerned by the extensive delays, local non-profit social housing associations held a first meeting last week with a large group of senior city bureaucrats to discuss the issue.

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“There’s so much pressure – even in the pandemic – on the housing market, so it makes the slowdown of this kind of housing very disheartening,” said Jill Atkey, CEO of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association, which took part in the meeting, along with the Aboriginal Housing Management Association, the Co-operative Housing Federation of B.C. and eight other non-profit groups.

While there are also slowdowns with social-housing approvals in other municipalities in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island, Vancouver still stands out, Ms. Atkey said.

“It does seem to be particularly slow – [each project] touches all departments, and every department wants a different thing.”

The delays by municipalities in getting social housing built is something the provincial government is also watching, as the province spends hundreds of millions on hotels to house people experiencing homelessness because there is no other option available.

“I’m really concerned about the number of projects held up in Vancouver,” said Attorney-General and Housing Minister David Eby.

Mr. Eby has been examining American models of state intervention and what they have required of cities in order to prod or incentivize them into building more low-cost housing faster. Potential solutions are due to be revealed in a report coming in June from an expert panel on housing supply and affordability, headed by former NDP deputy premier Joy MacPhail.

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Mr. Eby said Municipal Affairs Minister Josie Osborne is also working with cities on developing new processes for speeding up permit approvals.

Mr. Stewart said he hopes to see progress now that the City of Vancouver has a strong new leadership team in place, following the departure of the previous city manager and director of planning.

“I think we have the folks in place to make the moves,” he said. “But it’s going to be tough to clear everything out.”

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