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Victoria early this year approved a citywide overhaul of its restrictive zoning to get more housing built. And, then, nothing happened. Vancouver is poised this fall to approve a citywide overhaul of its restrictive zoning to get more housing built – and city planners predict very little will happen.

How is it that splashy plans to enact major changes lead directly to an entrenchment of the status quo? It’s the difference between the headline goal – loosening rules to permit multiple homes on lots long reserved for a detached home – and the detailed regulations that end up undermining that goal and effectively ensure nothing much changes.

The housing market is tilted against new buyers and renters, with existing and new supply running well below demand. This is the root cause of Canada’s housing supply squeeze and blame can be pinned on local politicians who oversee rules that allow – and mostly disallow – new housing. For decades, the only thing you could build on most residential land was a detached home. Vancouver is a good example. More than 80 per cent of the land has been occupied by 35 per cent of the people.

In recent years, the cost of housing surged to dizzying levels. Restrictions on supply have been compounded by ever-stronger demand from a rising population. As of last year, loud calls for changing the rules finally rang through at city councils previously impervious to the idea.

Victoria at first appeared to be the leader of change. The city’s missing middle policy – multiunit housing of several storeys in height – was approved in January. It allows six homes on one lot and in some cases as many as a dozen, without a contentious, expensive and elongated rezoning process.

Yet the city then piled on numerous rules, including building height, parking and added costs. It’s akin to opening a door and immediately bolting it shut. The result is a policy that was supposed to help get many new homes built led to development applications of zero new homes.

Vancouver expects a similar result. City council this fall is set to approve a plan that would allow as many as six homes on one lot. The city calls it “very bold.” But the city plans to impose extra costs and heavily limit the size of buildings. The city itself predicts the plan will see only 150 new multiplexes built per year – just several hundred homes. In a city desperate for housing, Vancouver’s reaching for a garden hose to fight a wildfire.

Politicians, most of whom are homeowners, have long failed to see the urgency in the country’s housing market. Leaders at higher levels of government have finally moved to intervene, such as in Ontario and British Columbia.

Despite these efforts, the main problem remains mayors and city councils that are doing as little as possible. Four homes on one lot is definitely a step forward, if the rules were crafted to actually get such projects built. But it’s not enough, when the goal is to moderate sky-high prices to buy and rent. Vancouver and Toronto need to allow four-storey apartment buildings, with dozens of homes in each, to be built across the city, especially around public assets such as schools and parks. Right now, such buildings are allowed on a fraction of civic land.

While Victoria and Vancouver make missteps, Toronto shows some promise. The city in May allowed up to four homes on one lot and didn’t layer on onerous restrictions. It is a good although modest first step. Olivia Chow, the new mayor, has pledged to back new housing. A push from the province, with specific housing targets, has made a difference, too. Data indicate Toronto is opening up to new homes: housing starts in the city are up about 50 per cent since the start of 2022, compared with the two previous decades. Toronto, however, is an exception. Most other cities in Ontario are way behind.

Victoria, meanwhile, has realized its mistakes. The city is reviewing its new rules, to see where it went wrong, and plans more changes this fall. Vancouver city council has a chance this fall at a public hearing to also loosen its plans before it locks in rules that it knows will lead to little change.

Canada needs a lot more new housing. Civic leaders must stop undermining that essential goal by making sure the fine print supports the headline promise to build many more homes. The big picture is obvious. Getting the details right is what will make a real difference.

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