The acronym NIMBY is brandished regularly against opponents of new housing. Indeed, some homeowners are often the loudest voices against proposals to build new homes – not in my backyard! – and too many city councillors seem beholden to such constituents.
It’s not just your imagination. A new study last week in the Journal of Urban Economics cites “direct evidence that NIMBYism is a significant impeding force in housing supply.” The study, using data from Toronto in the 2010s, shows councillors whose wards had higher levels of home ownership tended to oppose new housing, especially in their own wards.
This entrenched local opposition is the reason this space has long called for higher levels of government to wrest some control over housing away from city councils, who have failed to make way for enough new homes by maintaining out-of-date regulations and too-strict zoning rules.
The NDP government in British Columbia released provincewide zoning rules last week. Cities must update bylaws by mid-2024 to allow three or four homes on a lot in zones restricted to one detached home or duplex. On larger lots near transit, six homes will be allowed. The use of public hearings, which have served as forums to delay housing, will be reduced.
It’s not the end of detached homes but it is the end of neighbourhoods reserved for detached homes. B.C.’s move follows a more modest version in Ontario last year and city-by-city changes across Canada this year spurred by the federal Liberals’ housing accelerator program.
The shift is big but change isn’t instant. In B.C. and elsewhere, allowing multiplexes in neighbourhoods of detached houses will not spark an immediate transformation but over time it will make a sizable difference: stronger communities with more people, better use of parks, schools and transit, and a rising population to support more amenities.
B.C. had 2.26-million homes in 2022, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. A typical rate of construction would add 320,000 homes by 2030. CMHC research indicates B.C. needs an additional 610,000 homes in that span to moderate prices. Even with the NDP’s province-wide density push, there’s a ways to go. The NDP estimate their plan could see 130,000 new homes built over the next decade. That would be a major boost but is just a fifth of CMHC’s estimate of what’s necessary to ease prices to buy and rent.
More than fourplexes are needed in cities such as Vancouver and Toronto. Apartment buildings of up to six storeys, ideally adjacent to parks and schools, is what will make a real difference. But cities allow such buildings only on a tiny fraction of residential land.
B.C.’s changes move in the right direction but the province (and the rest of the country) has much further to travel. Vancouver exemplifies this. The NDP in September instituted housing targets for 10 cities but its number for Vancouver – 28,900 homes over the next five years – is not much higher than the past five years. ABC Vancouver, the party that controls city council, has moved too slowly on housing. Its multiplex density rules this year, similar to the NDP’s, were too modest for the province’s biggest city.
In October, ABC proposed buildings of up to six storeys in about two dozen small hubs around the city. That was recommended in last year’s Vancouver Plan, which took four years to complete. Now, a year later, ABC is talking about thinking about the change. An “initial report” is due in March. Upping the ambition is welcome but change remains slow – and too limited.
In all housing plans, the details matter. Victoria in January approved loosened zoning but specific rules still stymied new housing. City council realized its mistakes and adjusted the rules in September. In Vancouver, ABC’s neighbourhood density rules are too rigid. The NDP are working on their density details – such as height of multiplex homes – and they need to be calibrated to ensure homes get built.
Last, look down. Underground. New sewers are necessary. Metro Vancouver in late October hiked development charges on new homes to cover such projects but too many costs have been piled on new housing for too long. Governments must work together on infrastructure to support housing.
Housing problems in Canada worsened over decades. It will take time to unwind but key building blocks are fitting into place. The not-in-my-backyard opposition is finally being overcome.