Big changes could be in the works for how the new housing approvals and oversight process works in British Columbia -- and the provincial government may be drawing its inspiration from Ontario.
David Eby, Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Housing, says legislation is being considered that would modernize current development processes, in efforts to boost housing supply. To roll out in the fall, the changes would essentially reduce municipalities’ power at the housing planning and permit stage in order to overstep common red-tape pitfalls that effectively delay the creation of new housing.
Specifics have yet to be revealed, but Eby tells STOREYS the measures will expedite development approvals and reduce redundancies in the current system. A new minimum housing development target for municipalities would also be established.
“It’s clear that the status quo is not working,” he wrote in a statement. “Rejecting affordable housing proposals because of concerns over parking lot designs, for example, is not acceptable in the midst of a housing crisis.”
He points to the province’s burgeoning population growth, as 100,000 BC residents are forecast to arrive in 2022, following an influx of 25,000 in the last three months of 2021 alone. “All British Columbians deserve to have an affordable place to live… The challenge we face is that municipalities are working with outdated processes around building approvals and oversight that prevent them from adequately responding to this significant demand,” he states.
The measures would be just the latest in efforts to stem BC’s housing affordability crisis; the province has long held the distinction of having the priciest real estate in Canada, while suffering from an acute supply-and-demand imbalance. According to the British Columbia Real Estate Association, the province’s average MLS residential price rose 23.5% year over year in January, to $1,042,169. Available inventory hovers new record lows, with just 13,000 homes available for sale, well below the historical norm of 40,000.
Easing the creation of new supply is considered a key goal for the province’s housing policymakers. While the 2022 B.C. Budget, released on February 22, does not include mention of the potential legislation, it announced an additional $166M added to the fiscal plan for the implementation of the “Homes for BC” plan, a 10-year strategy to bring 114,000 affordable homes online across BC. Overall, the province will be committing $1.2B to housing investments annually by 2024-25.
This Seems Familiar
If the particulars of this new legislation prompt a sense of deja vu, that’s because there are clear parallels to a similar housing proposal announced earlier this month in Ontario.
The province-appointed Ontario Affordability Task Force released an extensive set of 55 recommendations in order to build 1.5M homes over the next decade including overriding existing municipal bylaws and exclusionary zoning, allowing up to four storeys and four units to be built on lots traditionally zoned only for single-family houses. The proposal also recommends severely curtailing the influence of local residents at the planning and consultation stage, in efforts to “depoliticize” the creation of new housing.
While divisive, the Ontario recommendations certainly piqued the attention of west coast housing advocates, says Paul Kershaw, Professor at the University of British Columbia and founder of Generation Squeeze, a non-profit organization that advocates for housing affordability.
“I, along with others, went and brought to David Eby’s attention, ‘Hey, look, there’s some improvements that Ontario’s making, this province is getting ahead of us,’” he tells STOREYS, adding that due to BC’s affordability challenges, it is often the provincial leader when it comes to housing reform.
“I think there’s something positive about what Minister Eby is signaling on this front. One needs to do it with caution, one needs to do it in collaboration with municipalities -- there’s always the risk of slippery slopes -- so we want to minimize anything going too quickly down a problematic slope,” he says. “But the status quo is problematic, and it is worthwhile right now, having stronger provincial or federal signals, that make it clear, if you want the largest share of provincial infrastructure dollars, or federal infrastructure dollars, whether for housing or otherwise, you need to meet density targets.”
He adds that now that Ontario has shown some clout in regards to such a prescriptive approach, it helps set a precedent for other governments to attempt the same.
“I’m reasonably impressed with the rapid pace that which this speed is now being picked up now that it’s got more political backing in Ontario, and so to some degree, I read Mr. Eby’s comments as a bit of a trial balloon to see how public support is going to play out,” he says.
As has been the case in Ontario, Eby’s statement has prompted pushback at the municipal level, with concerns raised that sweeping changes at the municipal level is too blunt an instrument to effectively plan local communities. “I think we want to listen carefully to that municipal pushback, but it’s good that we’re now testing the waters about how urgently we can have our provincial governments act to try and address every part of the housing system,” Kershaw adds.
As Eby states, “This is not about taking away power from B.C.’s municipalities. This is about empowering them to bypass some of the obstacles -- such as the permit approval stage -- that prevent housing from being built in the first place. Each community has its own unique needs when it comes to delivering housing… Ultimately, we support municipalities’ ability to determine what the housing will look like -- but not whether the housing gets built.”