Columnist Michael Geller says Premier John Horgan should do what Liberal leadership candidate Mike DeJong said he'd do if elected — legislate faster municipal permitting times for those seeking to build new homes, while offering more funding to planning departments to fix a "logjam" of 120,000 existing housing applications in and around Vancouver. Photo Dan Toulgoet
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the audible gasps and expressions of
shock heard throughout a packed downtown hotel ballroom during an Urban
Development Institute (UDI) luncheon http://www.vancourier.com/opinion/vancouver-development-community-shocked-by-new-normal-in-real-estate-prices-1.23074903 around the region.
Last week, I returned to another packed downtown hotel ballroom for
another UDI luncheon talk. However, this time, there were no audible
gasps or expressions of shock.
The guest speakers were two very important people in the lives of
the developers, bankers and real estate professionals gathered in the
room: Minister Selina Robinson, responsible for housing, municipal
affairs and TransLink, and Premier John Horgan.
While I am a UDI member and even served as president 30 years ago, I
decided to forgo the glazed salmon and dessert to join the many
journalists and reporters at a media table where we were served water.
Prior to the speeches, there was considerable speculation as to what
might be announced, especially since Premier Horgan had earlier met with
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Given the development community’s increasing exasperation with
excessive delays in obtaining municipal approvals, I whispered to
Postmedia’s Joanne Lee-Young that if there was going to be any
announcement, it would likely be a provincial strategy to reduce
approval times. I was wrong.
As Lee-Young subsequently wrote in the Vancouver Sun,
Horgan described the luncheon as the development industry’s first chance
to “kick the tires” and “see his government as being willing to work
together with municipalities and developers.” As to how Ottawa and B.C.
might get involved with addressing the housing crisis in Metro
Vancouver, “there were more questions than answers.”
That was it.
As we left the room disappointed with the speeches, I announced I
would devote this column to outlining what Robinson and the Premier
should have told the audience.
Since both acknowledged the province’s need to help developers and
municipalities streamline project approval processes, they could have
echoed a recent announcement by Liberal leadership candidate Mike
DeJong. If elected, he promises to legislate faster municipal permitting
times for those seeking to build new homes, while offering more funding
to planning departments to fix a "logjam" of 120,000 existing housing
applications in and around Vancouver.
Alternatively, since the Premier told the crowd he did not want to
be too heavy-handed with municipalities, he could have stolen a page
from Todd Stone’s campaign book. Stone recently announced he would help
with housing affordability by giving municipalities funding to clear
If there isn’t enough space to accommodate more planners and plan
checkers, one of my colleagues suggested they could be set up in
temporary modular offices on parking lots.
In fact, city hall may not need to hire more planners. Instead, they
could allow qualified “certified professionals” knowledgeable about
zoning and building bylaws to sort through the backlog of projects and
determine which are worthy of proceeding.
Another major UDI concern is the uncertainty and excessive costs
related to “voluntary” community amenity contributions. I say voluntary
since it is not entirely clear whether municipalities have the legal
authority to demand cash and other benefits from developers seeking
Initially, these payments were extracted whenever a developer wanted
to rezone for new condos. However, now they are being requested for
purpose-built rental projects, too, thus inhibiting supply.
I have a solution.
In March 2014, the B.C. government completed a report titled Community Amenity Contributions: Balancing Community Planning, Public Benefits and Housing Affordability. It contains many excellent recommendations, but now sits on a shelf gathering dust.
I urge Premier Horgan and Robinson to read it, and agree to make the
necessary administrative and legislative changes to end what has become
a most uncertain and oftentimes unsavoury approach to financing growth.
Finally, Horgan should terminate the province’s universal homeowner
grant program that gives money to wealthy homeowners in Castlegar or
Prince George living in luxurious $1.6 million houses. He should also
end the universal property tax deferral program, which offers extremely
low-interest loans to people like me, regardless of income or assets.
Keep the program, but target it to those in need.
Money saved from these two programs could be redirected to
non-profit organizations desperately seeking funds to build affordable
homes for low-income households.