Finance minister wants ‘reasonable’ deadline for municipal housing approvals

Under: City Planning, Development


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Written on March 7th, 2017


B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong is offering municipalities incentives if they can approve housing projects within an 18-month deadline.

Rob Shaw
Vancouver Sun

VICTORIA — B.C.’s finance minister says he’s going to offer a cash incentive on one hand, and maybe apply a little Drano with the other, to unclog the housing development pipeline in Metro Vancouver’s municipalities.

Mike de Jong unveiled details in an interview about his plan to offer cash to Lower Mainland municipalities in exchange for “reasonable” deadlines on permitting, rezoning and approval processes.

The hope, he said, is to get shovels in the ground on tens of thousands of new townhomes, apartments and condos that have spent years languishing in local planning departments during the region’s housing affordability crisis.

Finding a way to get them on the market could address the region’s supply shortage and maybe even drive down prices.

“What I said in the budget, purposefully, and in a more formal way than what I’ve been saying behind-the-scenes to municipalities, is we are prepared to sit down with you and pour a little Drano on this and unclog what seems to be a clogged approval process,” said de Jong.

Finance ministry research has shown some relatively straightforward applications to build up to 60 units of housing have languished for as long as seven years in front of certain councils, said de Jong, which he labelled “an inappropriate and unacceptable state of affairs.”

“It strikes me that anything over 18 months is unreasonable,” he said. “So the conversation is: We’re prepared to provide some resources, but when these applications go forward we expect to see decisions within 18 months.

“Now, sometimes the decision is no … but let’s get a decision and move on.”

The money will be mainly earmarked for new planning department staff, and won’t flow until after the May 9 election.

The incentives are another plank in the housing platform the B.C. Liberal government is building for its upcoming election campaign.

The party believes it can withstand voter criticism on the demand side of the housing crisis, having introduced the popular foreign buyer tax last year to cool the high end of the market, and a down payment loan program geared to young families hoping to buy their first home.

Where the government has had less success is in clearing the municipal backlog.

Though the Liberals have long blamed Metro municipalities for delaying construction of housing during an affordability crisis, they’ve stopped short of forcing a solution, fearing that legislating deadlines would prompt an all-out war with mayors before the election.

Instead, last month’s budget offered “performance-based” help to municipalities like Richmond, Surrey, Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster and Coquitlam, which collectively have 115,000 units of housing tied up in planning.

How much money is exactly on the table, de Jong won’t say. But “we can accommodate this within the fiscal plan” and “we’re not talking billions.”

Some municipalities will take the deal. Others will likely bristle at the deadlines, arguing that larger developments require more public consultation, and some projects involve complicating factors like heritage designations.

The City of Vancouver — which Housing Minister Rich Coleman took a swipe at for delays last week — believes it has enough planners. Mayor Gregor Robertson told developers last week that his own in-house planning reforms are coming within weeks.

Surrey — which processed the second-most building permits in its history in 2016 — already has 220 staff in its planning department.

A better solution would be to fast-track developers with proven records, argues the Greater Vancouver Homebuilders’ Association. De Jong expressed support for that idea as well.

The government could also change the law to forbid single-family zoning in certain parts of Metro Vancouver, which is holding up higher density and the development of more housing projects, said University of B.C. professor Tom Davidoff.

Local councils would secretly love the idea, said Davidoff, because the provincial government would then take the heat for allowing townhomes and apartments into single family neighbourhoods.

“I hear it from some municipal officials, who talk about the pressure,” said de Jong. “But I haven’t met one who wants to surrender their land use planning authority. It is uncomfortable at times. That’s the price you pay for taking on these representative roles.”

There remain hints that the government’s new incentive program is the proverbial carrot before the stick, should the Liberals win a fifth term in office.

“You know, some provinces have legislated timelines,” de Jong mused in the interview, quickly adding he prefers trying co-operation first.

The government has a far more aggressive approach to housing along transit lines, where de Jong said billions in provincial funds “will be conditional” on high density zoning along Vancouver’s proposed Broadway subway line and Surrey’s light rapid transit project.

The Liberals hope the flurry of activity on housing in the past year will erase any memories of the initial months spent arguing vigorously about how improper it would be to intervene in the real estate market.

The NDP has drawn the election battle line by framing all the reforms as too little, too late, for an affordability crisis caused by Liberal inaction.

“Their argument that there’s this huge backlog and there’s this systemic issue is undermined by the fact they’ve been in power for 16 years and didn’t address it,” said NDP housing critic David Eby.

“The problem with the argument the finance minister is making, is nobody believes it.”

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