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B.C.'s transit-oriented development plan needs more definition, stakeholders say

Some voice concerns that the new B.C. bill will have unintended consequences and will not guarantee affordable housing
The Marine Gateway SkyTrain station, developed by PCI Development Corp., in south Vancouver is an example of density that could be seen in transit-oriented development areas

A plan to boost transit-oriented development (TOD) across the province is among the slew of bills passed by the B.C. government this fall.

While those who spoke to BIV said the TOD bill has good intentions behind it, they expressed concerns regarding implementation of the legislation. These concerns centre on affordable housing, the potential displacement of renters, community amenity contributions and parking.

“We want to make sure that we don’t have any unintended consequences, but the principle of density around SkyTrain or other transit stations is absolutely sound,” said Coquitlam Coun. Craig Hodge, who also serves as the Metro Vancouver representative for the Union of BC Municipalities.

“The problem we have is that most of this legislation was done without consultation with local government. It’s being rushed through without giving us a chance to review it.”

The legislation requires municipalities to outline TOD areas and approve any developments that meet provincial minimums for allowable height and density. In addition to removing parking minimums and determining parking needs on a project-by-project basis, according to the B.C. government.

TOD areas represent land that is within 800 metres of a rapid transit station – such as a SkyTrain station – or 400 metres from a bus exchange. 

The province is expected to provide more detail in December on how this legislation can be applied. A TOD best practices manual for local governments will also be released, according to Minister of Housing Ravi Kahlon.

Kahlon said consultation on the legislation began in 2019, and that it included connecting with local governments, researchers and politicians in the U.S.

Erick Villagomez, researcher and part-time lecturer at the school of community and regional planning at the University of British Columbia (UBC), said the legislation contains the flawed assumption that creating density will increase affordability.

While there are some cases in which density has resulted in more affordability, “it’s not a nature of law – it’s not always the way it plays out,” he said.

“Can affordability and density be linked in that way? Is that a fair assumption to make? If it isn’t a fair assumption and we did want this, what are the steps that we as a legislative body or government would need to take in order to make sure that the maximum number of affordable units were in this building type? Those are the questions that are left blank with this legislation,” said Villagomez.

When asked if the soon-to-be-released regulations will include affordability targets, Kahlon said that it is up to the municipalities to establish affordability goals.

“They’ll all be doing housing needs reports, they’ll be able to assess what kind of unit mixes they need for a healthy community, they’ll also be able to identify what kind of affordability they would like to see in those buildings. So, there’s a lot left for local governments to decide,” he said.

Other concerns focus on the potential for the legislation to displace renters and low-income households who currently live in TOD areas.

Roughly one in three Metro Vancouver renters live in a TOD area, according to research from Simon Fraser University (SFU) City Program director Andy Yan, citing 2021 census data.

“Transit-oriented development is a good thing. However, there’s a growing body of literature that is starting to point out some of the concerns that need to be really put into TOD legislation, bylaws or projects right from the from the outset, particularly anti-displacement policies,” said Craig Jones, associate director of the Housing Research Collaborative and the Housing Assessment Resource Tools project at UBC.

Half the individuals who live in these areas are renters, while 21 per cent of households in TOD areas live in what is described as core housing need. Core housing need is colloquially thought of as when people have to use at least 30 per cent of their income to cover rent.

Jones said that Burnaby has “gone far” in ensuring that renters aren’t displaced as a result of new development. The city established standards that require project applicants to help renters find new units, offer financial supports and rent top-ups, and offer the right to return to a new rental building once it is completed.

“The premise that racialized communities are heavily impacted when this form of development happens may be correct. But it’s also important to note that overwhelmingly racialized populations and Indigenous populations are bearing the brunt of the housing crisis, and the lack of housing available,” said Kahlon when asked if there would be renter protections included in the regulations.

“Those types of protections for renters being displaced are needed and, certainly, I’m encouraging communities to put those in place.”

From a local government perspective, questions remain regarding the ability for local governments to negotiate community amenity contributions (CACs) under the minimum height and density requirements outlined in the legislation, Hodge said.

CACs are an in-kind or cash contribution paid by the developer to a municipality.

“We’re hearing concerns about how local governments make sure that they get the community amenities from developers to pay for the other things besides just the building itself,” he said.

“If you don’t charge the developers for the amenities – in other words, if growth doesn’t pay for growth – that burden is going to fall on the existing taxpayers.”

Hodge proposes that CACs be based on set factors, such as on a per-door or per-square-foot basis, in addition to utilizing the costs recovered from reductions in parking under the provincial standards.

“That money that is saved by the developer, how do you ensure that that goes back into making the units cheaper?” he said. “If you’re going to give developers a break on the parking, maybe they should put that money into the transit system.… We’ve got to make sure we have that transit. And I think that’s one of the pieces that needs to be dealt with in this as well.” 

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