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Executing B.C.'s new housing legislation 'very challenging'

Municipalities forced to 'rejig' systems, navigate capacity issues and work around a one-size-fits-all approach.
Local officials from Burnaby, Coquitlam and Richmond spoke at a panel discussion hosted by industry association Urban Land Institute British Columbia on March 5.

City halls across Metro Vancouver are facing a daunting mountain of work as municipalities plug away at implementing new housing legislation passed by the provincial government. 

“I don't think it's been well documented that this legislation is very challenging to implement. It is substantial work to go through,” Coquitlam city manager Raul Allueva said at a March 5 panel discussion in Vancouver hosted by the Urban Land Institute British Columbia industry association.

He was joined by local officials from Richmond and Burnaby, who all expressed concerns the new legislation means they’re having to change their systems, account for unintended consequences from a one-size-fits-all approach, and navigate capacity issues from an infrastructure and planning standpoint.

While the three cities are not on the province’s so-called “naughty list,” which refers to housing targets assigned to certain communities, they are facing an uphill battle when it comes to matching new legislation with local community guidelines.

The new housing legislation aims to address concerns over shelter spaces, development fees, taxes and levies, as well as building density on single-family lots and around transit stations.

Leon Gous, chief administrative officer (CAO) for the City of Burnaby, said the one-size-fits-all approach to the legislation offends him the most.

"The premier got mad at a couple of cities, knee-jerked and said, 'Well, I'm not even going to bother anymore because you guys are just obstructionist and here's what we're going to do?'” he said to a room of about 120 attendees.

“It feels like we could have really had a better partnership.”

The one-size-fits-all approach is particularly challenging for developing in Richmond due to factors like floodplains and restrictions owing to the city’s proximity to Vancouver International Airport.

“Our city centre area plan has concentrated great growth right near transit. We're already doing it, we've been doing it for a really long time and doing it really well in ways that make sense for our community,” said Richmond CAO Serena Lusk.

“This is not a good way to engage people into being able to effectively implement what is a big change-management program.”

New legislation that allows up to six units on a single-family lot also poses issues for Richmond.

“If all those individual people decide to be developers, and all of our staff and our administration needs to work with those individuals, we will undoubtedly have to rejig our systems to be able to accommodate that,” she said.

“Those are challenges that we're very concerned about and concerned about the potential for under-building in areas where we think there's opportunity for much more than four-plexes.”

“Pre-zoning” areas to allow for multiple units has put Burnaby into a “reactive mode,” said Gous.

For every application that comes in to add units to a single-family lot, he said he has to go in to see if there is enough infrastructure to support the new housing.

“I have to tell the guy to wait two years for me to go in and do the water line and whatever else I have to do … while you’re waiting for [BC Hydro] to put a pad-mounted transformer in,” he said.

“Then we're going to hear from the province that local governments are holding up those developments. But we ultimately have to be reactive because I can't tell you where the next application is going to be.”

Infrastructure is not the only capacity issue facing these city halls. They are also dealing with a shortage of planning experts needed to implement the new legislation.

“Fundamentally this is important, complicated, strategic and thoughtful work that needs to be done by very experienced people. The capacity problem is real, and it can't be solved by AI which seems to be solving everything these days for us apparently.”

Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon pushed back on criticisms that the legislation is one-size-fits-all approach at the Union of BC Municipalities housing summit in February. He said it reflects the nuances in B.C.’s communities.

“That's why small-scale multi-unit [legislation] is not in communities with less than 5,000 people, because often those communities don't have the infrastructure to support that type of housing. That's why the [transit-oriented development legislation] is only where there's already a high level of transit, and where there are services that are 15 minutes or more. We tried to make sure that legislation reflected each community's needs,” he said.

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