In BC, Is Democracy Getting In The Way Of Housing?

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By the end of last year, the province of BC had introduced legislation that took control of housing away from local governments and, in turn, the citizens who are directly impacted.

Under the new sweeping reforms, municipalities cannot hold public hearings if the request for a zoning change is in keeping with the existing community plan, and if the development area is at least 50% residential. Although no longer able to give feedback about the rezoning, the public will be given notice of such applications via signage on the property, in advertisements, and mailed notices to neighbouring properties.

It’s part of a Homes for People province-wide strategy that also mandates minimum tower heights around transit hubs and converts single-family housing into multiplexes.

In response, the City of Chilliwack this week approved a bylaw that forbids public hearings for any rezonings that fit with residential height and density requirements under its official community plan.

The current move toward the centralization of housing is the topic of discussion at a sold-out event on “local democracy and sustainable cities: can they be reconciled?” at Robson Square on Monday, Feb. 12, organized by the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. On the panel is economist Cameron K. Murray, author of The Great Housing Hijack: The Hoaxes and Myths Keeping Prices High for Renters and Buyers in Australia, released this month. It’s the first part of a series.

Other panelists include UBC Sauder School of Business’s Dr. Tom Davidoff, Arizona State University School of Community Resources and Development’s Dr. Mark Roseland, and MLA and House Leader, BC Green Party, Adam Olsen. The event is also available by live stream.

It’s a major change to the established standard for local land-use bylaws in BC. The shift away from local control was designed to expedite housing amid an affordable housing crisis and responds to the argument that public hearings are inefficient, time-consuming and unproductive. The idea is that more supply is needed immediately, and local authorities are thwarting the process with public hearing requirements to pass rezonings.

Zoning is cited several times throughout the province’s press materials as an obstacle to housing. For example, the province says that “zoning barriers and layers of regulations have also slowed down the delivery of housing.” As well, “restrictive zoning bylaws and parking requirements, along with delayed development approvals, continue to slow down the delivery of homes and services near transit hubs.”

Brisbane-based Murray, former university lecturer and founder of think tank Fresh Economic Thinking, said there is a risk to removing public input from rezoning decisions.

“I think if you remove local democracy or local [engagement] you miss those opportunities for win-wins, where there can be development and density that makes existing residents better off, and makes the new residents better off,” Murray says. “You are just sort of giving all the control to the few property owners that want to develop those sites.”

Murray said that people seem to be misunderstanding the role of planning, and zoning. As well, there is a misunderstanding about the business of development, particularly by proponents of the Yes-In-My-Backyard [YIMBY] movement that calls for more supply to reduce prices. The movement has become more popular in Australia in the last year, said Murray, but it’s been a West Coast phenomenon for several years.

“I think if I have one academic contribution in the last 15 years, it is to make one simple point, and that is essentially that planning regulations don’t regulate how fast you can build houses out of all the potential locations,” he says. “They only regulate which types of dwellings and other uses can go at which locations.”

Planning regulations, says Murray, are like traffic lanes. Regulations determine what they look like and where they go, but they don’t determine the speed limit.

“The speedis a market decision by property owners. The planning system can’t make a property owner build a house; it can only tell them where they can build and what sort. And we have somehow demoted the economic decisions of property owners in this discussion. And the YIMBYs almost assume that property owners are in the business of building houses, but not making money.…In fact, in the rebuilding of Europe after the Second World War, this was a huge policy debate, and they said, ‘Well we need so many houses and the private market won’t do it, because it wants to make money — so they will build houses slower than we want. We can’t rely on private property owners.’”

It was no accident that post-war, governments all over Europe and North America built thousands of units of public housing.

“So now, for some reason, because of the politics of it, we have sort of forgotten that,” says Murray. “And now it’s about nasty old people in their houses.”

The belief that homeowners’ opposition to development is exacerbating the affordability crisis is popular among academic circles. A recent UBC Sauder School of Business paper called “Homeowner politics and housing supply,” published in the November 2023 issue of the Journal of Urban Economics, determined that “homeowners are particularly motivated to restrict housing supply because they benefit financially from an increase in housing prices.”

City councillors cater to the needs of those long-term homeowners because they are reliable voters, according to the paper, which examined development approvals in Toronto.

“We find that councillors who represent more homeowners oppose more housing bills,” says the report.

The study found that councillors are much more likely to oppose large projects within their own wards.

It shows the “outsized influence on development decisions” that homeowners have, and “if municipalities are serious about adding to their housing stock, they will likely need a less citizen-driven, more top-down approach,” said a UBC media release.

Co-author of the paper, Limin Fang, declined an interview.

“That paper, like many others of its kind, misses the most important part,” says UBC professor Patrick Condon, James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Liveable Environments. “They assume that homeowners, motivated by greed, cause high home prices when the evidence proves the opposite. In high-home-price regions like our own, the best thing homeowners can do is sit back and hope their areas get up-zoned. Up-zoned parcels can increase in value many times due to increased potential yield.

“With land value now constituting the large majority of assessed value — tax bills for Vancouver homes typically show land value around 10 times greater than building value, for example — upzoning can only crease value, not lower it.”

As well, the paper ignores the Vancouver example, adds Condon. Since the 1970s, Vancouver residents approved new zoning regulations that led to a tripling of housing units on single-family lots within city limits.

Despite that significant increase in permissible density, prices did not come down, he says.

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