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B.C. takes note as New Zealand moves to ban single-family zoning in cities

Housing advocates see an example for B.C. to follow
Housing in the hills of Wellington, New Zealand. The country is taking steps to address a housing shortage in its biggest cities. Photo: Rose Jang

New Zealand’s government has ordered an end to single-family zoning in its five biggest cities, drawing the attention of B.C. housing advocates and planning experts.

Housing advocates think it is an example worth considering in B.C.’s most expensive markets, but others caution it might have unintended consequences.

Legislation introduced last week would require the New Zealand cities to apply “medium density residential standards” to single-family areas by next August. The new rules will allow property owners to build up to three housing units, to a height of three storeys, covering 50 per cent of what were typically single-family lots in cities including Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

The idea is to encourage construction of more housing, perhaps as many as 75,000 units within eight years, according to consultant PwC’s estimate.

“I think that’s a recognition that, you know, you should let people build some housing,” said Tom Davidoff, director of the Centre for Urban Economics at UBC. “I think what they’ve done is totally appropriate.”

In B.C., Davidoff estimated a similar change would have the biggest impact in the more expensive neighbourhoods, such as Vancouver’s Kerrisdale and Point Grey. While Vancouver allows separate suites and laneway housing in those neighbourhoods, the New Zealand rules would give homeowners far more flexibility to build larger, separate units to replace single-family homes.

While the New Zealand move “does make single-family homes more expensive,” Davidoff said, it would have “a significant effect on prices” by increasing the availability of other housing types, such as multi-unit buildings.

The change is recognition that “New Zealand’s housing shortage is being made worse in our biggest cities by limits on the number and types of houses that can be built,” said the country’s housing minister, Megan Woods.

It holds lessons for B.C. where a similar measure by the province “could accomplish a lot in terms of reforming local municipal powers,” said Nathan Lauster, a sociologist at UBC. who has done research on zoning and housing.

“Changing those powers would likely go a long way towards opening up a lot more housing development,” said Lauster, something municipalities find difficult because of political blowback.

Some B.C. municipalities have taken steps toward similar measures, but are generally “predisposed against” them, because powerful constituencies oppose such change.

However, Lauster said he sees hints that B.C. may be amenable to intervening on those municipal powers.

Municipal Affairs Minister Josie Osborne said by email that “greater density and mixed uses play a critical role in building more affordable, greener communities.”

Brent Toderian, a former Vancouver chief planner, noted Vancouver and Ontario have taken steps toward eliminating single-family zoning, but the New Zealand model offers homeowners a lot more flexibility in what they can build.

He agrees “it’s perfectly reasonable” for the province to get rid of single-detached zoning. “There are climate reasons, affordability reasons, equity reasons, public-health reason, infrastructure-cost reasons, all sorts of public-interest reasons for doing that,” Toderian said.

There are risks, however, that such a zoning change could result in a “land rush” as the new potential to build more increases the value of existing lots, said housing researcher Andy Yan, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University.

“Part of this issue is, ultimately, the land gets repriced first before a stick of housing gets built,” said Yan, which was Vancouver’s experience when it relaxed single-family zoning.

Yan cautioned that such a measure would have effects on infrastructure and transit that would have to be factored in.

“That ought to begin with research, because policy without research is guessing,” Yan said.