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B.C. housing bills being forced through with limited debate: critics

The B.C. NDP expects to pass four pieces of legislation that will dramatically reshape B.C.’s housing policy, but opposition critics say the measures are being forced through with little debate.
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Adam Olsen, the B.C. Green party MLA for Saanich North and the Islands. ADRIAM LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Four major pieces of legislation expected to become law by the end of the week could usher in the most transformative housing reforms in a generation.

Once passed by the majority B.C. NDP government, the laws will likely reshape residential neighbourhoods by allowing up to six units on a single-family lot, increase density near transit hubs, overhaul the way municipalities collect fees from developers, and set new rules for dealing with homeless encampments. The crackdown on short-term rentals — which will ban most short-term rentals that aren’t in the operator’s principal residence — became law last month.

Opposition critics, however, say the B.C. NDP government is forcing through the bills with minimal details on how they will impact communities, which essentially amounts to signing a blank cheque. For instance, some fear increasing transit hub density will displace the renters who need transit the most.

The major package of housing bills was introduced at the beginning of November, giving opposition MLAs “only a matter of weeks to properly scrutinize them,” B.C. United house leader Todd Stone said in the legislature Monday, objecting to the harried pace of debate in the final week before the fall session wraps up on Thursday.

B.C. Green MLA Adam Olsen said he has been stonewalled when asking Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon for the data and research that informed the housing legislation, particularly the upzoning bill for single-family lots, which he said will have the impact of inflating property values for existing homeowners while failing to add below-market housing for British Columbians who have been priced out.

“These laws, potentially hand intergenerational wealth to people who already have it and offer absolutely nothing to renters and non-homeowners,” Olsen said.

Kahlon said the government has extended the time allowed for debate until 9 p.m. each night this week and has provided the information opposition MLAs were asking for.

The bottom line, Kahlon said, is “we’re in a housing crisis and we need to solve it.”

Bill 44: Housing Statutes (Residential Development) Amendment Act

This is the legislation that will force municipalities to approve up to six units on a single-family lot in order to create more so-called “missing middle” housing such as townhouses and multi-unit homes. It will eliminate the need to hold public hearings for multi-unit projects, which are often delayed by months or years because of a snails-pace bureaucratic process.

However, some B.C. mayors say it applies a clunky, one-size-fits-all approach to housing across the province, upends official community plans which have already carefully mapped out housing needs, and strips local councils of their ability to hear from residents about the future of neighbourhoods.

“When they take these policies and drop them on the whole province, they’re really ignoring the nuance of how different communities do development differently,” said Eric Woodward, mayor of Langley Township. “And by ignoring that, they’re going to cause a lot of damage.”

Woodward is particularly upset by the province’s move to end public hearings.

“Provincial politicians are not going to prevent me from listening to my community,” he said.

View Royal Mayor Sid Tobias hosted a public meeting last week called “The Last Public Hearing,” an overt dig at the province for wresting control away from municipalities.

Tax experts worry there could be unintended consequences, including making single-family lots more valuable, which Olsen said put home ownership further out of reach for working-class British Columbians. Kahlon has said the evidence in other jurisdictions shows the “land lift” will not be significant.

B.C. United leader Kevin Falcon has pointed to the experience in Auckland, New Zealand, a pioneer in upzoning for “missing middle” housing, and cited reports that showed property values rose as much as 12 per cent on average, and that the appreciation was more acute in single-family neighbourhoods most impacted by upzoning.

Bill 46: Housing Statutes (Development Financing) Amendment Act

Legislation around the fees developers are forced to pay in exchange for higher density might cause eyes to glaze over, but this bill addresses concerns from mayors that the “missing middle” housing legislation could force municipalities to forfeit tens of millions in community amenity contributions.

That is because property developers typically agree to those contributions — in-kind or cash voluntarily paid to municipalities for parks, recreation centres and services to support population growth — during the rezoning process. Since Bill 44 does away with rezoning hearings, mayors are worried they would have no way to compel developers to pay those fees.

Bill 46 fixes that problem, Kahlon said, by creating a transparent development finance tool called an amenity cost charge. Instead of being negotiated at the rezoning stage, the tool will allow municipalities and developers to agree on amenity charges upfront, which Kahlon said will give builders and municipalities a clearer understanding of the costs associated with a housing project from the start.

One pro-density housing advocate, Robert Berry, said the legislation does away with an antiquated system for negotiating amenities contributions — to municipalities — which amounted to “backroom negotiated extortions.”

However, Stone said the government is creating a “whole new tax scheme on new developments” with limited ability for opposition MLAs to ask questions about how it could impact housing projects.

Bill 47: Housing Statutes (Transit-Oriented Areas) Amendment Act

This legislation also wrests control away from local governments, forcing them to approve high-rise buildings of between eight and 20 storeys within 800 metres of a rapid transit station and within 400 metres of a bus exchange.

However, one housing researcher and urban planner fears that by dramatically increasing density near transit, it could actually displace low-income renters who most rely on public transit.

Andy Yan, the director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, said the density drive could lead to mass evictions of renters in walk-up apartment buildings with relatively affordable rents, similar to what happened in Burnaby’s Metrotown and Vancouver’s Broadway neighbourhoods.

Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley said the legislation should have required a certain number of below-market units in new developments.

Kahlon has so far dismissed those concerns, saying the legislation still gives municipalities power to implement protections for renters or require high-rise builders to have a certain number of below-market rentals.

Bill 45: Miscellaneous Statutes Amendment Act

This bill isn’t solely about housing but one of the most contentious section deals with homeless encampments, requiring municipalities to ensure there are adequate shelter spaces available for people without homes before a tent city is dismantled.

The Union of B.C. Municipalities has called for the bill to be scrapped, citing fears it will tie the hands of municipalities to respond to homeless encampments. Legal advocates, meanwhile, have raised concerns about the possibility of arbitrary evictions of people without homes.

Stone said miscellaneous bills typically deal with minor house keeping changes but in this case, the NDP has slipped in “egregious limitations on the autonomy of local governments.”

The backlash was enough to prompt Premier David Eby to announce Thursday he would put the brakes on implementing the sections of the bill that deal with encampments to give the government more time to consult with municipalities.

kderosa@postmedia.com