Renovictions

There was a meeting this week hosted by the Vancouver Tenants Union in my Brow of the Hill neighbourhood. It was to address the culminating “renoviction” crisis in this area, and to hear from people who may be facing renoviction. As I said in my previous post, this is the hardest question for me to address as a City Councillor, and this meeting was at times heartbreaking (see a good summary in the Record here). These are my neighbours (quite literally in one case), they are scared, and we heard a lot from them at this meeting.

The background to the meeting is the work that the Vancouver Tenants Union are doing around the region to provide support to people who are facing renoviction. They are one resource that can assist people in appealing eviction notices, in making sure tenants’ rights are protected to the letter of the law. They have been working mostly in Vancouver, but have also done some work in other areas in the Lower Mainland, and see New Westminster as a current “hot spot” for renovictions.

Whenever this issue of renoviction comes up, there is a common refrain that we need to give landlords the ability to maintain and renovate these lower-cost buildings, or they will quickly degrade into slums. We hear that many of these buildings are approaching end-of-life, and the increase in rent is necessary to fund the renovations to keep them standing. The VTU are presenting data that this is largely a red herring, and I am going to dig deep into one example they use. So grab a tea and comfy seat, this may go on a bit:

If you prefer TL;dnr versions: The current renoviction surge in New Westminster is mostly the result of investors extracting healthier returns for their portfolios by throwing low-income people out on the street. This is not an unfortunate result of unavoidable events – this is driven by greed for profits. And they aren’t even subtle about it.

The building-systems-reaching-end-of-life situation does occur. We get applications every couple of years for a building that fits this description. However, we are now seeing a huge increase in numbers, and dozens of buildings in New Westminster are now facing some form of renoviction, most owned by the same small group of land-flipping corporate entities. There is significant evidence that this is a profit-driven activity.

As a single case in point, the VTU provided me a copy of a sales brochure for a commercial property in New Westminster. I have done what I can to remove the actual address from this to protect the privacy of the current residents, but suffice it to say this is a ~40 year old three-story walk-up typical of New Westminster’s ample affordable rental stock. The real estate agent is offering this “renovators dream” for sale for $3.5 Million, which is $500k over assessed value. Here is a redacted image of page 2 of the brochure:

I would love to go through this pamphlet and pick out the numerous flaws in fact in here, (“The area has gone through a major resurgence with the redevelopment of St. Mary’s Hospital into condominiums” – The St. Mary’s site is currently an elementary school and public park), and speculative fiction about potential increases in suites, but making fun of sales-fluff seems seems pedantic, so I will concentrate on what we can glean from the prospectus. (highlights are mine:)

This shows 13 rental suites (one illegal, or “unauthorized” in the parlance of sales), with three of them vacant to “to help streamline the improvement program”. The other 10 are single-bedroom and renting for between $735 and $850 a month. This includes free parking and cable, and some landlord subsidy of the electrical (likely for common areas, heating, etc.). The building is netting $67,278 a year, which is a Cap Rate of 1.9% per year based on the $3.5M sale price. For some reason they are not renting out two legal suites in a market where rental vacancy is under 1%, but add that revenue, even if it meant a concurrent 20% increase in expenses and you can turn in an extra $16K, bringing the Cap Rate up to 2.3%. This is less than the expected return for a serious real estate investor, but in no way is this building losing money. As a bonus, the Residential Tenancy Act allows annual rent increases greater than inflation – these numbers will only get better over time.

Now shift over to the “Potential Rent” column. It shows an increase in rents ranging from 100% to 135%, renting the illegal suite, charging for parking, all of the electricity and cable, and all of the sudden your Cap Rate is a very attractive 6.6%. Note that nothing in this prospectus mentions the cost of significant renovation, and the sales pitch seem to suggest the building is in good shape, with recent heating and electrical upgrades. So the proposal is to more than double the rent and not increase costs at all. I guess I am mostly shocked that they have no shame just putting that right out there in the middle of a housing crisis.

The VTU have found a number of buildings in New Westminster in similar situations, and have been tracing the ownership of the corporate entities who are – and there is no finer point to make than this – making a healthy investment strategy out of throwing low-income and vulnerable people out on the street in the tightest real estate market in the country.

Arguably, there is nothing illegal going on here. People are allowed to buy buildings and make money renting them out. If this building needs significant upgrades (or, if the landlord just wants to do upgrades such that they require the suites to be vacant), they are totally within their rights to throw those people out, provided they give appropriate notice. It becomes legally grey if they just do superficial upgrades as an excuse to evict residents. However, there is currently nothing the City or the Province can do to prevent this activity from taking place, and when the decision is to turn a small profit into a bigger profit by making vulnerable people homeless, then we are into a question of morality, not law.

The City is working hard to identify these properties, as are the VTU. At this point, all we can do is try to contact the residents and assure they understand their rights under the Residential Tenancy Act and what supports exist for them if they are insecure in housing. The VTU is working to get people in these buildings organized, and help guide them through the appeal process that exists under the RTA if they feel they were unfairly evicted, but need all of the information and support they can get. The City has no power to refuse building permits in these cases, if the landlord even bothers to apply for a permit.

Ultimately, we need to change the regulations to protect these vulnerable people from predatory rent increases. This is most likely to come from the Provincial government. At UBCM last year, the City of New Westminster put forward a resolution (endorsed by the membership) that read:

be it resolved that UBCM urge the provincial government to undertake a broad review of the Residential Tenancy Act including, but not limited to, amending the Residential Tenancy Act to allow renters the right of first refusal to return to their units at a rent that is no more than what the landlord could lawfully have charged, including allowable annual increases, if there had been no interruption in the tenancy;

Although some changes in the RTA were made in May to give renovicted tenants more notice and compensation, we are still short of where we need to be, and renovictions are an emergent crisis in New Westminster. I wish there was something we could do, because being in a meeting with 50 people feeling the stress and recognizing some of them may become homeless, after all of the work this City has done and investments this City has made to protect and enhance our affordable housing stock, only because of a lucrative investment opportunity being sold here, is enraging

Ask Pat: Permit times

Someone asked—

I am a rental tenant at [redacted to protect privacy – a downtown Strata building]. I have heard our Strata is considering dissolution & sale of our building to developers. How long does a demolition process take per the City of New West’s permit(s) process etc.?

This is really not a question I can answer with certainty, because I am not involved with these kind of front-counter operations. The short version of your answer is that a Demolition Permit can probably take less than a day or several months (depending on things like the need for hazardous material surveys, Environmental Site Assessments, and safe disconnection from City utilities) but it isn’t the Demolition Permit timing that would necessarily be a limiting factor here.

It sounds like the feeling in your building is that the current building will be demolished and a replacement building built. I suggest that, if this was the case, a new owner would not apply to demolish the building until they had a certainty that they would be permitted to build a replacement on the site. That would likely require a Development Permit, and may even require a Rezoning or an Official Community Plan amendment, depending on what the owner wishes to build. The more of these you add, the more time it takes to get through the process. Those processes also include extensive public consultation, and would likely result in a Public Hearing. All told, these processes can take a year or more. The more complex the project and the more it varies from existing land use, the more complicated and time-consuming these applications go. It is also possible that a developer’s proposal will not be found acceptable by City Policy or by whim of Council, so the wait an be literally endless.

That said, I have no idea what process your building will have to go through, nor do I know what the new owner would plan to build. No application for your address has come to City Council yet. I did a quick scan of the Land Use and Planning Committee agendas for the last year, and don’t see it mentioned there at all (as a preliminary step, any application would likely go to LUPC before it came to Council). I also checked the on-line “Projects on the Go” table, and see no reference to your location, so I am pretty sure no formal application has been made to the City.

In researching your answer, I stumbled upon a report that I am a little reluctant to link to, because it was authored by an organization that has a long reputation of producing dubious reports using sketchy research methods. But for that it is worth, a third party with no reason to make a progressive city like New Westminster look good found that we are comparatively quick in getting new buildings through the approval process. They found that our staff and process are able to process applications faster than most Municipalities in the Lower Mainland: generally in the top 3 or top 5 in the region (depending on the application type). They also found we had among the lowest “Costs and Fees” for a typical application (those fees are ideally set to act as cost recovery). I started by saying I am somewhat separated from front-counter activities at the City, so none of this credit goes to me, but kudos to our great professional staff!

So, in summary, if you are curious about redevelopment plans for your apartment, keep an eye on the City’s LUPC Agenda and the “Projects on the Go” list. Also remember, as a renter, you have rights under the Residential Tenancy Act, including appropriate notice and compensation for being evicted. If you have questions, you should contact those professional staff in our Planning Department. They almost certainly know more than I do. Good luck!

Ask Pat: Housing crises

R57 asks:

I’m the one who suggested replacing the Bosa harbour front proposal with reproductions of the ‘Argonath’, and that not enough concern has been shown for the Temple of Doom half concealed in the plans for the 618 Carnarvon development. Over the past couple of years I have documented on Twitter the ongoing development of both condo and rental towers in my immediate neighbourhood: the noise, disruption, destruction of heritage or historic buildings, and so on. Ultimately, however, the greatest impact is on affordability and security for low income people in the downtown core.

I live [near] the development of the Novare tower and the site of the now demolished Masonic Hall. Our building has been sold twice in the past two years. We have now been informed that we are to be evicted for ‘renovations.’ This is from the same landlord who told us, on buying the building, that he planned not to spend a single cent on its upkeep. So, it is very fine to say that revenue from the development of a condo tower–whose ultimate purpose is to make mountains of money for developers and speculators–will partially go into an affordable housing strategy–but what have you actually done?

The last I looked, the city has approved a 42 unit affordable development to go ahead, but that was two years ago. What else? My rough tally, of just the 618 development, and the pointless, unnecessary exercise in megalomania called Bosa Pier West, amounts to about a thousand luxury units, and real, affordable housing available today–zero.

I note that the 618 developers will pay a million dollar penalty for bending the height or density bylaws, is that correct? If that is so, and that figure is still insufficient to build a few affordable units, may I suggest dividing that sum into a hundred individual grants of $10,000 each, which should be sufficient to help stressed citizens to relocate elsewhere here and abroad, and start over? I would prefer Tuscany myself, but Malaysia may be more affordable on my pension.

That’s a bit of a joke, but not much. So, we all have to go somewhere in two months. Any suggestions?

This was sent as a comment on one of my regular Council Report posts a month or so ago, but it raises enough issues (outside of architectural criticism) that I thought it deserved a fuller response, so I redacted a few personal-identification parts, and included it here. That said, I recognize I don’t really have an adequate response, but am thankful for the opportunity to go on a long rant here about the “Housing Crises”.

There is a lot going on in the housing market regionally, and the days have passed when New Westminster – a little tucked away, a little gritty, a little bypassed – could avoid the worst of the affordability crisis. We should have seen it coming. I think we did see it coming as we went through the Official Community Plan process, but while some made the case for urgency at that time, I think our reaction was (with benefit of hindsight) a tepid one.

One complexity of the problem is demonstrated in the inherent dichotomy in your comments: new building around your affordable apartment is seen as part of the problem, and not part of the solution to the regional housing squeeze. I hear a lot more concern from people (notably those who already have secure housing) that there is too much construction in the City. The reality is that growth of the City is tracking along with the Regional Growth Strategy expectations set out more than a decade ago. If there is a difference, it is in that we are building more high-density units and are not building into our single-family neighbourhoods. That is another entire blog rant I’ll have to save for later.

The newest of construction is rarely the most affordable housing, but if we bring in new supply while protecting older supply, market forces *should* result in that older stock remaining more affordable in the medium term. Even this approach creates a bunch of other problems – people buy up the less affordable stock with the expectation that they can knock it down and replace it with a tower and make more money. This is one area of speculation New West has (up to now) been pretty successful at avoiding, and we have not seen a large number of affordable housing units replaced with unaffordable condos. That is by New Westminster policy, not coincidence.

What we have seen is an increase in “reno-vicions” – tenants being displaced as an owner renovates a rental building only to raise rents substantially (doubled or more) once the renovation is done. As a City, we have no regulatory ability to prevent this, but we have been advocating at the provincial level for changes to the Residential Tenancy Act to prevent this. We have also been investing a bunch of resources and time into making sure tenants know their rights when landlords act unethically, and to provide as much support as we can to people when they are displaced. This is an ongoing effort at the City.

Building new homes is a business, and without a reasonable expectation of profit, no-one is going to do it. The construction market right now is crazy, and every construction project is burdened with a significant amount of financial risk. This risk is alleviated by building what they know, by pushing density limits, and by developing a pre-sale market that itself feeds speculation and inflated prices. It’s a vicious circle. It is clear we cannot trust “the market” to fix the affordability problem when the market is a large part of the problem. We need new construction, but we need much more than that.

We also need a supply of new homes not relying on the profit motive to get built. Few charities have the resources to do this work, so that leaves government. The federal government (with by far the deepest pockets) got out of the house-building business back in the 80s around the time we signed a new Constitution Act that put housing in the provincial realm. Since then, we have had a succession of provincial governments, each less interested in building public housing than the previous one. Local governments like New Westminster simply don’t have the resources to do this work when we have less than 8% of the tax revenue of the larger governments, and have our own increasing demands for expanded services and pressing infrastructure needs.

The upshot is that there was virtually no “non-market” housing built in the lower mainland for a good 30 years. At the same time, population has exploded and market housing has gotten completely detached from our stagnant wages (Why is no-one challenging the Chambers of Commerce and Boards of Trade about wages stagnation? ah…I digress). in 2018, it isn’t only the unemployed and the working poor who can’t find housing, it is the “middle class” struggling to find a place to raise a family. Rental vacancies have been stuck under 1% for a decade, and parochial concerns oppose any expansion of housing density into established single family neighbourhoods.

This is not a simple housing crisis, this is a bunch of different and overlapping housing crises coming together in a perfect storm. It was 20+ years in the making, predictable and avoidable, but here we are now. After 2 decades of bullshit neo-liberal responses (“we just need to Build the Economy, so everyone can afford a bigger house!”), the situation has only gotten worse.

So enough whining, what do we do now?

First off, anyone who tells you there is a simple or quick solution is lying or ignorant; probably both.

Clearly, we need to start investing again in non-market housing, like we did in the 50s and 60s when our country and economy were growing. We need to get back into building purpose-built rental buildings, so people who cannot or don’t want to own have a variety of housing available to them at various cost and scales. We need to incentivise the building of more “family friendly” middle-sized housing, and those have to extend into our once- (and sometimes still-) sacred single family neighbourhoods. And we need density around major transit hubs and commercial areas like downtown New Westminster to relieve market pressure. We need to shift our economic incentives (taxation regime, mortgage system, etc.) so that owning a home to live in is easier but buying investment property offers relatively less return. We need to do all of these things, and more. And we need to start doing it with the urgency usually afforded to something called a “crisis”.

I’m not going to shy away from saying that New Westminster, as a City, has been a regional leader in housing policy and investment, punching well above our weight. We have literally thousands of purpose-built rentals coming on line in the next year or two, because we have created an incentive package that makes them financially viable to build. We have managed to hold the line on demolition of older and more affordable rental stock. We have region-leading Family Friendly Housing policy, so there are more 2- and 3-bedroom suites being built. We have worked with service agencies to support affordable housing projects (two on the go, one more in the pipeline) being built on our very limited supply of City-owned properties. We have included an affordable housing component in our Master-Planned Community Developments such as Victoria Hill, and our OCP does open up more opportunities for infill density and flexible development forms. We direct amenity money from new developments into an Affordable Housing reserve fund to provide capital assistance to affordable housing agencies. We employ staff who do housing outreach and step in where (frankly) senior governments have failed, and try to connect residents with housing in any form they need. The brutal reality is that none of this is enough, and we are up against our limits as a local government, both in the resources and in legal authority. We need help. Back to the word “crisis” again.

You make reference (I think) to the bonus density charges made for the project at 618 Carnarvon. That money wouldn’t go to general revenue in the City, but is directed to specific capital funds – 30% of it directly to an Affordable Housing amenity fund, the rest to Childcare, Public Art, and General Amenity Funds to support capital projects like the Canada Games Pool replacement and the Library renovation. The City recently increased the value of these charges (reflecting recent increases in real estate prices), but have not reviewed how we apportion those funds in a few years. It might be time to do that. But even if we took $1,000,000 from that fund, it would only pay for building maybe a half dozen affordable units, if we had a place to build them, and an operator to manage them. As a local government, we simply cannot do this alone, and need to invest our capital in supporting the efforts of others to leverage our contributions into larger things we cannot do on our own.

I am encouraged by the work being done so far by the new provincial government, and hope we can see some serious investment here in New Westminster, and across the region. First in emergency housing to assist the homeless and those facing imminent homelessness, then supportive housing for those whose income doesn’t get them shelter in our market. We need to re-invest in the Co-op Housing model that worked so well 30 years ago, and we need to curtail the speculation market. We need to do all of these thing, and more. It is hard to be patient when so many people are so precariously housed, but this government is essentially starting from scratch, as a policy vacuum has existed in this province for 30 years. It is going to take some time to catch up.

All this is a long way of saying I have little advice for you. You can contact the Tenant Resource Advisory Centre (links/number for them and more contact info can be found here) and find out what your rights are, and what assistance my exist for you and your neighbours. I wish I had better answers. 

It is sad that the Lower Mainland is becoming so unaffordable that dreams of escape are only partially jokes. I have several friends who have left New West in the last couple of years, and housing affordability was a primary motivation for them. Some of them I would describe as pillars of the community. Volunteers, community builders, current and future leaders: the people who make a city into a community. Instead of here, they will now be building community in Winnipeg, in Saint-Lazare, in the Interior of BC. It saddens when people who want to call New West home cannot find a home they can afford here. It also angers me. We need more people to be angry about this to create the political will to make change, and willing to speak out for that change.

PAL by another name.

Monday’s Council meeting included a Public Hearing on a notable project on Carnarvon Street. Although it didn’t get much media (social or otherwise) before the Public Hearing, it seems to be getting some now, and there was enough going on at the Public Hearing that I think it is worth some discussion here.

The proposal will bring a new 32-story tower to the downtown tower district with 204 market strata units. The residential building meets the City’s Family Friendly Housing policy by exceeding the minimum number of 2- and 3-bedroom units. The tower will have a 3-story pedestal which will house commercial storefront space and some amenity space, and a little bit of above-ground parking around the back (more on that later). The tower will share the pedestal with a second 8-story tower that will have 66 non-market rental units run by the Performing Arts Lodges Society (“PALS”), a charity that helps provide affordable housing for veterans of the performing arts industries.

Council received two pieces of correspondence in regards to this project, both expressing support. We had 6 people present at the Public Hearing, one expressing concerns that the affordable housing component was not broad-reaching enough, and one local business concerned about the name of the development (see below), and the rest speaking in support (including the proponent, and the president of the New West Arts Council), mostly emphasizing support for the affordable housing component.

The project meets the goals of the Downtown Community Plan, was approved by the Advisory Planning Commission and Design Panel, and appears to be well supported by the community. The project puts density adjacent to frequent transit service and within walking distance of most services. The location also means we can bring new density and affordable housing on line without displacing other low-cost housing.

As one delegate at the Public Hearing mentioned, this is clearly not the entire answer for affordable housing. Far from it. Our regional housing affordability crisis exists at every level: professionals not able to afford family-sized homes; working poor facing demo-viction and rising rents; people with barriers to traditional housing lacking adequate supports, it’s a mess. No single project can fix all of these. What this project does, though, is address one identified gap, and engage a not-for-Profit in helping with that. This project is similar in that sense to the two small affordable housing projects the City is supporting on City lands, each identifying a specific group in need of housing and a service agency taking on the charge to help operate that housing.

The PALS project helps people who have worked on building the cultural quality of our community, and recognizes that people working in the performing arts rarely have pension plans or stable retirement income. By providing space in our community for dozens of experienced actors, writers, dancers, singers, production designers, directors, choreographers (etc., etc.), we promise to enrich our community’s culture. They will be the story tellers, the teachers, the artists that support a vibrant cultural future in New West. I don’t think we can measure the positive impact that could have in our community.

I have expressed concern in the past about Carnarvon Street and its urban expression. I think the Plaza88 development does not address the street well, and is out of scale with the pedestrian space we want to have downtown. I am more enthused by the urban design of this project, as it is well articulated, includes an open public plaza area, and appears to provide lots of eyes on the street, as opposed to a large wall of parked cars behind screens.

At initial readings and again at Third Reading, some concern was raised by some of Council about the parking situation. Between resident and visitors parking, this project will have 275 parking spaces, most of them underground. That is more than one parking spot per unit in a building that is across the street from a SkyTrain Station and walking distance to all amenities. The cost of building these parking spots (which could be more than $60,000 a spot!) must shift the cost of the units in the building – both affordable and not. We need to question why we are spending so much finding warm dry spots for cars when we are struggling to afford warm dry spots for people.

The project was designed to meet the City’s parking minimums, and shifting the goalposts for the developer at this stage in the process would be pretty onerous, and potentially threaten the project. However, this has raised the conversation at Council that our downtown parking standards need an update if we hope to make housing more affordable and meet the goals of our Master Transportation Plan. This conversation will be ongoing, and I’d love to bend your ears for a few hours about it.

Finally, the marketing department of the developer has some work to do, as they had found a great name for the development that was, unfortunately, almost indistinguishable from the name of a young but established business on the same side of the street about a block away. The business owner came to delegate to Council and expressed support for the project (the Arts community supports their own!) but was worried about potential impact on her business. The City has no regulatory role on the naming of developments, and having a legal fight over Trademarks and registered business names will only enrich lawyers and take time. Both parties have had an initial and positive conversation, and felt confident that a compromise could be found, so Council asked that they find a mutually acceptable solution prior to the project coming back to Council for Adoption.

Overall, this project is a net positive. In my opinion there are significant benefits to the community: affordable housing that adds to the City’s cultural diversity, improved public spaces, DCCs, density bonus and VAC money that contributes to community amenities, family-friendly housing diversity, density near SkyTrain, and a refreshed area of downtown bringing supporting customers to our business district.

I just hope those lens flares don’t keep the neighbours up at night.

on HCA effects

Another council meeting, and another delegation from residents concerned that the Heritage Conservation Area in Queens Park has unleashed economic disaster on Queens Park. I have not written up my notes from yesterday’s meeting yet, but I first want to talk about a subject that came up in the Open Delegations, and a meeting tomorrow about it.

I feel the need to explain that I am a champion for people delegating to keep Council informed about their concerns. I want Open Delegations to be an inviting and comfortable place, and am cognizant that there is a power dynamic here. My directly challenging delegates could be seen as – can genuinely feel like – I am “punching down” from a position of authority. For that reason, I am very sensitive in that setting not to engage in a debate about the facts delegates present. Too often that comes across as challenging their right to be heard. If I counter their facts in that setting, it can be construed as dismissing or doubting their opinions, and ultimately, not being respectful.

So I often takes notes and thank them, and save my questions or comments to delegates for points of clarity, to reinforce things I agree with, or to initiate discussions about how Council or Staff can operationalize around their concerns (see other delegations that day).

Regular readers (Hi Mom!) would also note I have an itch to correct the record, so I am writing this to correct one common theme I heard, with all due respect to the strongly felt convictions of the delegates: There is simply no evidence that the Heritage Conservation Area has impacted the values of homes in Queens Park. At least, not yet.

When the annual BC Assessments came out recently, many people noted that housing values have not increased as much as condo values this year. This is a trend across New West and the region, and may be attributed to condos starting to “catch up” to the last few years of significant increases in the single family home sector. It also appears that many single family homes remained stagnant or even decreased slightly in value this year. This is the case for most homes in Queens Park.

This (horribly scanned, apologies) image shows every residential property in New West based on how their assessment changed in 2018. GREEN went up more than 15%; YELLOW was an average increase between 5 and 15%; ORANGE had an increase under 5%; RED a decrease.

A careful analysis of individual homes throughout Queens Park, however, show that there is no bulk difference between homes that fell under higher levels of protection (those built before 1940) and those with limited or no protection. With only a few exceptions, the variations within the neighbourhood seems more related to the block the house is on than anything else.

Same crappy scan, same colour codes. Note single-family parts of upper Glenbrook and Upper Sapperton areas had similar declines as Queens Park.

Perhaps more tellingly, homes in the Glenbrook and Upper Sapperton neighboruhoods had similar stagnant or slight reductions in value. These houses are not (for the most part) older homes, have no Heritage Conservation Area, and only resemble Queens Park in that they are fairly high-value homes on relatively large lots. If the HCA caused the stagnation in Queens Park, we will need another, yet completely separate, explanation for this remarkably similar stagnation on the other side of McBride. Declines were generally 1-5% in both areas.

Note, the 2018 assessment were completed only a month or so after the rules around the new HCA were developed. Although there was a 6-month temporary conservation measure and significant community conversation about the potential HCA, it is fair to say that the implementation of the HCA may not have had an impact on the Assessors work, but the market by that time definitely had a strong wind that something was going to happen, what with the Lawn Sign war and all.

What I m saying here is that we don’t yet know the short- or long-term impact on housing values related to the HCA. We have evidence from other jurisdictions that there may be a small short-term decline, followed by accelerated increases, and that the long-term trend is towards higher values. However, give me a trend you want to see, and I can probably find a Heritage Area somewhere that matches it. There are hundreds of districts like this around North America, and there are too many confounding variables to say with certainty what the impact will be. The best bet, based on an accumulation of data, is that the impact (positive or negative) will be small.

I do want to emphasize that increasing property values was not a goal of the HCA; protecting the heritage of a unique neighbourhood was. That said, Council recognized that the heritage goals will not be met simply by banning demolitions of heritage homes, but we need a suite of measures to encourage residents to preserve the neighbourhood. Preventing demolitions was priority #1 simply because of the timelines imposed by the Local Government Act, setting up regulations around renovations, repairs, and upkeep was also a high priority.

The City recognizes the need to provide more “carrots” to give people reason to invest in their heritage properties. So we are working through a process of determining what an appropriate set of incentives are that will make it more attractive for people to take advanced protection measures (like Designation), potentially help with specific cases where the broad brush of the HCA may make it difficult to fulfill their zoning entitlements, or where we can find opportunities to increase housing choice, affordability, or flexibility while protecting heritage assets.

Having started this post speaking of the group of delegates from yesterday, I do want to note that the final delegate on the topic did provide a pretty well-organized list of potential incentives that should be part of the conversation. Coincidentally, there is an Open house at Anvil Centre on Wednesday Night where staff, residents, and subject matter experts can talk about this. It may be worth while attending if you live in Queens Park:

UBCM 2017- Day 2

This is part 3 on my reporting out on what I did at the 2017 UBCM conference. Part 2 is here.

My third day at UBCM had less of an educational component, more of a political one.

One aspect of UBCM is an opportunity for Local Government elected types and staff to meet with Provincial Government elected types and staff, so we can raise important issues, lobby for support for our initiatives or programs, or learn about how provincial government programs are going to impact us. These meetings are arranged ahead of time, and with hundreds of local governments in attendance and only so many provincial folks to go around, the scheduling is pretty difficult. Meetings are generally 15 minutes to a half an hour, and rarely result in immediate action on issues – especially this year with a new government so early in their mandate.

Part of having a collaborative approach on Council that extends to working with senior governments, we split up responsibilities for these meetings among the Council Members attending UBCM, with the Mayor taking the lead at most meetings. I was able to take part in meetings regarding transportation topics, on the future of childcare in New West and the provincial role in supporting it, and on several community energy and emission reduction initiatives.


Several members of New West Council and a few of our planning staff also had a sit-down meeting with representatives of AirBnB. Clearly, AirBnB are working all levels of government in Canada to assure their business model is not regulated out of existence, and (unlike Uber), this is an area where Local Governments can exercise some regulatory control, through Zoning and Business Licensing. They came prepared to talk to any city who would listen, including providing local stats. In New Westminster (according to AirBnB, there are 130 active hosts, with the average host opening a room for 54 nights a year, for a total length of stay of between 4 and 5 days. The case they were making is that AirBnB contributes to the local economy (guests frequent local restaurants, pubs, and stores) and make housing more affordable for some people, by providing a “mortgage helper”.

We were pretty frank with AirBnB, we are concerned about the impact on our affordable housing stock, about violations of our business license and zoning laws, and about some livability concerns expressed by community members. We had a good discussion about other jurisdictions (such as Nelson and Tofino) and the strengths and weaknesses of their attempts at regulating this platform. It should be no surprise that some concerns that AirBnb raise about different regulatory models are very different that the concerns we hear in some parts of the community. There is also, I think, a bit of a disconnect between AirBnB’s interest in operating within a better regulatory framework, and the limits they put on how they could help local government with that framework- often citing (debatable) privacy issues.

This is a topic I am interested in, and am not getting a lot of traction in my calls for the City to take a more proactive approach. I think there is a role for supporting expanded BnBs in our community (Really, AirBnB is just a platform, not the core business), especially as we have so few Hotel Rooms, no “Hotel Tax” to support our Tourism efforts, and so many heritage and cultural aspects that should make us a popular destination. But with our rental vacancy rate below 0.5%, renovictions burgeoning on crisis, and so many challenges maintaining our affordable housing stock, the answers here are not easy.


Wednesday was also the first day of Resolutions for UBCM 2017 – but I’ll talk about those in a follow-up post.

The afternoon saw several “Provincial Cabinet Town Halls” which were an interesting model for engagement by the new government. There were four Panels (Health and Safety; Investing in People; Infrastructure and Economic Development; and Job, Resources, and Green Communities), each headed by 5 or 6 members of the new Provincial Cabinet. They gave a brief intro to their Mandate Letters, and where they see their files helping Local Government, then the floor was opened in a Town all style for us to grill them on any topic we liked.

I attended the Jobs, Etc. session, where the Ministers of Agriculture, Energy & Mines, FLNROrd, Environment, and Jobs&Trade were in attendance. The introductory conversations were pretty high-level, with Minister Popham clearly excited about protecting the ALR, Minister Mungall equally excited about the future of mining and green energy in the province, and Minister Donaldson proud of the provincial response to the wildfires of the summer (and giving significant props to his predecessor John Rustad for working hard to not let the transition impact firefighting efforts).

Questions given to the Ministers were wide-reaching, including yet another visit from the same Mayor from a certain agriculture-focused municipality clutching pearls over marijuana taking over prime farmland already overwrought with freeways and million-square-foot factory greenhouses (though she didn’t put it that way), to concerns about the future of northeast BC’s ample natural gas resources.

On that final point, I recognized a place where our senior governments are sending mixed messages. Where the Federal Government (in defending the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion) is saying downstream greenhouse gas emissions of pipeline products are not our problem, because they are burned elsewhere, the BC Government (including, alas, the new government) are insisting that we need to support LNG because it will reduce overall emissions in the downstream by offsetting coal in the target markets. Am I the only one who sees the contradiction here?

Rent Bank Launch

It was a great day today for the official launch of the New Westminster Rent Bank.

Members of City Council met at the Purpose Society with the organizers and financial backers of this program. The City’s role was to help with logistics and provide a modest grant to help with administration costs, but the real leaders of this initiative are the 6 community Credit Unions in New Westminster who agreed to provide funding for loans, and the two women here who made it happen:
20170706_153512Judy Darcy saw the need for temporary support to prevent homelessness for a number of working poor in our community, and Nadine Nakagawa did so much of the work required to identify partners, get a team together, and push this project forward. Without their energy, and their passion for making New Westminster a more inclusive, sustainable community, this initiative wouldn’t have seen the light of day.

This is not *the* solution to homelessness, but it is one measure that can make a huge difference in preventing homelessness at a very low cost to the City and the funding partners. Kudos to everyone inolved.

RED Talks 2017

A few of us from New Westminster attended the RED Talks event in Vancouver last week, and I was pleasantly surprised by the content of the evening. Red Talks are a local rip riff off of the Ted Talks format, put on by the local development community – RED stands for Real Estate Development. However, it wasn’t developers touting their projects or contributions, it was a conversation about building better cities.

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The organizers were cheeky enough to create a bit of a faux-protest motif for the event, whose theme was “Confronting Consensus”, but the talks actually brought a nuanced conversation about development, housing, and the role of consultation as a discussion between the public and decision-makers. There were probably an equal number of jibes at the Real Estate industry as there was at elected officials, and everyone seemed to acknowledge that the current housing situation in Greater Vancouver isn’t sustainable, or even desirable in the shorter term.

I wished that the folks from Yes in New West were there to be inspired by two of the speakers in particular.

Seth Rogen’s academic brother?
Seth Rogen’s academic brother?

Paul Kershaw has his Generation Squeeze pitch down solidly, and has criticism for pretty much everyone involved in creating a housing market where an entire generation is feeling completely squeezed out. His economic stats were pretty compelling, demonstrating how today’s young professionals are in an entirely different economic universe than their parents, with home ownership being well out of reach for even the most responsible savers.

His call to action is pretty simple: Generation Squeeze has got to get organized, then get active, not just to demand better, but to give decision makers (elected officials, for the most part) the information and vocal support they need to make the sometimes difficult policy decisions that are required to shift our land use.

A perfect example of this call to action was personified in Sonja Trauss of BARF (Bay Area Renters Federation), who is taking a pretty active approach in San Francisco:20170330_192115
San Francisco has, arguably, a bigger housing affordability issue than Vancouver, and faces serious challenges increasing housing stock because of resident push-back against any form of density. The simple truth Trauss realized is that traditional public consultation, when it comes to housing development, completely misses the target. People who will live in new housing never go to the public hearings to support that housing, so the only voice heard at public meetings is that of the people who already have housing near the site of the development. In what other instance do we ask the only cohort who do not want a product to comment on the form of the product?

Her organization tries to break this cycle in San Francisco by organizing active feedback by renters and underhoused people to pretty much every development project in the Bay Area, arguing that rapid increases in regional housing supply is much more important than the (inevitable) parochial concerns.

The talks were rounded out by Nick Buettner of the Blue Zones Project and Steven Levitt, the Freakonomics guy.

The Blue Zones idea is familiar to most urban planning geeks – there are places in the world where combinations of built form and behavior results in longer lifespans and higher quality of life. It is intriguing to learn what lifestyle commonalities may be behind the gerontology anomalies of Okinawa, Sardinia, and Loma Linda, California.

Finally, I may have been the last person on earth to have read Freakonomics, which I did over the Christmas break while on vacation. I found Leavitt in person very much like I found the book: Interesting, but slightly frustrating. Leavitt has a bewildering combination of pattern-seeking insight and intellectual laziness. He finds new ways to pull insight out of noisy data, but then seems to lose interest in the complex interactions that may underlie these patterns – he seems to rush from correlation to causation with reckless abandon, which rubs us in the non-dismal sciences the wrong way. Worse, he response when being called out on this tenancy is essentially to say “Meh”.

All in all, an interesting evening that had me buzzing with OCP energy:

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Ask Pat: Medicine Hat

Alice asks—

Is there any reason the Medicine Hat approach of reducing Homelessness in their city can’t be applied to New Westminster? I know it has been said senior gov’t needs to step up but the Medicine Hat strategy involved very little additional funding from senior gov’t. Their population and homeless population appear to be in line with New West.

This is one of the areas of the City’s operations where I have had to climb a pretty steep learning curve. We have Councillors and a Mayor with much more knowledge of this than I do (and some pretty stellar staff, as a bonus), but I’ll take a dive at answering this with that caveat in mind, and keep myself open to correction from those with more knowledge.

Essentially, the Medicine Hat model is based on “housing first” – the idea that if we can first get homeless people into shelter, regardless of how temporary it is, we can get them services they need and start the process of moving them to more permanent and sustainable housing options, and (this is the bigger hope) access to services to help them manage the underlying cause of most homelessness – disabilities, trauma, exploitation, and mental health concerns including addiction. This has been standard operating procedure in New Westminster for a decade or more. So why is Medicine Hat different?

Medicine Hat is a rural community, so it’s 61,000 residents are surrounded by farms and wilderness. New Westminster’s 70,000 people are in the middle of an urban population of 2,500,000 people. New Westminster needs to work along with its neighbours and operate within that reality. That is both an advantage to New Westminster, and a disadvantage.

In Medicine Hat, the most recent homeless count put their numbers at about half the average of the province of Alberta on a per-capita basis. The numbers provided in 2016 news stories estimate there were 875 people moved to supportive housing over the six years of their aggressive program – one for every 70 residents. Extrapolate that to Greater Vancouver, and we would need to facilitate 36,000 supportive housing units in the same period – 6,000 per year. To make this work, the Medicine Hat Community Housing Society received $3.9 million from the province of Alberta (plus about 10% that amount from a combination of the federal and local governments). It is clear the province of Alberta, even during difficult financial times, fulfilled their constitutional responsibility to provide housing. Extrapolate that to the Lower Mainland, and this becomes another boring post about lack of Provincial resources and the terrible priorities of the BC Liberals…

However, there is a persistent problem we have in the Lower Mainland that makes us stand out, and with which “Housing First” is of limited help: the flow of people being forced into homelessness by our out-of-scale housing costs, the erosion of our housing support programs (including the Co-op Housing model), lack of resources for people at risk (aging out of care, coming out of incarceration, or leaving protracted medical care), and our ongoing lack of rental vacancy. To avail oneself of “Housing First” assistance in BC, one first has to be homeless, which is like addressing gun violence by buying bandages: it has a value and is measurably effective, but does not address the source of the problem. This is a terrible way to organize public resources, but more importantly, it completely dehumanizes of the actual problem.

Which brings me back to the Medicine Hat miracle I keep reading about in the news. Considering it is not particularly groundbreaking in approach, and aside from the resources put into it, it’s success is not outstanding compared to many municipalities (including New Westminster), I wonder about the narrative of its success. I do not want to take even the tiniest bit of credit away from the City, the not-for-profits, or programmers (paid and volunteer) who put their lives work into helping less fortunate people, but there is a part this makes me twitchy.

Google any story of the Medicine Hat Homelessness approach, and you hear some version of the same narrative: how the “fiscally conservative” Mayor was convinced to support the program, because it turns out paying to put people in housing saves the City and the Province money in the long run. Now, this is true; so well established it isn’t even a point of debate, but quotes likes this fire my cynicism gland:

“It makes financial sense. That’s how I had my epiphany and was converted. You can actually save money by giving somebody some dignity and giving them a place to live.” – Mayor Clugston

The fact that a leader describes his decision to provide basic human dignity to marginalized residents of his community in terms of its ability to turn fiscal profit is abhorrent to the way I view governance and society. Maybe he is just saying that to keep the Randian libertarians in his town off of his ass, or perhaps it speaks deeply of the state of western Canadian politics and the erosive influence of Calgary School neo-liberal fiscal policy projected by “Think Tanks” like the Fraser Institute on governments at all levels… I’m about to go on a long rant here, so perhaps I will save that for a future blog post… but this economically-driven “come-to-Jesus moment” narrative sound more like cowardice than visionary leadership to me.

Short version is we, in New Westminster, are regional leaders in providing housing support to our homeless residents, and I will hold our success up against Medicine Hat’s any day (not that this is a contest – when it comes to supporting marginalized populations in this country, we are all losing). New West is forging partnerships with senior governments and investing in supportive housing, and we are providing City lands to develop innovative housing solutions. We have incredible staff and NWPD liaisons partnering with an amazing suite of not-for-profit agencies to address the multiple causes of (and solutions to) homelessness at a person-to-person level. We did this before it was sexy, and perhaps we don’t brag enough about it. More importantly, I would like to think we do it not becasue of some fiscal bottom line calculation, but because homeless people in New Westminster are citizens of New Westminster, who deserve representation for their elected officials, and should have the same access to support, dignity, and opportunity as everyone else.

Demoviction Conversation

Amongst the joys of my job as a City Councillor is collaboration with other elected types around the region who are trying to solve regional problems in new ways. I’m also a bit of a data geek, so I love getting new information and learning from people much smarter than me who have innovative approaches to problems.

In the interest of bringing these things together, I am working with some pretty cool colleagues to develop a “MetroConversations” series. We had a successful first event in New Westminster last November, and have plans to expand and grow the program in 2017. The second in the series is happening in Langley City next week, hosted by the brilliant and telegenic City Councillor Nathan Pachal

The topic is as relevant in New Westminster as anywhere in the region: How do we replace an aging stock of rental buildings without displacing people who rely on an affordable rental building stock?

There has been a lot of talk about this in the City of Burnaby, and although they get a (perhap unfair?) majority of the press, this is truly a regional concern. The City of New Westminster has done a lot to incentivise the building of family friendly apartment housing, secured rental housing, and other housing forms in the hopes that we can eat away at the affordability monster. We also have a huge stock of condo and rental buildings, mostly in Brow of the Hill and Sapperton, that are aging and don’t meet modern building standards. At some point, replacement of this stock is going to create a Burnaby-like situation, unless we take a proactive approach to the issue. That said, who knows what that proactive approach looks like?

This MetroConversation will feature people who have a better idea of what works and doesn’t when it comes to managing our affordable housing stock – actual subject matter experts who view the issue from diferent angles. As always, this will be an interactive conversation, not a boring set of speeches. Bring your questions, bring your ideas, and help add to the conversation in the region.

The room is relatively small (we want an intimate conversation) so please be sure to register to make sure you can get a seat, we totally expect to sell out.

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