Bylaw 8085

For the second week in a row, we had a Council meeting where many people came to speak to a bylaw that is meant to reduce the incidence of renoviction in the City. Ironically, this week’s bylaw has much more far-reaching implications than the very limited rezoning discussion of the previous meeting, but we had nary a landlord or members of the development community come to speak against this move. We did, however, have a large number of people come to speak about the real human impacts of renoviction in our community, and remind us why these kinds of aggressive actions are needed.

As a bit of nuance, this was not a Public Hearing as constituted by the Local Government Act, like we had last week. This was an Opportunity to be Heard. We effectively operate these like a Public Hearings in New West, but they don’t have the same regulatory baggage. In short, it is a non-regulatory opportunity for the public to either send us a letter or come and speak to Council on a point of public interest.

Business Regulations and Licensing (Rental Units) Amendment Bylaw No. 8085, 2019
As I said about last week’s Bylaw to protect 18 properties in the City with Rental Tenure Zoning, we are going to need many more tools to address housing affordability in the City. This step is another bold measure that will give the City more ability to protect people who are precariously housed. This and last week’s bylaw are part of a larger Rental Housing Revitalization Initiative that will provide both metaphorical carrots and sticks within our legal authority to protect safe, secure, and affordable housing in the City and hopefully mitigate the current rental crunch and its impact on lower-income residents.

The step being adopted here is to use a tool that is not typically considered when dealing with land use tenure: our business licensing powers. Cities typically look at demo- or reno-viction through a planning context, which invokes zoning or building bylaws. However, it happens that all businesses operating rental buildings in the city require a business license to do so, and we have great flexibility in how we administer our business regulations, as long as they are fair to all businesses. Our staff have found a creative way to apply these regulatory powers to create new protections against renoviction.

Nothing on this Bylaw prevents renovation of older rental stock buildings. Instead, the Bylaw requires that the building owner provide the City a demonstration of the efforts they have taken to accommodate the residency needs of tenants prior to the City providing them a permit to perform a major renovation that requires tenant displacement. This may include providing them alternative accommodation, providing them priority to rent the same unit after renovation, or other methods to assure the resident is not made homeless. This also gives the City the ability to determine if a renovation even requires tenant removal or not.

The City can apply fines and/or a business license surcharge if these conditions are not met, and those charges may be built upon each other. We can even pull a business licence if the violations are egregious enough. Of course, exceptions are considered for life safety improvements, immediate repairs necessitated by an emergency or natural disaster, or other reasonable causes.

Much like the previous Bylaw, this change will not stand alone, and indeed the few criticisms I have heard of the Bylaw are based on thinking that it does. We cannot stop renovating our older building stock, or the most affordable housing in the City will eventually become the least livable. This is why these Bylaws exist within the framework of a wider Rental Housing Revitalization Initiative. The entire program includes an updated Rental Replacement Policy to create clear guidelines for the development community about how and when we would address the replacement of any rental stock lost through development, and an incentive program through fee and tax reductions to encourage and make more affordable the renovation of older buildings.

This is a comprehensive program that will help assure there continues to be market rental in New Westminster that is safe and livable, but stays at the affordable end of the market rental scale. This, in turn, is enhanced by the admittedly less-affordable new rental stock that is coming on line in the City which will help on the supply side and hopefully put downward pressure on market rent costs. Of course, this also relies on all three levels of government working together to bring more non-market housing on line, because “the market” will never supply the type of affordable housing needed by those 500+ families currently on the waiting list for supportive housing in New Westminster.

The work goes on. Housing affordability is a pernicious problem and we are indeed in a crisis situation in the Lower Mainland. I am proud to sit on a Council where we support taking bold action, and thank our staff – planning, business license, and legal – who have worked to find creative ways for the City to address the problem. Mostly, though, I want to thank the residents of New Westminster who live in rental buildings (44% of our residents!), some of them in somewhat precarious financial situations, for uniting and bravely bringing your voices to Council so that we have the political support to do the right thing, and so that the rest of your community can understand why the need for bold, progressive housing action exists.

Bylaw 8078

The Public Hearing on Monday was well attended, with a couple of dozen people presenting on both sides of the issue. We received a significant amount of correspondence going into the public hearing, and some media attention after. I am going to try to outline here what decision Council made, and talk about my motivations for voting the way I did. You might want to put on some tea.

The Bylaw being debated, Zoning Amendment [Multi-Family Residential Rental Tenure] Bylaw No. 8078, 2019, changes the zoning of 18 properties in the City to a new designation called “Residential Rental Tenure”. This new zoning type was recently permitted by the provincial government to provide local governments another tool in addressing housing affordability. Twelve of the properties are City-owned lands, and no one raised any concerns with this. However, the remaining 6 are multi-family buildings that have always operated as rental buildings, and though each building is owned by a single entity (Corporation or Limited Partnership), they have carried Strata title for many years. This detail is important to what the City is trying to achieve here by this slightly clunky method, and that requires some background.

The City has had a moratorium on stratification since the mid-1970s, which means buildings operating as rental in the City have not been able to shift their title to Strata and convert to condos. This was enacted to protect the affordable rental housing stock in the City, and has been largely successful. Last year a building in the Brow of the Hill that had operated for 40+ years as a rental was sold, and the new owners renovicted the tenants and sold off the condos as individual units. When the City looked into this apparent violation of the moratorium, it was discovered that the building had always been titled as Strata, though all of the units belonged to a single owner who had operated as a rental. The moratorium did not apply, and there was nothing the City could do to prevent (effective if not literal) stratification of this rental building.

In doing this research, staff discovered that there were 6 other buildings in the City, representing about 250 rental suites, where a building was built as purpose-built rental before the Strata Title Act was implemented in 1966 or was stratified at the time of construction and has operated as a rental building since that initial construction. These six buildings could potentially do a similar conversion to condo units, violating the spirit of the moratorium, and the City would not have any ability to prevent this.

The reasoning behind applying the new zoning to these 6 buildings was to create a disincentive to the stratification of these buildings (I use that term recognizing the buildings are already strata title – so perhaps “effectively stratify” would be a more accurate description?). The property owners who delegated to Council, and their supporters from LandLord BC and the development community, argue that this was an arbitrary “downzoning” of the properties, that the City has stolen value from the property owners in a capricious way that will chill the market for future development in the City. The tenants and their supporters who delegated were glad that the City was being creative and proactive in preventing eviction of renters from their affordable homes.

But don’t let me put words in their mouth, you can watch the video here.

I have spent a couple of weeks thinking about this Bylaw and its implications, reading 50+ pieces of correspondence, and listening to Public Delegations. In this, I have compiled a long list of things I would like to say about it, but risk veering off onto a long stream-or consciousness rant about affordable housing and things that we within and outside of the City’s jurisdiction and how those often do not overlap so well with things that are within our duty to our residents. That may still happen below, but I am going to try to keep this short (Too Late!) and hit on only three points.

1: This Bylaw does not stand alone. This Bylaw is one tool the City has, and we are applying it in a very limited way to address one small part of the vast spectrum of housing affordability. It isn’t going to make new apartments more affordable and it is not going to protect all affordable apartments from renoviction. It wasn’t meant to do those things. It is going to create a disincentive for renoviction for 250 rental homes in our community. Whenever the City or another government does any small move to address a regional housing affordability crisis, the public response gets bogged down in “whataboutism” about the other problems we are not solving. The housing crises are a complex problem affecting every level or housing, and it will take a combination of tools to make housing secure for everyone in our City.

2: This action was not arbitrary. Much of the rhetoric from the development community and other opponents of this Bylaw suggested this was an arbitrary act by Council that this was applied in a random way, and would send a chilling message to developers that New Westminster was no longer a safe place to invest in new rental housing because this may happen to them. That is hyperbolic and not reflected by the reality of what this Bylaw does, or how this Council operates.

The Bylaw was applied to 12 City-owned properties to send the signal to the community and future councils that the priority for those lands should be purpose-built rental and affordable rental. It was also applied to 6 privately-owned properties that are not protected by our 40-year-old moratorium on conversion of rental buildings to condominiums. Although it does not change the tenure of the current buildings, it does remove some incentive to convert these buildings into condominiums like happened to the building I mentioned above.

We have a current incentive program to encourage developers to build purpose-built rental in the City. It has been somewhat successful, and there have been something more than 1,000 new rental units opened in the City over the last year. All of these developments occurred because the City offered the developer some incentive to make it economic for them to build the rental, in exchange for the developer entering in to a “Housing Agreement” with the City, which secures the use of the building as a rental for (typically) 60 years. We are expanding our incentives for building non-market affordable housing as part of new developments, and you see the initial results of that now. There is no reason why this more recent Bylaw to limit future use of 6 stratified buildings that have always operated a rental, has any impact on how those incentivized rental developments occur. The economics for those developers has not changed.

3: There was a reason to act. Renoviction has been the one part of our affordable housing crisis that we have not yet found tools to address, and you would have to have been in media blackout not to know how this issue has been impacting our community. If you need a primer, read this, or this, or this, or even this.

I know that the owners of the buildings impacted by this Bylaw have assured us that renoviction was not part of their plan for their properties. Thee UDI and LandLordBC representatives came to Council and said none of their members ever do renovictions. Everyone who came to Council to argue against this Bylaw said that they would never support renoviction – they all agree it is an unacceptable situation. Yet renovictions are happening in our City, in at least 15 buildings representing more than 340 units – 340 affordable homes – in the last three years. And it is pretty obvious why.

As an elected official, I hear form these residents. I live in the Brow of the Hill, these people are my neighbours. I see them at coffee shops, and they literally knock on my door and ask me what the City can do to help them. For the last couple of years, I have pointed them at City resources, connected them with our Social Planners and other support organizations, tried to made sure they knew their rights, and the responsibilities of their landlord. I tell them we are advocating to the provincial government to get more tools to help them. I tell them we are making progress, that more tools are coming, and I hope they can hold on. Looking at my neighbour Laverne when she tells me about the real fear she has about becoming homeless after 28 years in the same apartment and telling her there is nothing I could do but she should try to hold on hits me hard. This shit gets personal really fast.

I didn’t get into this job to be a housing advocate. I am an environmentalist, a sustainability guy, an active transportation advocate, someone who wants to see activation of our public spaces. Those were my fights to have. But if four years on this job doesn’t make you an affordable housing advocate, you have no soul. so now this is the fight I have to have.

Here we have a case where staff have identified affordable units that are potential targets for eviction, and the provincial government has provided us a tool to address that risk. All this during a housing crisis that is hitting New Westminster hard. We have been talking about the crisis for a few years, it is time we started acting like it is a crisis. The provincial government is taking steps, and so are we (including considering a few more bold moves at the February 4th Council meeting). The only way we will get out of this crisis situation is by challenging the status quo and taking action when it is available to us. The status quo is residents on our city being priced out of the City – priced out of one of the most affordable cities in the lower mainland. And I cannot stand still while that happens.

Bullies

I’m on vacation, I’ll be back next week. However, this letter to the editor of the Burnaby Now entered my social media feed, and much to MsNWimby’s lament, I had to take a few minutes to pen a retort. I thought of sending it to the Burnaby Now, but I thought it would look weird for a New West City Councillor to get something like this published in a Burnaby newspaper, so instead I’ll just post it here.

Letter: Why can’t bullied kids just get with the program?

Editor: Last weeks’s Burnaby NOW had a letter from Diane Gillis raising important questions about why pedestrians don’t work harder to protect themselves from getting hit by cars. I think it provides a great platform to offer similar safety tips for youth suffering from another well-identified danger in today’s society: schoolyard bullying.

It does not matter who is right and who is wrong in schoolyard bullying – it is the bullied child who is at greatest risk of injury or psychological trauma.

Sadly, there are too many children who do not understand or know of what they can do to avoid bullying. I chair the communications subcommittee of my local Concerned Parents of Athletic and Cool Children chapter, and we coordinate anti-bullying messaging for our children, and those who do not qualify. At the November CPACC meeting, we discussed ways to reduce bullying.

All children should consider these anti-bullying safety tips.

  • Wear more attractive / fashionable clothing so the cool kids will not notice your lack of flair. If wearing professional-sports-team-branded clothing, be especially aware of the sports franchises preferred by the local cool kids.
  • Don’t go to places where bullies hang out, like malls, schools, or outside.
    If you have to go to those places, look out for bullies.
  • If you see a bully, run away really fast.
  • Don’t make eye contact with bullies.
  • Don’t use your phone and/or headphones, or carry anything of value while walking where bullies might spot you.
  • If a bully approaches you, hand them your lunch money and beg for mercy.
  • Wear a helmet.

Something I think is telling. Yesterday afternoon at about 3:30 p.m. – just after school gets out and when most kids were playing sports or hitting the Mall – as I was driving past a schoolyard in Burnaby, I saw a skinny, nerdy kid getting taunted by a group of pretty cool-looking kids.

When I saw his Minnesota Wild t-shirt, his last-year’s Walmart Nikes, wire-rim glasses and his clarinet case, it was all I could do to stop from yelling “Hey Nerd!” and slapping the little loser myself.

There is a lot more to the concerns of many of us regarding keeping all kids safe from bullying. And as long as we can continue to blame the victim, none of us will ever have to recognize our own personal responsibility to keep our community safe for all, or even acknowledge what the real dangers are.

Ask Pat: Setbacks

“Jean-Luc” asks

I live in a new condo building that abuts right onto an older building. I’m not sure how the developer got away with building right to the property line. Needless to say, the owners of the other building were not happy with us, and really, it’s not what we envisioned either. What is the minimum distance requirement between two multi-family dwellings…if any?

It depends. And unfortunately, the better answer is buried in a complex and arcane document called the Zoning Bylaw. The Bylaw was originally adopted back in 2001, but has been significantly modified such that the latest version consolidated to include all changes up to July, 2018 are cobbled together into not a single pdf, but a website that links to a relatively well-organized list of several pdfs that you can access here:

https://www.newwestcity.ca/zoning-bylaw

In there you will find a 9-page list of amendments, in case you care to see the evolution of the Bylaw over 17 years. You will also find an introductory document that lays out the format of the Bylaw, including 22 pages of definitions and the names of the 75 “districts” into which the City is divided, each with their own specific rules. Telling, but not surprising if you have ever been to a Public Hearing about a rezoning, this launches off with then 22 pages of parking requirements, before a bunch of seemingly-random but no-doubt-logical-at-the-time rules about things like garbage and recycling storage facilities and satellite dishes… alas.

There is also a little bit in this section about setbacks – the required distance behind a property line where buildings can be constructed, but here it is a strange list of specific spots that were probably put in place for location-specific requirements like utility offsets or traffic sightlines. If you want to know how close you can build to your property line or how close your neighbour can build to it, you probably need to get into the specifics of the zoning district that applies.

To do that, you go to the Zoning Map (sorry, you probably need Silverlight to do that, because it is 2018), and see what zoning district applies to the spot of land you care about. Just open the map, zoom/scroll to your location and click the property, a table with zoning on it should pop up (I circled in red):

Then you need to go to the comprehensive list (7 documents, 400+ pages) of zoning districts to see what the specific rules are. All this to say, there is no single rule, but a set of rules and local exemptions apply, so everything I say here is general and the only relation it has to your specific case is that it almost certainly doesn’t apply to your specific case. Zoning is complicated.

In generality, for single family homes the “side setback” is 10% of the lot width or 5 feet, whichever is less, but never less than 4 feet, although it may be possible for some non-wall to “project” into this setback in special cases. That not clear, but about the clearest case you can have.

Condo buildings vary in their zoning type, depending on what type of building they are (townhouse or small apartment building or tower?). Some fit snugly in a Townhouse or Commercial District designation, others are “Comprehensive Development Districts”, which are stand-alone zoning rules developed to support a specific development at a specific site – and therefore have an address attached to them. The nearest one to where I am sitting now is the one I clicked on in the map above, which is CD-20: Comprehensive Development District (246 Sixth Street). This was put together in 2008 to permit a 16 storey residential tower with commercial “live-work units” at grade, now called 258 Sixth Street, just to complicate matters. It has no set-back requirement at grade, but setbacks above 9.14 metres (i.e. starting on the fourth floor) of 2.5m at the streetscape sides (to reduce the “mass” of the building as it appears from the street), 14.2m at the rear and 7.1m on the neighboring-building side (both to reduce the proximity to current and potential future residential buildings).

When you look at the building you can see that the lower part of the side was build, as most commercial buildings are, to butt up against a future adjacent building, while the upper parts are built to provide a bit of space between future residential areas:

The reality is that the fixed rules are more commonly treated as strong “guidelines” based on best practices. For example, the general practice for towers is to have more than 30m between the “towery” parts of towers, and in commercial areas the best practice is to have no space between buildings at grade in order to create a cohesive, attractive, and safe commercial frontage, where gaps don’t make any planning sense (like this spot I recognized recently in downtown Port Coquitlam but failed to take a photo of, so thanks Google Street View):

Every Comprehensive Development District has its own character, as does each neighbourhood. Its shape and form of any planned building is impacted by the buildings that are adjacent to it and by the future vision of the neighbourhood based on longer-term planning guidelines like the Official Community Plan. However, all of these guidelines can be overruled by bringing a Development Plan and appropriate Zoning Amendment to Council and convincing Council there is a good reason to vary from the guidelines. Sometimes this means placing a tower towards one side of the pedestal in order to reduce the viewscape conflict with an adjacent building, sometimes it means the increasing the size of a setback in order to provide some community benefit like improved pedestrian realm or emergency vehicle access. These are the complicated maths that often require months or years of negotiation between our planning staff, the landowner, stakeholders and the community.

Perhaps that is the part of the entire development-approving process that most of the public don’t understand when they see a project come to Council for a Public Hearing. They see Council approving or denying a specific building, but in actuality it is a large and complicated stack of compromises (by than landowner and the City) and potential benefits built up over those negotiations that Council eventually is asked to approve or not approve.

So your building may have allowed zero setback as part of its zoning, or a zero setback may have been something the City wanted as part of the development to create a more amiable streetscape in the long term, or a zero setback may have been something the developer of your building wanted to maximize the amount of square footage they could sell. Likely at least two of these are true, or else it would not have been built like that.

Ask Pat: Smoke and edibles.

DB asked—

The bylaw regarding Cannabis Regulations No. 8043, 2018 has a section saying retail shops cannot sell edible cannabis. I live in an apartment in New West that has a strict no smoking/vaping policy (which I am very happy about). Edible Cannabis is a work around for situations like mine – unless it will be legal to smoke on the streets (which I am assuming is not the case). I understand it has been adopted but, I still wanted to voice my opinion on it.

That was not strictly in the form of a question. But I’ll take a stab at it.

We are one day away from the legalization if cannabis in Canada, and all three levels of government have been scrambling to get a regulatory regime together. It is a challenge – this an unprecedented change in the regulation of a psychotropic drug. From a local government side, we needed to put together zoning and business bylaws to support the operation of the stores that coincide with the model that the province put together. We also have to think about the inevitable nuisance complaints we are going to receive around the legalization of what is, for all its alleged benefits or harms, a pretty stinky substance.

On edibles, our Bylaw is designed to parallel the federal regulations. There will be no legal edibles sold in Canada in 2018. I suspect this is related to a myriad of packaging and labeling concerns, and addressing the risk to children when sweets and drinks are made containing the psychoactive elements found in cannabis. There is some suggestion that they will address this in 2019, but until then, dried product intended for smoking is the only legal form of recreational cannabis.

Your point about Strata rules prohibiting the smoking of cannabis is definitely a concern. With the existing prohibitions around public smoking – no smoking in parks, in bus stops, 7.5m from the door to any public building, or inside any business or public building – you are right that there will be limited places where it is legal to smoke cannabis. Unlike alcohol, you will not be able to go to a business (like a pub or coffee shop) to smoke, but you will be able (as best I can tell) to smoke on the sidewalk or the street, as long as you are not within 7.5m of a door or air intake. Still, if you are restricted from smoking at home because of strata or rental rules, your opportunities are really limited. This creates a fundamental unfairness – this completely legal product will be inaccessible to some.

I honestly don’t know how to address this and remain compliant with the various laws at all three levels of government. If you have the skills, I suppose you could bake your own edibles using the dried product meant for smoking (I don’t think that would strictly be illegal, as long as you don’t sell the baked goods). Or you can wait until the federal government gets the edibles part figured out. The transition to this new regime is going to be challenging for several reasons.

As a city, we tried our best to put together a comprehensive set of regulations. We had a few workshops with Council and staff, and heard from the public and stakeholders in the industry. After some pretty challenging debates around what the limits should be, we settled on what will no doubt be an imperfect regime, but we will learn as we go along. We will be ready to accept applications for cannabis retailers as soon as legalization occurs on Wednesday, but as the process to get a store approved and operating may still take several months, don’t expect to be buying cannabis in New West until early in 2019.

Update: Time between the legalization of cannabis and the first e-mail complaint received by Mayor and Council abut having to smell the smoke in a public place: 16 hours.  

Ask Pat: Two projects

In the spirit of getting caught up, Here are two Ask Pats with similar answers: “I don’t know”.

mmmmm beer. asks—

I appreciate the transparency your blog offers. I just have a quick question. What ever happened to the Craft Beer Market that was supposed to go in at the New West Station. Is that still moving forward?

Shaji asks—

Firstly, thank you for getting back to me on my question about Frankie G’s 😊
Secondly, there are many of us residents at the Peninsula and Port Royal in general wanting to inquire about the plans for the Eastern Neighbourhood Node. I know there were some extensive discussions and planning sessions between the City and Platform Properties. We also have noticed that some ground preparation work has started. Any updates that you can share on what work has started, what are the prospects and what are the timelines for this project. Thanks 😊

Yes, the answer to both of these questions is “I don’t know”.

The Craft Beer Market was a proposal that came to Council for a Development Permit back in July of 2016, and was proposed for the empty lot across from the Anvil Centre at Eighth and Columbia. You can read the report starting on page 348 here. It was brought to Council as a Report for Information, and the next steps were to be Design Panel review and some public consultation, then staff would bring a Development Permit bylaw to us for approval or rejection. I remember the conversation about the proposal being generally positive (see the Minutes of that meeting, Page 13 here), but we have not, in my recollection, seen any further reports.

The Eastern Neighborhood Node that would connect Port Royal to the rest of Queensborough with a mix of residential and commercial property has been the subject of several meetings. The most exciting part of the proposal (and the part that led to some discussions around the layout of the site ans stage of development) was the allocation of some 50,000 square feet of neighbourhood-serving commercial. This would bring (it is hoped) a small grocery store a some basic services to the booming Port Royal community. There would be some land assembly required, as (again, to the best of my knowledge), the developer does not own all of the land required to make the development work, and some pretty significant utility and drainage engineering needs to be done to support the development.

Both of these speak to how complicated development can sometimes be, and to the fact that Council is not directly involved in some of what makes development happen or not happen in the community. We can, obviously, say “no” to a development proposal that requires variances or zoning changes, but once we say “yes” to a development we really can’t force the developer to build. Even the “yes” we give a developer does not typically contain a timeline to completion. As plans are developed, construction costs are calculated, compromises are negotiated, and market forces are navigated, sometimes the math ends up not working out for the proposal we see at Council, and it never happens. Commonly, those things occur in a way that Council would never see. If there is no decision for us to make, no plan or change of plans for us to approve, we are most likely in the dark about the details of what is holding the situation up.

Both of those proposals have some very public-facing companies involved. They may be able to answer your questions better than I can. As a general principle, I think getting retail happening on the eastern end of Queensborough and that empty lot at Eighth and Columbia activated would be great things for the City, and for our residents. I don’t know how I can make either happen faster than the landowner plans to invest. I can tell you that there is no action that I know of that Council has taken to slow down either proposal.

Ask Pat: Bent Court

I have been tardy on Ask Pats. I have this other project going on, and have taken the Ask Pat thing analogue a bit to reach more people. However, there are a few in the queue here, and I am going to spend a bit of my Thanksgiving weekend trying to get caught up. Enjoy!

Chris asked—

Hello,

In an archived memo back in 2016 you posted this regarding the future study of Bent Court.

Bent Court: This area is interesting, a mixed residential and commercial district that is zoned for high-rises, although it is unlikely that anyone would build to that scale here. Staff is recommending a special approach here that can incentivize the preservation of the heritage homes, whether they be used for residential or commercial.

Can you help clarify why it is unlikely that ” anyone would build to that scale here”

Bent Court is a bit of an anomaly. The comment you hearken back to was part of the OCP discussions, where we recognized a few areas in the city that didn’t fit into a bigger area-wide picture very well. The West End and Massey Victory Heights are pretty internally homogeneous, but areas like Lower Twelfth Street and Bent Court are not easily defined, nor is it clear what land use will be most successful there.

Bent Court is mostly a collection of heritage-aged houses, many of them converted to some sort of commercial use. They are immediately adjacent to the uptown commercial area, but also serve as a buffer to the residential areas of Brow of the Hill. There is currently one project being (slowly) built on this site where a heritage house is bring preserved and a 6-story residential building is being built. Even they project caused us some challenges, as determining what a full compliment of parking should be for an area like this that is walkable, but not that close to SkyTrain is a difficult estimate. Street parking can sometimes be at a premium, but many of the apartment buildings nearby have largely underutilized parking. Alas… parking…

My thought in that statement about building to full high-density at Bent Court (in C-3 Zoning, this means Floor Space Ratio of over 5, mixed-use commercial at grade, residential above) was my own feeling that the economics and difficulty of assembling land to make it happen make it unlikely in the current market. Each of the lots is worth more than $1 Million now, to build to the scale of the adjacent mixed-use towers, one would have to assemble a dozen properties. Some (or most) of these properties have some potential heritage value (which adds some uncertainty to the approval process), and are currently returning commercial lease rates that make them economically viable as they are.

That said, there is a lot of development going on right now across the region, and I am not a land economist, so I may not be reading the market well. Not long after I wrote that statement, a real estate company put signs up suggesting land assembly and high rise development are viable options. That doesn’t mean it is going to happen, nor has there been an application for any kind of rezoning or development permit arrive at Council, nor is it clear how staff, Council, or the community would approach such an application. A Bent Court Area Study is planned for 2019 as part of the ongoing OCP Implementation Plan, and this will provide a little more robust economic analysis than my speculations above. Stay tuned, because there will no doubt be opportunities for community input at that time.

I could imagine Bent Court as a pretty special place. Co-op ownership, preserve the heritage houses, convert them to live/work units where artists can set up studio space and live on their studios, add a few food and drink opportunities and some clever marketing, and it could become a unique mini-artisan village of regional importance. However, one doesn’t have to be a land economist to recognize at a million dollars a lot, it would be neigh impossible to make this work unless one had small fortune to dig into… any patrons out there?

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

The Booth

People who follow my exploits (Hi Mom!) know I have been running this webpage for several years, and not too long after I first got elected as a City Councillor, I added an “Ask Pat” button to it. Through this, people can send me questions about the City, and I try my best to answer them. Recognizing that not everyone reads my Blog, I decided to take Ask Pat analogue a little while ago; hence the Lucy Booth.

(Credit where credit is due: Hayley Sinclair is convinced this was her idea, but I am pretty sure the original inspiration was JJ Lee’s “Sartorial Advice” booth from a few years ago, it just took me a long time to put this into action).

Having set this up in various places around town over the last few months, the response is pretty fun. However, last weekend’s Pride Street Fest was the most active booth location yet, with more than 100 questions being asked, most of them answerable, some even by me. Examples? (shortened in both question and answer for the sake of brevity)

Q: What is the long-term plan for the QtoQ Ferry?
A: We will see how the ridership on this year’s Pilot goes, and will work with senior partners to help close a funding gap. I hope we can continue to run it, because it is an important transportation link!

Q: Is the rental building at *00 block of *th street turning into Condos?
A: No. We do not permit the conversion of residential rental to condo in the City, and we would hear about it if that was happening.

Q: What is the smallest thing?
A: The Planck Length (*turns out I was only kinda right here, as is to be expected whenever anyone involves quantum physics).

Q: Is the City developing Glenbrook Ravine?
A: No. The Ravine is one of the few natural areas left in the city, and is an important park and habitat asset. A large part of it was preserved permanently as part of the Victoria Hill agreement. No-one has proposed buildings in the ravine to Council, and I cannot imagine Council ever agreeing to do this.

Q: (from a ~9 year old girl) Why does my big brother always bug me?
A: Probably because he is jealous of you! That’s why I bugged my big sister! But don’t worry, I grew out of it.

Q: Do you agree with a 10-lane pool?
A: Yes, and we are working on a grants to help pay for it and the increased deck space and other additions to the base plan for the CGP replacement that Hyack Swim Club asked for – Contact your MLA and MP to put in a good word for the pool, and help us secure those grants!

Q: What is going to happen with Marijuana Dispensaries in October?
A: The City will permit cannabis retail in a limited way as soon as the federal laws are in place, I suspect it will be limited to a few locations in the short term, and probably won’t arrive until Christmas at the earliest, mostly because of the complicated process we need to go through with Zoning and Business License regulations. It’s coming, and we are going to be ready.

Etc., etc.

Both serious and funny questions aside, there was one theme I heard a few times that was, frankly, the hardest question to answer:

Q: What are you doing about housing?
It is hard because I know any truthful answer I provide is not going to help. I can talk about the City investing in several affordable housing projects (it isn’t enough), about us working to bring in more purpose built rental (it is increasingly unaffordable), about our protecting the affordable rental we have by preventing demovictions (but are hand-tied somewhat when it comes to renovictions). I can say, honestly, we are doing all we can, and are doing arguably more than any other municipality in BC; but it is still not enough to fix the problem. We are advocating to senior governments for help, and it is starting to trickle in, but after 15+ years of inaction, it isn’t fast enough. This answer is hard, because I know the people asking me are scared and feel helpless, and I know my answers will not help them feel more secure. Empathy feels hollow when people are suffering, because it isn’t enough.

I’m working on a blog post right now that digs a little deeper into this topic.

Have questions? You can send them to Ask Pat, but recognize I am really busy these days with Campaign stuff, and it may take a while before you get an answer. It will be more immediate if you see a little red booth set up, and come and talk. If you ask a question, you may also get a button:

ASK PAT: Small trees and Beg Buttons

neil21 asks—

Howdy. Two questions having just moved here from Vancouver’s West End.

1. Why are the street trees so short? Is it just time (but I thought this city was older) or the species? The streets are really hot without that shade.

2. At 6th and Carnarvon, pedestrians don’t get to cross without pressing the button. Even if pedestrians are crossing the same way on the other side.
2b. Also why aren’t your beg buttons those buttonless ones like you have for the bikes? Those are better.
2c. Also why does 6th and C have beg buttons at all? Just let peds cross with green cars always.

Welcome to New West. I would love to hear more about your decision to move here from our western suburb, and your experiences since making the shift. The theme of my answers to the above will be “A City is always a work in progress”. We are now headed the right direction, but have more work to do.

1: (caveat: I’m not an arbourist, but I have a couple of suppositions) First, the trees may be younger than you are used to. The City of New Westminster, with the exception of Queens Park (the neighbourhood) and a few parts of Glenbrooke North and Sapperton, really lost the plot on street trees a few decades ago. It may have been the fashion of the time, the cost of development, a mandate by the electrical utility, or just short-term thinking, but our urban forest was cut back in a devastating way. Our canopy cover City-wide is less than 18%, which is similar to Vancouver, but low compared to much of North America. It was only a few years ago when New Westminster introduced a new Urban Forest Management Strategy, and started to a) proactively protect the trees we have; and b) ramp up plans to plant trees and bring back more canopy cover. Unfortunately, the ultimate results of this will not be seen for another decade or two. That said, although the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is today, and we are getting on it.

That said, it is also possible that trees are smaller above ground because they are smaller underground. Trees need healthy root systems to prosper, and our 150-year-old streets and sidewalks and utility corridors mean that the area of healthy nutrient-rich and porous soil around many of our newer trees is limited. This may mean staff decided to plant diminutive tree species to respect the available growing area, or it may be that the lack of soil is keeping the tree from meeting its ultimate size. There is a bunch of new engineering practice around creating “soil cells” as part of new street tree installations, but see last paragraph about 20 years.

2: (Mostly) because the City is old, doesn’t have endless money, and until recently, it wasn’t a priority.

Beg Buttons (the pejorative name given by pedestrian advocates to buttons that must be pushed by pedestrians in order for the red hand to become the white man at light-controlled intersections when the cars get a green light) were all the rage at one time, because everybody important drove, and pedestrians were just another thing that needed to be managed within car spaces to get traffic moving.

Our new Master Transportation Plan, however, prioritizes pedestrians for the first time, so we are working on changing these things. That said, Beg Buttons can still serve a purpose for system-wide traffic management in more pedestrian-oriented urban areas. They can assure that crossing times for wider roads are adequate for slower pedestrians when they are present, and not too long when they are not. They also make the audible crossing signal for the hearing impaired work better. As always, the devil is in the details.

In some places, we still have older Beg Buttons (even old-style small-button ones in place of the larger panel-type ones) in places where more modern treatments would be appropriate. These are being replaced as budgets allow on a priority basis. Every year, Transportation staff do a review of all  identified crossing improvement needs, place some draft priorities on them based on safety, potential to dovetail with bigger projects or adjacent development, and other factors. They pass that priority list through the Advisory Committee for Transit, Bicycles and Pedestrians, the Access Ability Advisory Committee, and the Neighbourhood Transportation Advisory Committee, then spend their budget making the changes. Sometimes that means curb bulges, marked cross walks, lighting changes or updating the signal operations. All of these things are ridiculously expensive, hence the need to set priorities.

In some places, the Beg Buttons will remain (although I hope we will eventually migrate all to the more accessible panel-type ones) because they are a useful tool. If well applied, they make crossing safer for pedestrians, especially in lower-pedestrian-traffic areas. However, when they are not well applied (as you point out a 6th and Carnarvon, and I can point out a few more in the City), they create an impression to pedestrians that are not a priority in our public spaces, and sometimes go so far as to create inconvenient barriers to pedestrians. Perhaps a good example is all of the crossings along Columbia Street in Downtown, where there is an almost constant east-west flow of pedestrians, and pedestrians should see the white walking guy every time cars get a green light.