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B.C. city planners en route to densifying single-family home neighbourhoods

A B.C. government plan to impose zoning policies on municipalities aims to densify detached-home neighbourhoods across the province. But many cities are already on their way to doing so.
Detached single-family housing in Victoria. The missing-middle housing initiative aims to increase housing options available on the spectrum between single-family and apartment and condo towers. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

A recently announced provincial government plan to impose sweeping changes to densify single-family detached home neighbourhoods, by usurping the zoning powers of municipal councils, may have ruffled some feathers and raised logistical questions; however, many cities have already begun the process through so-called “infill housing” and “gentle densification” policies.

The province’s Homes for People plan, announced April 3 by Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon and Premier David Eby, intends to seize certain restrictive zoning powers from municipalities, with those that have yet to launch their own neighbourhood densification plans to be most affected.

Details of the Homes for People plan are presently scant, as the government says legislation this fall is intended to apply to “many areas of the province” to allow “up to” four units on a detached home property, or as many as six units if the property is “well-served” by transit. And, all municipal councils will no longer be allowed to restrict secondary suites.

“We are in the early days in our considerations of this,” Jessica Brooks, executive director of planning and land use management at the province, told city planners and politicians at a Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) housing conference April 5 in downtown Vancouver.

Coquitlam, Victoria and Saanich on path to 'missing middle' housing ahead of 'Homes for People'

While some municipalities will be more impacted that others, UBCM organizers introduced planners from Coquitlam, Saanich and Victoria who have already launched their respective plans to provide more secondary suites, townhouses and stratified duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes on lots previously zoned for single-family detached homes — such housing is dubbed “small-scale multi-unit housing” or “missing middle homes” in planners’ lingo.

These plans have typically taken years of public consultation, a matter that may no longer be required depending on how sweeping the provincial policy becomes.

Andrew Merrill, Coquitlam’s director of development services, told UBCM of how the city is well under way to densifying tracts of detached-home zones in a move that’s seen both open arms and pushback from residents.

Merill said the underlying concern during public consultation is how detached-home lots have become too expensive for working families and children are emptying from neighbourhoods.

Merrill suggested the Homes for People plan could reduce barriers imposed by public consultations.

“I joke, it’s easier to build a 40-storey tower next to a SkyTrain station than it is to build a duplex in a neighbourhood,” he said.

Another question is how the neighbourhood will look and feel, Merrill said, as cities consider trade-offs to pre-zoning and some of the perils that brings, such as community amenity funding and more nuanced matters such as road cuts.

“How do you want your neighbourhood to evolve? It has to evolve; how will that look like?” he tells residents.

The Homes for People plan is essentially pre-zoning imposed on cities and “it’s clear there are site-level considerations we are going to have to take into account,” said Brooks.

In places where Coquitlam has changed its zoning to allow more multi-unit developments, developers, builders and homeowners have responded positively, said Merrill, as detached homes represent just two per cent of all current residential building applications, whereas they once represented 53 per cent of applications between 2011 and 2019. The most popular choice today, at 40 per cent of files, is the quadplex, said Merrill.

Next to Merrill on a conference panel was Andrea Hudson, Victoria’s assistant director of community planning, who described that city’s policies as being further along the so-called “missing middle” policy road than Coquitlam’s.

Last January, Victoria approved its Missing Middle Housing regulations, allowing up to six homes on an average residential lot.

Hudson said the provincial plan could benefit planners “so as not to rely on zoning on a case-by-case basis.”

Hudson suggested the provincial laws will need to consider matters such as tenant assistance, in the event a development displaces a renter; as well as architectural (aesthetic) considerations — a concern that was raised throughout Victoria’s public consultation process.

Hudson noted cities will need to consider how a neigbourhood transformation occurs; however, as new home forms may differ from lot to lot.

A third planner, Pam Hartling, the District of Saanich housing planning and policy manager, also told of how her municipality was embarking on neighbourhood densification plans.

“Currently, Saanich is setting the foundation for infill housing,” said Hartling, acknowledging the district’s nascent “neighbourhood homes study” is not as developed as Coquitlam’s, to date, and follows in Victoria's footsteps.

Aside from these three mid-sized municipalities, Brooks noted the City of Vancouver is in the public consultation phase of planning to allow six units on one detached lot, considered an “infill” zoning policy.

The provincial plan received criticism from Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, a defender of single-family detached home zoning; although that city too has taken limited steps to densify, by allowing more townhomes on arterial roads where detached zoning once existed.

At the conference, Brooks heard feedback from Qualicum Beach councillor Scott Harrison, who said the provincial plan should include all communities.

Harrison said small towns such as Qualicum Beach face restrictions and pushback on infill housing, citing an example whereby a duplex application was disallowed due to concerns about community aesthetics.

“No communities should be able to escape it,” said Harrison.

The conference heard from Tom Davidoff, real estate economist from the UBC Sauder School of Business, who noted it is the incumbent property owner who stands to benefit most financially from sweeping up-zoning policies, particularly if councils do not claw back density bonus fees in order to pay for public amenities and infrastructure needed for a growing population.

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