British Columbia

1 year after B.C. introduced rental-only zoning tool, just 1 city has used it (and it's being sued)

Last April, British Columbia's new rental-only zoning legislation was heralded by Housing Minister Selina Robinson as "a powerful tool to deliver homes people can afford."

Lawsuit against New Westminster could be causing delays as other municipalities monitor its progress

The rental-only zoning legislation introduced by the B.C. government in April 2018 was part of its 30-point housing plan. (CP)

What a difference a year makes — or doesn't. 

Last April, British Columbia's new rental-only zoning legislation was heralded by Housing Minister Selina Robinson as "a powerful tool to deliver homes people can afford."

But so far, just one municipality has taken direct action, one corresponding lawsuit has been filed, and plenty of mayors are giving reasons why it isn't being used in their jurisdiction. 

"It is disappointing," said Karen Sawatzky, a longtime renters' advocate and former chair of Vancouver's Renters Advisory Committee.

The legislation allows municipalities: 

  • to enact zoning requiring new housing in residential areas be rental-only
  • to ensure existing rental housing is "preserved as such" 
  • to demand that a certain number of units in a new development be rental 

'Takes time to change official community plans' 

Different municipalities are giving different reasons why they haven't moved forward. 

"It takes time to change official community plans, and then subsequently change some of the zones, and that's the approach that we've taken," said District of North Vancouver Mayor Mike Little. 

Little said he was hopeful that process would result in rental-only zoning around town-centre sites, particularly for buildings that are already used for that purpose.

"I think one of the advantages of rental-only zoning is that it will take take the target off of the back of a lot of the existing purpose-built rental zoning in our community," he said.  

"Where you're going to find true affordability is properly maintaining the existing stock in our community."

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said that if rental-only zoning is introduced, it would likely be along the Broadway corridor at first.

Lawsuit in New West

The first municipality to employ the tool was New Westminster, which is already facing legal action by the owners of the six aging apartment buildings that were rezoned in January. 

"I think [our] situation was very specific to a very unique situation, where we had rental buildings that actually had been previously stratified," said New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté.

"I think we had a very good reason why we wanted to move quickly to prevent evictions and the rent evictions in our community. But I think more long-term users of the policy are going to take more time." 

The lawsuit could be causing further delays as other municipalities see how it progresses.

Earlier this month, the City of Richmond referred a motion that would rezone 60 existing rental properties back to staff for more public consultation. And Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said his staff would be monitoring the New Westminster case. 

"I don't think that you, again, just rush to use a new tool just because you have it," Stewart said, suggesting that the city would explore rental-only zoning for the Broadway corridor. 

Negative Metro Van report

Sawatzky believes municipalities should go beyond considering rental-only zoning for just existing stock, and use the tool in conjunction with upzoning areas of cities that only allow single-family homes. 

But a report presented to Metro Vancouver last week argued against that idea. 

"New density combined with housing agreements is more effective than rental tenure zoning for creating new affordable rental supply," said a report produced by Coriolis Consulting Corp. for Metro Vancouver's Regional Planning Committee. 

The report — which looked at how to facilitate more affordable rental construction in Metro Vancouver — concluded that new buildings would require very high densities to support land value equal to existing use.   

In addition, the report noted that "rental tenure zoning does not specify rent … any new projects are likely to be at market rates." 

Whether Metro Vancouver municipalities heed the report's advice remain to be seen. In the meantime, advocates of the rental zoning legislation continue to wait. 

"We need more space to build rental housing, and I don't really understand what the problem is, or what the holdup is," Sawatzky said.

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