British Columbia

Why rental-only zoning isn't coming to your municipality anytime soon

In the two months since the B.C. government passed legislation allowing municipalities to zone areas of land for rental-only housing, no city has taken up the offer — and it may be a while before they do.

'This is a great tool … but there is still a lot of unknown,' says Maple Ridge mayor

Vancouver's West End is full of rental apartments, but if a strata agrees to sell and vacate, there's nothing stopping a developer from replacing it with a condominium (David Horemans/CBC)

In the two months since the B.C. government passed legislation allowing municipalities to zone areas of land for rental-only housing, no city has taken up the offer — and it may be a while before they do.

"We're going to be monitoring this closely over the coming months and years so that it's meeting the needs of local governments," Eric Nicholls, manager of planning and land use for the ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing told Metro Vancouver's housing committee Friday.

Under legislation passed in May 2018, municipalities can either zone undeveloped land for rental housing, mandate a certain percentage of units on any piece of undeveloped property to be rental, or force existing rental properties to remain rental only after redevelopment.

The legislation is aimed at persuading municipalities in B.C. to build much-needed rental housing.

However, Nicholls said that while a few municipalities had expressed interest in using the new powers, those requests have so far only come from staff.

Following his presentation, councillors and mayors expressed different reasons why they were being cautious in using the legislation. 

Might come in 2019

"This is a great tool … but there is still a lot of unknown," said Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read, who said she was worried developers wouldn't want to build in rental zones because of the "onerous" process for landlords. 

Burnaby councillor Colleen Jordan said developers might move projects to municipalities where they could build without restrictions on ownership.

"If each individual city starts responding differently without some collective view of how we're going to use this, you're going to have a lot of headaches," said Jordan.

Surrey councillor Judy Villeneuve said property owners would get "pretty nervous" if their properties are designated for future uses. "They see it as downsizing when you apply rental," Villeneuve said.

She said she was unaware the province had passed the legislation.

New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté said he wanted assurances from the province that his municipality would not face legal challenges if current purpose-built rentals were rezoned. 

"Municipalities need to ensure they have the protection, that they're not faced with lawsuits for compensation when this is applied," Coté said.

"In 2019, after we've got a better understanding of what the tool is about, and confidence the municipality would be protected against any claims, I think New West would be very interested in exploring this," he said.

A new report from Andy Yan, director of The City Program at SFU, shows Vancouver has the biggest difference between median incomes and median home prices in any Canadian or American metropolitan area. (Andy Yan)

Turning around a ship

The meeting came on the same day that Andy Yan, director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University, released new data that showed Metro Vancouver had the highest ratio of median housing values to median household incomes of any metropolitan area in Canada or the United States, as of 2016. 

"We need both affordable housing, but also economic development. The story used to be just about affordable housing, but we're also going to need to consider economic development."

But Yan was sympathetic to local politicians taking their time to assess new tools like rental-only zoning. 

"How do we turn around a ship? This is a question of tack, and direction for the region, that we followed a very specific course for the last couple of decades, which was focused at the development of a certain type of housing," he said.

"There's a public demand in terms of changing the tack, but how you steer a ship, it takes time and distance to steer it, by the fact we have such a large region."

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