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Proposed legislation introduced by the B.C. NDP on Wednesday will force municipalities to green-light multi-unit housing on single-family lots whether they like it or not. It will also legalize secondary suites or laneway homes in all B.C. communities.

“These changes will help streamline the local government development approval process and ensure that more homes can be built in the right places and faster,” Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon said in the legislature as he introduced the NDP’s latest housing bill, which is expected to pass before the end of the fall session.

Developers will be allowed to replace a single-family home with up to six units in neighbourhoods close to transit stops or up to four units on other lots. For lots farther away from transit stops, three units can be built on a parcel of 280 square metres or less and four units can be built on a lot larger than 280 sq. m.

The government’s hope is that flooding the market with more units, either to own or rent, will bring down the cost of housing in cities where middle-class families have been priced-out.

However, housing researchers who have studied the strategy in New Zealand and the U.S. are divided over whether it will temper hot real estate markets, pointing to evidence that while such polices can bring down rental prices through increased supply, it also inflates land prices as homeowners jockey to sell to the highest-bidding developer.

During a news conference Wednesday, Kahlon told reporters that while it’s likely single-family lots will increase in value, the individual townhouse unit in a multi-unit project will be more accessible to a family who can’t afford a single-family home but want more space than a condo.

The legislation, if passed, means municipal planning departments will have to green-light multi-unit projects as long as they meet certain parameters around building size and setback.

However, the legislation was short on details about size, height restrictions, parking and lot coverage, which housing advocates say will be key to the success or failure of the policy. Kahlon said those details will be released through regulations after the bill becomes law.

Robert Berry of the pro-density group Homes for Living worries that unless the legislation sets progressive minimum guidelines around size and setbacks, “there’s a huge opportunity here for municipal NIMBYism essentially to poison-pill the legislation.” Berry worries municipalities will be able to set their own setbacks that are so restrictive that it would essentially kill multi-unit projects.

Kahlon said the province has learned from the “challenges” faced by the City of Victoria, the first B.C. municipality to bring in a so-called missing-middle policy, and will ensure the land use guidelines are flexible enough to spur development.

The City of Victoria amended its policy in September following criticism that the first iteration was too restrictive and, as a result, it garnered only three development applications in the first six months of the program.

Former Victoria mayor Lisa Helps, a key architect of the original missing-middle policy, is working in the premier’s office as a housing adviser. She’s focused on the government’s below market housing plan, B.C. Builds.

Municipalities with existing missing-middle policies — Victoria, Vancouver, Kelowna and Kimberley — will be allowed to keep their bylaws as long as they meet the minimum guidelines set out by the province.

The proposed rules will apply to municipalities with a population of 5,000 or more. Municipalities will have to update their bylaws by June 30, 2024, to reflect the province’s standards.

The legislation will eliminate the need to hold public hearings for multi-unit projects, which are often delayed by months or years because of a snails-pace bureaucratic process. The exception to that rule is Vancouver, which is governed by the Vancouver Charter and doesn’t have the same availability for public input around the official community plan.

Berry said he’s happy to see the legislation clearly state that projects compliant with the official community plan will not have to go through public hearings, a process he said has been “weaponized” by homeowners opposed to density.

“There’s been a long tradition of insider busybodies killing housing in B.C.,” he said. “It’s extremely toxic and it’s exactly why we’ve ended up in a massive housing crisis.”

Premier David Eby has previously expressed frustration when badly needed housing projects are voted down by city councillors in response to vocal opposition from a relatively small number of neighbours concerned about parking or shadows. Eby has often cited the controversial supportive housing development on Arbutus Street as an example of delays caused by well-organized neighbourhood groups.

Kahlon has said in shaping the policy that the government looked at other jurisdictions that have legalized density in residential neighbourhoods, including California and Auckland, New Zealand.

Auckland in 2016 removed single-detached zoning and allowed three units on a single-family lot. The B.C. government cited research that showed Auckland’s change led to the creation of more than 20,000 additional new homes over five years and led to slower rent increases than the rest of the country.

The latest housing bill is part of the trend under Eby of a more muscular provincial government that will not shy away from ordering municipalities to pick up the pace when it comes to approving housing.

In September, the government introduced housing targets that municipalities will have to meet in order to build a combined 60,000 net new housing units in B.C. within five years.

Story by: Vancouver Sun