Following up on the last Federal budget on Friday, March 17, Prime Minister Trudeau announced the launch of the $4 billion Housing Accelerator Fund (HAF) directed toward funding local governments across the country to fast-track the delivery of over 100,000 homes. As noted, “Local governments are now invited to develop innovative action plans, in line with the flexible criteria, to remove barriers to building more homes, faster.” The intention is to “… help cities, towns, and Indigenous governments unlock new housing supply by speeding up development and approvals, like fixing out-of-date permitting systems, introducing zoning reforms to build more density, or incentivizing development close to public transit. Local governments are encouraged to think big and be innovative in their approaches. They could be accelerating project timelines, allowing increased housing density, encouraging affordable housing units, and more.”
Local governments will access the HAF by submitting action plans to the feds as early as June of this year. The Prime Minister stated: “The boldest plans resulting in the most housing units, especially affordable units will be rewarded. This fund will adapt to local housing needs, it will be a flexible tool designed to help cities and communities unlock major new supply of housing, for example initiatives like updating permitting systems, tackling nimbyism, zoning reforms, transit oriented development”
The monies are certainly welcome as is the support for achieving the goals noted above and the efforts applied by all levels of government to address the housing supply challenge is commendable. The object of this and other funding is to effectively double the rate of construction for residential housing units. Again, a welcome and commendable goal, but as noted in Vancouver is Awesome, with comments from myself, the challenge will be to utilize these funds and other initiatives recently announced by the province in a focused and effective manner to affect meaningful change in a reasonable timeframe.
Since mid-December 2022, we have seen several announcements directed to housing including the Housing Supply Act focused on streamlining approvals and permitting, and holding local municipalities accountable for meeting targets under their Housing Needs Reports, with the potential for provincial intervention if targets are not met, or local government does not adopt a culture to expedite approvals and delivery of homes.
The Provincial Budget released on February 28, 2023, earmarked $4.3 billion with over $60 million specifically applied to reducing red tape, new zoning measures, and infrastructure. Then we have the $1 billion Growing Communities Fund (GCF) providing grants to local municipalities to build infrastructure, and amenities, and meet the needs of a growing population. Under the GCF Vancouver was granted $50 million, with other metro municipalities between $10 and $16 million, and Surrey as one of the fastest growing communities with $89 million – which was promptly applied to reduce the 2023 municipal tax increase.
The province announced on March 14, 2023, a new energy framework for the province focused on speeding up electrification, expediting LNG, and fast-tracking renewable energy followed later in the week with a $489 million pledge to support Translink, expand service, and increase density adjacent to upgraded transit corridors. All this money is great and for once it cannot be said that needed changes are not being funded.
At the same time, what can be expected from this tsunami of funding being made available? Not long-ago BC municipalities, including metro area local governments, received grants of as much as $500K directed to expedite approval and permits, and in the case of Vancouver an additional $1 million under the last council, l specifically for clearing backlogs and reducing wait times. While staff have made use of these funds and applied themselves, progress in unravelling what has evolved into a heavily layered, complex, and time-consuming system of review and approvals has been slow, and been difficult to discern meaningful changes and or improvements.
Most of the municipalities in the HAVAN catchment are undertaking some aspect of process review and affecting changes to reduce the time required for approvals and increase throughput, but there are many challenges, and being flooded with funding will not necessarily drive immediate and or impactful results. In the same way that our members are facing serious labour shortages so are the municipalities – more funding does not immediately “create” more qualified staff to apply to a sharply increasing volume of housing projects needed to “double” the output.
Within 21 local governments that HAVAN deals with, there is very little sharing of resources, or common threads or platforms being adopted to rationalize processing. While each jurisdiction is somewhat unique there are ‘low hanging’ initiatives that could be universally applied to realize immediate results such as retaining qualified professionals from the private sector to assist with plan reviews, and field inspections, bringing in retired inspectors, plans examiners or planners on a contract basis, paying overtime, eliminating redundancy and triaging referrals, adopting archetypical designs/plans, and “repeat” permit protocols, and/or finding the most efficient means to use the resources at hand.
At the same time we see efforts to support major changes in the process of delivering more homes, we are also coping with wave after wave of comprehensive and increasingly complex regulatory changes in the building codes, uneven and inconsistent local application of codes, layering of performance targets to support local climate action plans, shifting design guidelines, conflicting tree by-laws, and engineering standards/ capacity issues that serve to add time, and often confusion, to the ultimate approval of permits, and construction.
Additionally, while monies are being directed to local governments to streamline processes, government charges are being consistently and significantly increased and expanded, increasing financial obstacles, and eroding the certainty and viability of many projects as well as their affordability. Government charges have been estimated to account for 15 to 30% of the cost of housing to the end user, and with increasing ‘upfront’ costs that must be carried over extended timeframes in a high-interest rate environment, it impedes the effectiveness of these funding efforts.
All actions directed to reforming our planning reviews, zoning, and land use policies, expediting permits, etc., in order to support the effort to double our housing production require one thing that is not addressed by all of the monies being directed toward that end – a change of culture within government; a culture that is focused on meeting that common goal and is characterized by a collaborative effort between government and industry, complete with transparency, clear communication, consistent messaging, surety, and predictability. It requires recognition that heralding expedited timelines in one area while the process is still being choked in others does not move things forward. Silos need to be broken down and everyone needs to work to the common goal of resolving our housing crisis and treating this effort as an “all hands on deck” moment.
These funding initiatives together with changes being affected by federal, provincial, and local authorities have, and do, require the input and collaboration of industry. HAVAN, together with our provincial colleagues, have been engaged to a degree and extent we have never enjoyed before. It is extremely important for members to respond whenever we ask for your input – and it may seem lately there is much more being asked for, more often, but that is the nature of the shifting and rapidly evolving environment in which we are operating.
HAVAN continues to work with CHBA BC and CHBA to advocate for all levels of government to work together to address the challenges of the housing industry including zoning restrictions, density limits, and NIMBYism.
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QUICK BITES …
- The Broadway Plan approved in Vancouver last June was seen as being both transformative and ambitious in creating the opportunity to provide housing for as many as 50,000 new residents and employment opportunities for over 40,000 more jobs over 30 years adjacent to the rapid transit line. In the context of looking for a “can Do culture” staff is presenting a Pace of Change policy on March 29 that could see as few as five rental housing proposals per year. While a manageable pace is prudent, the focus needs to be on the maximum effort and opportunity, and the means to do as much as possible, as soon as possible.
- A growing concern, in the pursuit of the dramatic increase in housing supply and “gentle densification,” is centering on the capacities of infrastructure to accommodate these increasing loads. This includes storm and sanitary services, water services, and hydro. The problem is acute within urban boundaries seeking to increase densities in existing neigbourhoods with laneway or accessory dwelling units, but also is affecting growth in suburban areas where capacities are not available. The desire to de-carbonize and promote electrification is exasperating the situation, as is the specification by AHJ’s of unrealistic electrical loads that are expected to be met.
- The need to meet the energy requirements of more housing and affecting “green” plans including broad base electrification are addressed in this Province article from Vaugh Palmer that points out that much more capacity is required – and quickly.
- Michael Geller, Architect and developer in Vancouver provides some insight on the glossary of “urban planning language” that has become fashionable of late, and or their acronyms. This includes “missing middle” and “gentle densification.”
- The City of Calgary, in a move that aligns with the concepts embodied with the Housing Accelerator Fund, investigated lands owned by the city that could be used for residential developments. Of the 407 underused or surplus parcels owned by the city, only three were identified as being suitable. Many of the obstacles were of a “legal nature”, required modifications of designations, or were opposed by incumbent users. Once again … Can do culture?!?
- Please see the February 2023 BC Housing New Homes Registry Report on single, multi, and rental starts across BC with regional breakdowns and by housing type. Overall: no surprise the numbers are down.