Eby’s housing plan ambitious, but unclear for rural communities

Written By Rob Shaw

David Eby’s new housing plan is the most ambitious attempt at tackling the housing affordability crisis in B.C. in the last two decades — though what parts of the province will actually benefit remains an open question.

Some of Eby’s planks focus exclusively on urban B.C., including a proposal to automatically up-zone all single family homes to allow for triplexes, in a bid to boost density by overruling municipal red tape and zoning delays.

The idea is confined to “homebuilders in major urban centers,” according to his BC NDP leadership campaign policy document.

Expedited building process

“So that that commitment is specifically about the province working with municipalities in urban areas – because there are challenges around water and septic in more rural areas – but working with municipalities in urban areas where there is this kind of demand to set up an expedited process,” Eby said at his housing policy platform launch Sept. 27.

It will be the same process for a single family house as it will be for up to three units on the same footprint, he said.

“It needs to be as easy to build more affordable housing as it is to build the least affordable housing available.”

David Eby

It’s not entirely clear what qualifies as “major urban centres,” but presumably Metro Vancouver, Greater Victoria, Nanaimo, Kelowna, Kamloops and Prince George would make the cut.

In the rest of B.C., as Eby acknowledged, putting a triplex on a single-family lot would strain the hydro, water and sewer (likely septic field) systems by tripling the number of people living on the lot.

Municipalities are responsible for footing the bill to expand those systems, and doing so in a dramatic way could also lead to potentially dramatic property tax hikes for local citizens.

Funding linked to housing targets

Outside of the single family home proposal, the Eby plan would legalize secondary suites across the province. It would also link provincial funding for transit, parks and other services to whether a municipality is meeting its targets to build the right amount of housing as quickly as demand requires, through a local housing-needs plan.

Those that fail to do so will face provincial “intervention,” his policy document warns.

“I think he’s making the assumption every municipality is fighting housing.”

Lori Ackerman

Those encroachments into what’s traditionally been the exclusive zoning domain of municipal and regional governments may play well in some large urban communities, where councils get deadlocked for years on projects and housing experts have been calling for the province to bigfoot them out of the way and take the lead on executing solutions.

But in rural B.C., the proposals can land with a slightly different take.

“I think he’s making the assumption every municipality is fighting housing,” Fort St. John mayor Lori Ackerman said in an interview.

Different infrastructure pressures

“For example, we recognize that we need to offer a different set of housing options and so we’re looking at mixed-use downtown. Well, our downtown is very old, the infrastructure cannot support building up because the B.C. building code requires sprinkler systems, so we have to do that upgrade to the infrastructure to provide that water pressure. 

“This is our third year working on it, we’ve got another probably three years to go to get the whole 100th (street corridor area) done.”

Would Eby’s plan penalize Fort St. John for not meeting its housing targets as it scrambles to upgrade… (infrastructure)?

Would Eby’s plan penalize Fort St. John for not meeting its housing targets as it scrambles to upgrade the far less visible supports for housing of below-ground water, sanitary and storm sewer systems? That’s also unclear.

The same concern arises with the Eby proposal to make secondary suites legal across the province. In smaller communities, they are often opposed due to parking and infrastructure issues.

“We do have secondary suites but they are defined in such a way that you need to have a certain sized lot because you need to have the parking,” said Ackerman.

“We don’t have the transit system that some urban areas have… I could take you for a drive through an area where secondary suites have been put in illegally and honestly if our fire truck had to go down that street in the middle of winter they would probably take off the mirrors of half of the vehicles parked on that street.”

“Incentives rather than regulations”

Ackerman called for “incentives rather than regulations” for smaller communities.

Eby mentioned “working with municipalities to set targets around how many housing units they can approve, and providing them with the infrastructure support they need” — but his platform did not say whether that’s provincial cash for what have traditionally been the municipal expenses of expanding water, sewer, roads and hydro.

“There are components that are definitely more for urban areas like Vancouver, Metro Vancouver, South Vancouver Island, Kelowna Regional District,” said Eby, when describing his platform.

Same crisis, different reasons

“And there are also components for rural communities. In my travels across the province, it hasn’t mattered — people in the smallest communities, people in the largest communities, are facing this housing crisis. It is for different reasons. 

“When I am in a smaller community, they say we just don’t have a developer that builds multifamily housing. In large communities like Vancouver, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone complain that we don’t have enough developers. 

“The challenges are different in different communities, but the experience of families is the same.”

DAvid Eby

“And so the challenges are different in different communities, but the experience of families is the same. And so the plan speaks to both urban and rural experience and it is not a Vancouver plan, a North Vancouver Plan, a Kelowna plan, a Prince Rupert plan – it is a provincial plan.”

Generally, the housing plan has earned a lot of praise since its launch. 

But New Democrats have notoriously ignored most of rural B.C. for their first five years in power. Eby has some work to do to bring along the rest of the province, outside Metro Vancouver, as he crafts his vision for B.C.’s future.