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District of North Vancouver bracing for ‘sweeping change' in housing rules

Mandatory density, no more single-family zoning and a ban on public hearings are among the new provincial rules coming into effect this year
District of North Vancouver municipal hall. Cindy Goodman / North Shore News files

This story has been amended.

The District of North Vancouver is bracing for potentially sweeping changes on the horizon with new provincial housing legislation coming into effect this year.

Council members spent more than two and a half hours Feb. 12 parsing the foreseeable challenges, unintended consequences and potential benefits that may come with the Housing Supply Act, which comes into effect on June 30.

Among the changes coming under the new law: allowing multiplexes on single-family lots by right, minimum density near transit exchanges, and outlawing public hearings for residential developments that comply with the official community plan.

Director of planning Dan Milburn said the district is on pace to deliver more housing than the target number set by the province when the municipality was named to the so-called “naughty list” last year. But, he added, one of the most dramatic changes in the legislation is the requirement for municipalities to produce regular reports that include projected housing needs 20 years into the future with mandatory changes in zoning to accommodate the growing population.

“So, that is a sweeping change because it has been in the tradition of the District of North Vancouver and many other communities that projects are often reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and approval and official community plan implementation occurs in a stepwise fashion incrementally over time,” he said.

The new rules prescribe higher densities and heights for residential buildings near transit exchanges, which in the district’s case, means only Phibbs Exchange and Capilano University. Municipalities cannot reject new buildings of up to 12 storeys if they are within 200 metres of transit exchange or eight storeys if they are within 400 metres.

Council members quickly noted that much of the land around CapU and Phibbs would not be suited for development at all, let alone high-density housing. Properties inside the 400-m radius lines include the North Vancouver Cemetery, Highway 1, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) reserve land and industrial property, which is not subject to the new rules.

No more single-family zoning

Perhaps one of the changes that is the easiest to envision is allowing owners of most single-family lots to build multiplexes with up to four units, or six for larger lots. There will be exemptions for multiplexes on some lots based on physical hazards or heritage protection or if the zoning already allows secondary suites and coach houses, but if every one of the district’s roughly 20,000 single-family lots were to be rebuilt to the maximum permitted density, it could result in almost 80,000 new homes. Currently, about 100 to 150 single-family homes are redeveloped per year.

Who pays for development?

The legislation also drastically changes the way local governments capture some of the extra dollar value that comes with rezoning and use it to cover the costs of development on utilities, servicing, and for the new amenities a growing community needs. In the past, much of that was done through density bonusing –allowing extra density in exchange for cash or infrastructure from developers.

District CAO David Stuart said the new regime will ultimately be a shift away from most councils’ previous direction, which was to make new growth pay for new growth.

“This is shifting because the province believes that there’s tax room available and that the taxpayers can pay for it. I’m sorry, I’m being really blunt,” he said.

Other concerns raised by council over the meeting: compensation for tenants who are demovicted, the loss of councils’ ability to negotiate with developers to shape new projects and provide amenities, increased demands for parking, whether the North Vancouver RCMP and District of North Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services can keep up with a growing populace, and strain on local roads and Highway 1.

“I bet we still don’t get a new bridge,” said Coun. Lisa Muri. “Let’s put money on that.”

Milburn said district staff are still doing modelling on how the growing population will impact infrastructure and services.

Ultimately, municipal councils will have little discretion in whether to implement the rule changes.

Affordable housing debate persists

Council members’ responses to the staff presentation ranged from disgust to enthusiastic support, with most taking a nuanced position between the two.

“I don’t want to leave the impression that this is all bad in every way, shape or form. I want to see a variety of housing options in our community,” said Mayor Mike Little. “We don’t have a commitment from the provincial government for transit yet, we don’t have a commitment from the provincial government for a bridge yet.”

Before the meeting wrapped, council members got into a familiar debate about whether any of the new supply would achieve affordability.

Little expressed doubt that it would, so long as immigration brings record numbers of people looking for homes

“With that kind of government-created demand, if there isn’t a corresponding government-created affordability plan and housing plan, then it’s not going to get more affordable,” he said.

Coun. Jordan Back acknowledged the controversial nature of the Housing Supply Act, but added that some change was obviously needed when, amid a housing crisis, land use has remained so skewed toward single-family homes.

“This is not going to deliver affordable housing in the sense of non-market housing. But we’ve been making the most expensive form of housing in our community the easiest to build for many, many years,” he said. “I’ve got concerns. I don’t necessarily think this is the right approach. But I can tell you … the status quo that we’ve seen over the last several decades has not delivered the sort of housing that people need. So, I applaud the province for taking a move and we can sit here and criticize all we want, but the reality is they’re taking some action. And that’s more than most previous governments can say.”

Municipalities have until June 30 to harmonize their planning processes and bylaws with the provincial legislation.

This story has been updated to correct an error in the distance for higher density housing near transit exchanges and to clarify exemptions for small scale multi-family housing on single-family lots.