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Les Leyne: Housing debate squelched, but arguments will rage

Get ready for pitched battles on countless urban blocks as new housing is shoehorned in by decree.
A view of Victoria’s Inner Harbour from the B.C. legislature. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The NDP government has slammed the legislature door on arguments about the major housing initiatives announced this week.

Debate on the two bills and various other laws has been curtailed to a ludicrous degree — just a few hours — in order to maintain Premier David Eby’s man of action persona. Opposition MLAs are being cut off in mid-sentence, which is becoming standard end-of-session practice for the NDP.

But squelching the arguments out in B.C.’s neighbourhoods isn’t going to be as easy. Get ready for pitched battles on countless urban blocks as new housing is shoehorned in by decree. Brace for intense arguments at thousands of strata council meetings as residents realize their control over their homes has changed significantly.

Even so, Eby will be insulated to some extent from the arguments that will develop as the full extent of the bills becomes apparent. The particularly cunning aspect of the master plan is that there are already circuit breakers in place to shield him from much of the direct heat.

They’re called municipal councillors. Some of those new councillors sworn in after municipal elections are going to be facing a lot more arguments than they expected when they ran for office.

Eby’s goals are worthy and he’s on theoretical solid ground in deciding to break up the logjams that contributed to the housing crisis and allow as much new construction as possible.

But theory is one thing and real world is another. The changes, by definition, hit people where they live. Local councils are going to be shunted into a lot of development decisions where they face a choice of approving projects and facing neighbours’ outrage, or rejecting them and being investigated and overridden by the provincial government.

Mayors are going to have to explain “we had no choice” to all the NIMBYs who routinely raise hell at public hearings. They’re not going to take it well.

There’s a similar shock absorber for Eby’s government in the changes regarding condos. It will be strata councils that have to deal with the in-your face complaints, not whoever Eby names housing minister next month.

As laid out this week, firm new housing targets will be set for specified municipalities. And it won’t be local councils setting them; it will be the provincial government, after some consultation.

Then, local councils will have to file progress reports, with explanations if the targets are missed. If the explanations don’t cut it, “advisers” will be sent in to examine their housing decisions.

They have the latitude to offer advice and even recommend financial help. A new fund will be set up to dole it out. But the new law is clear on how the hammer can come down. If councils are not getting it done, the housing minister will do it for them.

(There’s also an attempted cut-out to forestall court challenges.)

The condo changes are just as dramatic. Barring people with children is being outlawed. Rental restrictions on 300,000 older units (pre-2010) across B.C. are being removed. Almost 3,000 of those are empty, according to government calculations.

Eby said it is unacceptable that renters can’t find homes and many condo owners can’t rent them out. The legislation will ensure “every housing unit is used to its maximum potential.”

“It’s equally unacceptable that a young couple (that) decides to start a family has to start searching for a new home, because that strata has a rule that everybody who lives in the unit has to be 19 or older.”

It’s a sound policy, but it is a wrenching change for many. Victoria Mayor Marianne Alto was on hand to support the announcement, but she acknowledged: “Change is hard. Are we going to have difficult conversations about the future? Absolutely.

“Victoria is not going to be the same city in another 10 years, let alone another 30. We have to be able to manage change.”

She said everyone who ran for council heard constantly about housing concerns.

“There was no time in the last years when we haven’t heard people desperate for housing across the city.”

The NDP dodged a lot of political scrutiny by jamming the bills through with minimal debate. But the neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood arguments over the next few years will more than make up for that.

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