Controversial proposal to fast-track social housing towers heads to Vancouver council

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More than 100 people have signed up to speak to a controversial proposal that could see multi-storey social housing projects fast-tracked in some Vancouver neighbourhoods.

Coun. Christine Boyle has proposed a motion that would allow the approval of non-profit or co-op housing projects of up to 12 storeys without a lengthy public hearing process.

It comes a month after council approved a plan allowing the same sped-up process for non-profit projects up to six storeys.

“I’m proposing that we make it easier to build a height that makes sense for each project, up to 12 storeys,” Boyle told Global News.

“What we’re likely to see is not a massive increase in the number of buildings, but it will make a difference where there are existing or co-op housing, older buildings that need to be redeveloped anyway, that those projects would have the flexibility to build to a height that makes the most sense for them.”

The proposal would apply to areas that are zoned RM-3A, RM-4, and RM-4N — lower-density multi-family housing — and mostly in the Kitsilano, Marpole, Grandview-Woodland, Mount Pleasant and Fairview.

Boyle argues that many non-profit housing buildings in those areas are nearing the end of their lifespan, and that allowing the taller buildings will give their operators greater certainty and the ability to fund more social housing.

But the proposal has drawn criticism for a number of reasons, not least of which is the city’s own definition of “social housing.”

In order to qualify for that definition, 30 per cent of the units in a development must be held at subsidized rates for low income people.

That’s a concern for Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods co-chair Larry Benge, who said the market rentals that make up the rest of the project — along with the height of the buildings themselves — will drive neighbourhood rents up.

“Those will be absolutely threatened, even though the proponents have stated no, there will be no effect on surrounding land values,” he said.

“You’ve got your head in the sand if you think it’s not going to have any influence on that.”

Benge is also upset that the project would excise public consultation from developments on a case-by-case basis.

“The idea of promoting 12-storey buildings without any citizen recourse or public engagement and comment and decision making, sharing in the neighbourhoods that are directly affected by these buildings,” he said.

Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, said parts of the proposal remain ambiguous and leave key questions unanswered.

“What is actually going into, or whom is being housed in that possible 12 storeys?” he asked.

“How do you drift into that very specific number?”

Yan said the proposal does not map out what kind of units would be built in the buildings, nor does it tackle Vancouver’s nebulous definition of social housing.

“There is this concern about a kind of spray-and-pray density in Vancouver. Will this density only result in studios and one bedrooms as opposed to the types of units that are going to support and allow for families to flourish in Vancouver?”

Boyle said she’s confident in the city’s existing requirements for family-sized units within developments, which she argued non-profits already tend to exceed in their projects.

And she stressed the changes would only apply to non-profit housing operators, which she believes will prevent land speculation.

“There’s no profit to be made from the building, so any units that are at market rent subsidize the deeper affordability of other units,” she said.

“They can’t be a private developer, it can’t be earning anyone any profit.”

While council was set to begin hearing speakers Wednesday evening, no final decision on the idea will be made soon.

If council approves the motion, the proposal would be sent back to city staff — then head back to council in the fall for a public hearing.

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