So Where is the Affordable Housing?
City Conversation # 47: Guess how many rezoning housing projects have been started and completed since the last civic elections?…it’s less than 10.
April 25, 2022—I’ve done a deep dive into my Homes for Whom database in order to answer the simple question in this post’s title.
Five completed housing projects—read the numbers and weep
“Surely there are more affordable home projects completed than that!” my son exclaimed as he (once again) looked over my shoulder. “How is that even possible?”
“That’s what I thought as well,” I responded. “I double checked the numbers because I couldn’t believe it was that few—but perhaps that explains a few anomalies as well as citizen anger.”
He knows me well enough to know that if he just stares at me, I’ll continue with my analysis.
“I’m kicking myself that it took me this long to see what’s been staring me in the face ever since I set up the Homes for Whom (HFW) database because I couldn’t get housing data from the city.”
“So what was the breakthrough?” he asked.
“I was chatting about spot rezoning with friends the other evening.” He rolled his eyes, no doubt thinking there’s got to be better things to talk about! I continued.
“One of them mentioned, Where’s all this affordable housing, anyway? Council has been at it for more than three years and there seems to be nothing to show for it!” The proverbial lightbulb went off for me. I wasn’t sure of the numbers, so I went back to my HFW database, realizing I had left out three key bits of data:
Which completed rezonings with Development Permits (DPs) have applied for building permits?
Of those, which have actually had permits issued?
How many have been completed?
So I added three new columns covering those data. Here’s where it got gruelling,” I paused.
“Okay, I’ll bite,” he responded, “why did things get gruelling?”
“Well,” I continued, “I had already divided the 384 spot rezoning projects since the current City Council started, separating those that were still in progress from those where the spot rezoning was complete.” He nodded understanding so I continued.
“Of the 384, 198 have been approved by Council, so we’re already down by almost exactly 1/2. But I had to analyze the actual construction of those 198.” I paused, took in a deep breath. “This meant I had to check each of those 198 addresses against another, different city database for building permits in order to find out what activity, if any, has occurred after approval of a spot rezoning.”
I continued. “Of the 198 spot rezonings already approved by this Council, 90 have had no further applicant action as yet—that’s 45%, almost half.”
He knitted his brows, asked, “what’s happening with that 1/2?”
“Various things,” I responded:
60% of the total, or 54 rezonings, occurred in 2021 or later, so it’s a bit early to expect construction work to have started on them.
36 of 90, or 40%, were completed before 2021 but have had no further action, except demolition and possible property resale.”
“How many potential homes are in that 40% of spot rezonings that have had no action since 2020?” he asked the obvious question.
“Quite a few,” I answered. “There are a total of 4,725 rezoned homes that have approved zoning, but for which the applicant has done nothing further—14% are social housing, 24% are market rental, the remaining 62% are strata for sale.”
He asked his next question.”So about 100 of these spot rezonings have had some kind of action since their approval. How does that pencil out?”
“Excellent questions!” I answered, “Those look like this:
52, almost exactly 50%, have had one or more building permits applied for but not issued as yet;
48, or 44% of the approved spot rezoning projects, have had one or more of their building permits issued.”
He interrupted. “Why all the time delays in there? I mean, only 1/2 have building permits even applied for!”
“Good questions as always,” I responded. “The time between an approved rezoning and a building permit application for these spot rezoning projects ranges from a few months to more than three years. Some of that will be the time it takes for project documents to move from rezoning quality to issued-for-construction quality.” He nodded, remembering one summer job where he was exposed to that.
“What’s harder for me to understand,” I continued, “is why it’s taking an average of 59 weeks—that’s more than a year—to get a project’s first permit issued after an application is made.”
“But aren’t many of these projects pretty complex?” he asked the obvious question.
“Yes,” I answered, “BUT most of these projects are done using the city’s Certified Professional (CP) Program. That means, usually, that the first permit for a complex project is just for excavation and shoring. Most of these projects don’t yet have their permits to build above ground level.”
He looked shocked, asked, “A year and more to get a permit,” I added in, “46 weeks on average between receiving a spot rezoning and even applying for a permit.” He continued after a bit of mental math. “That’s an average of two years to get from an approved spot rezoning to the first shovels in the ground! No wonder we can’t get any housing of any kind built in this city!”
I smiled, sadly. “You forgot your first question, when you looked over my shoulder where my subtitle said less than 10 rezoning projects have been completed. Do you want to know the exact numbers?” He winced, but nodded.
“Since the current Council was elected, only five projects they have rezoned have been completed, for a total of 684 homes, of which only 118, less than 20%, are rental.”
“Neighbourhoods and ordinary citizens get blamed for the lack of supply, yet it’s taking an average of three years after rezoning to get a project’s construction started. That’s not the neighbours. That’s city staff in planning and building permit processing. So if the provincial government wants to speed up the process of housing delivery, let them start at City Hall, rather than blaming it on citizens and eliminating the public hearing part of the rezoning process!”
Calls to Action
The fight over ODP override legislation, mentioned above, is for another day.
Vancouver’s civic election is in late October of this year. Lots of damage can be done by the current Council, city management and staff before that date—and it will continue, and worsen, unless TEAM for a Livable Vancouver elects a majority (6 of 10) City Councillors—less than 6 and not much will change. If you are concerned that what you’ve just read is an example of what’s wrong with our city, and want to bring back its livability, join TEAM and work with us to restore Vancouver as a place we can all afford to call home.
Today’s questions: Do you think the building permitting processes at City Hall need improvement? Yes or no?
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Brian Palmquist is a Vancouver-based architect, building envelope and building code consultant and LEED Accredited Professional (the first green building system). He is semi-retired for the moment, still teaching and writing, so not beholden to any client or city hall. These conversations mix real discussion with research and observations based on a 40+ year career including the planning, design and construction of almost every type and scale of project. He is the author of the Amazon best seller “An Architect’s Guide to Construction.” He is also a member of TEAM for a livable Vancouver, a new political party dedicated to restoring a livable Vancouver starting with the 2022 civic election. City Conversations are generally congruent with TEAM policy, so if you like the ideas that I’m writing about, please consider joining TEAM.