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Rob Shaw: Prepare for the province to bigfoot municipalities on housing

Premier David Eby took great pains Monday to emphasize that his new housing legislation was part of a “collaborative” process with municipalities, with ample room for “cooperation” and “negotiation” with mayors and local councils over housing targets
Eby thinks that a solution to the housing crisis is raising sales taxes on homes sold within the first two years of ownership | Photo: Rob Kruyt

Premier David Eby took great pains Monday to emphasize that his new housing legislation was part of a “collaborative” process with municipalities, with ample room for “cooperation” and “negotiation” with mayors and local councils over housing targets.

But, when you read the actual bill, you get a much different picture of what’s happening: The Eby administration intends to kick ass and chew bubble gum when it comes to dealing with slow-moving cities on housing – and, as the saying goes, it’s all out of gum.

Eby followed through on his long-promised threat, that municipalities will be required to build enough housing, and the right types of housing, to meet the targets in their “housing needs” reports.

If they do, the province has money available in an amenity fund to help pay for local parks, bike lanes and other community improvements.

If they don’t, the new bill allows Eby’s cabinet to not only force the approval of certain housing projects (think large condos that may have been rejected), but also rezone entire neighbourhoods to increase density, bypassing the local council, public hearings and not-in-my-backyard neighbourhood groups entirely.

“It does create the ability for the executive council, for cabinet, to make an order ultimately for a city to do any one of these things, to approve a building, to rezone an area, and so on, but my hope is that we never have to use that,” Eby said when I asked him about it Monday.

“That is not what this bill is about. This bill is about building that framework so we never get to that place.”

The “framework” Eby speaks about is that the government promises to consult with municipalities before overriding them, and also to appoint a special adviser to identify any red tape and roadblocks before cabinet intervenes.

The government thinks eight to 10 municipalities will be targeted next year with specific housing goals, but would not say which ones. Vancouver is a safe bet to be on that list.

Reaction was split into two camps.

The Union of BC Municipalities expressed concern at the thought of its members getting pushed around by the province.

“This marks a significant shift away from the form of local democracy envisaged in the Community Charter in which municipal councils are seen as democratically elected, autonomous, responsible and accountable, established and continued by the will of the residents of their communities,” read its notice to members.

But some mayors, who are fighting to increase density and facing uprisings by neighbourhood groups, welcomed the move.

“Premier, I look forward to working with you on this important file, I urge my colleagues across BC to do the same,” said Victoria Mayor Marianne Alto, who accompanied the new premier at the announcement.

“I know we can meet your expectations for additional affordable housing because we must meet those expectations because they are the expectations of our residents and our residents-to-be.”

Eby’s housing minister (for now, anyway) Murray Rankin said the legislation serves notice that it is no longer acceptable for municipalities to reject housing projects for things like how a building will cast a shadow on neighbours, or how its parking lot will generate noise. It was a direct shot at the District of Oak Bay, in Rankin’s riding, which has done just that very thing on housing projects in the past couple of years.

The new premier said he won’t micromanage municipal councils so long as they reach their targets, which will include taking into account census population growth projections and other metrics.

So, basically: Meet targets, and local councils can reject whatever controversial projects they want. Fail to meet those targets, and get ready to get bigfooted out of the way.

Eby called it “a series of escalating interventions” by the province.

“We don't go immediately to stepping into a community and saying you must approve this, you must approve that,” he said.

“There are a series of cooperative steps and the reason why the bill is built in that way is that is our intention. Our intention is to work cooperatively, not to force a city that is unable to meet the goal because of some issue that is beyond their control.

“If there is an issue that is beyond their control, let's identify it, let's address it together, whatever it is, because we have to have a shared goal of delivering housing for British Columbians who need that housing.”

The Eby government considers its legislation a carrot-and-stick approach to dealing with cities that have clogged up housing development with red tape and convoluted multi-year processes.

But make no mistake, the stick is much bigger than the carrot in this case. We’ll see how eager the province is to actually use the powers it has given itself, as Eby begins to hit his stride as premier in the months ahead.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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