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Building for some

Puneet Sandhar: Want to see systemic racism in action? Just look at exclusionary zoning.
It’s beautiful, but you can only fit so many people in homes like this.

The question that pops up in almost every conversation is what more changes will 2020 bring? Everything from the long-term impacts to our health, to economic recovery, or the mere uncertainly of what else can happen this year?

Aside from COVID-19, 2020 will be defined by the movement against racial injustices. Millions of people rose up after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, activating a much-needed conversation about systemic racism in the society.

Without a doubt, systemic racism exists. We can make no progress on healing the divides in our society unless we accept this truth. Whether it’s the income disparity that sees BIPOC earn on average $13,000 less; the higher rates of unemployment; the woeful lack of minority representation in corporate leadership or executive boards; or rising intolerance in our communities – we don’t have to search far to see the presence of systemic racism.

Laws need to change. But for real progress, we need to change our thinking as well. These two necessities intersect nowhere more so than the current state of many zoning bylaws.

For too long, zoning has been used as an exclusionary tool used to create exclusivity for some neighbourhoods deemed more ideal than others.

In Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, the majority of land is zoned for single-family homes, which has increased the average price of housing dramatically. We all know that one of the solutions to affordable housing is densification. Limiting neighbourhoods to one type of housing excludes residents of varying means and social status from entering that community, rather than being open and inclusive to all.

Just recently, a proposal in Vancouver’s Shaughnessy neighbourhood to tear down two mansions to build 81 rental homes saw a lot of debate and a prolonged approval process; some people saw a risk to “form and character” if people of different same wealth and social status began to reside there.

This kind of exclusionary law – and thinking – can’t be allowed to divide our society any longer. There can’t be two sets of communities; one for the few, and the other for the rest. This is what holds back not only minorities, but also our economy, and our place in the world as a truly multicultural society.

Going forward, zoning bylaws and development proposals should be vetted through a diversity lens that evaluates them based on whether they help or harm people with lesser means.

There are five months left in 2020. That’s enough time to make sure the answer to “what’s next” is thoughtful leadership that removes the now-exposed barriers, and brings constructive reforms to end these archaic laws.

That’s how to make every part of Canada a livable place for all, irrespective of their financial, social, or ethnic background.

Puneet Sandhar is a lawyer and managing partner of Sanghera Sandhar Law Group based in Surrey, B.C and practices in the area of Real Estate Law and Land Development. She has and continues to serve on boards for numerous organizations including the Surrey Homeless and Housing Society, City of Surrey Board of Variance. She was awarded the Queens Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 for her volunteerism and work in the community