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Moving at the speed of government

Metro Vancouver municipalities know they need more housing – but can’t seem to get out of their own way
Proposed temporary modular housing project site in New Westminster. Note shovel on – as opposed to in – the ground. (Daniel Fontaine)

You can’t open a newspaper today without reading yet another story about how cities in Metro Vancouver are concerned about the lack of affordable housing.

Even as prices finally are beginning a trek downward, at this pace it will still take another decade before you’ll be able to pick up a single family home in East Van for under $500,000. But based on experience, that possibility remains slim to none.

Perhaps that’s why so many cities are choosing to simply abandon the marketplace and taking action with “bold” and “innovative” programs aimed at increasing housing options for low and middle income earners. While they may have the best of intentions, so far their track record is littered with mishaps and bureaucratic bungling.

Consider what has transpired in Vancouver with the Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program – otherwise more affectionately known as MIRHPP. Announced in November 2017 with the full backing of Vancouver City Council, many thought MIRHPP applicants would be given the royal treatment: low-cost, fast-tracked developments.

Yet as Dan Fumano reported in the Vancouver Sun, the program appears to have fallen well short of the mark. At least six developers who applied to be part of the program have already pulled out:

The confirmation that some developers are simply walking away from MIRHPP projects comes after some chatter in the industry that even with the considerable additional density and other incentives offered through the program, the margins are tight and it’s difficult to make these projects financially viable.”

Let me state this again – these projects are having a tough time getting off the ground and through an approval process with council’s full blessing. Imagine what it must be like to submit a regular development permit application.

As for MIRHPP, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of shovels in the ground. If you visit the City Duo site they provide a good status update for each application. Check out the “Likely Next Step” sections to see what being ‘fast-tracked’ in the City of Vancouver looks like these days.

Not to be outdone, in June 2018 New Westminster council held a public hearing and rammed through the approval of a temporary modular housing project intended to support women and children at risk. Local residents were even told if the project wasn’t approved that night, it would put into peril the provincial funding secured to finance construction.

In the wee hours of the morning after a lengthy public hearing, council gave the green light and decided to fast-track the project. According to minutes posted on the City’s website, acting director of planning John Stark told council and the public that the units had to be built before provincial fiscal year-end. The minutes state “in terms of funding from BC Housing, the units have to be in place by March 31, 2019.”

Once again, this project had unanimous approval from council and should have been a slam dunk for a ribbon cutting last spring. Fast forward to July 2019 – there are still no shovels in the ground.

The lesson: even with the best of intentions, cities are mired in their own red tape and bureaucracy, even when it comes to projects they support wholeheartedly.

While this may not come as a surprise to many folks in the development community, it should be an eye opener to those of us who want more affordable housing built in timely manner. But don’t expect anything to change anytime soon.

When it comes to building new housing in Metro Vancouver, slow and steady is the theme – even if you’re behind the wheel of a Ferrari.

Editor's note: a previous version of this story contained an incorrect start date for the Moderate Income Rental Housing Pilot Program (MIRHPP.) 

Daniel Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer for a non-profit seniors care organization based in Burnaby. A former weekly civic affairs columnist for 24 Hours Newspaper, Fontaine has been a political commentator on Global TV and CKNW radio. In 2008 he co-founded one of Canada’s most popular civic affairs blogs. In 2012, Fontaine was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for public service.