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'Act with sense of urgency' on housing crisis, Vancouver city council told

Theresa O'Donnell: "If the backlog [of rezoning applications] is not managed properly, this growing bottleneck could extend over multiple years."
Vancouver council heard this week that almost 36,000 proposed housing units are in the rezoning pipeline.

The city’s director of planning gave this week what amounted to a state of the industry address concerning housing development in Vancouver and how council can help break an application logjam to get more homes built faster.

Theresa O’Donnell’s presentation to council stressed the need to prioritize projects that can be advanced and approved for construction at a time that provincial and federal governments are making money available via policies and programs.

“We have this very fortunate advantage of all three levels of government being positioned to make real strides against the persistent housing affordability crisis that has challenged our residents for many, many years,” O’Donnell said Tuesday.

She pointed to the federal government’s $4-billion “housing accelerator fund,” the province’s $4.2-billion “homes for people” plan, along with the provincial Housing Supply Act, as moves the city must take advantage of to increase housing supply in Vancouver.

The programs, O’Donnell said, align with the city’s housing strategy and goal to approve more housing of all types and get it built faster, as Metro Vancouver prepares to welcome more than 60,000 newcomers per year.

The city’s application for funds under the federal program is due in June.

The amount of funds local governments receive is directly tied to the projected increase in building permit approvals, with more money provided for affordable “missing middle” and transit-oriented developments.

“Staff are now developing that application with a path that leverages work already underway to accelerate and increase approvals for these priority housing types, including actions to unlock market and below-market housing projects already in the pipeline, and improvements to accelerate permit issuance,” she said.

The timing is not only crucial for the city but for developers, whom O’Donnell and senior staff hear from daily about the state of the home-building industry and pressures facing it, including construction costs, market uncertainty and lack of tradespeople.

“There is tremendous stress in the development industry today,” said O’Donnell, noting that she and staff hear that projects “are in trouble, and they need our help,” adding that “the city must act with a sense of urgency to do what we can to bring these market projects to market as soon as possible.”

'Staff burnout, customer frustrations'

At the same time, a staff report that accompanied O’Donnell’s presentation said the current volume and types of rezoning applications “have overloaded staff operating capacity.” This has resulted in slower processing times, delayed responses times, staff burnout and customer frustrations, the report said.

City council decided May 9 to defer decision and debate until May 30 on giving staff direction to guide the planning department’s work plan both in the short term to manage the backlog of current applications, and in the longer term to establish goals, objectives, priorities and desired outcomes over the next four years.

Council heard from O’Donnell that the city’s housing strategies and policies “have been working well and our pipeline is full” of applications. But she emphasized it is choosing which projects should be prioritized that is key to delivering more housing sooner.

Staff recommends social, below market and supportive housing be the priority over the next six to nine months — particularly those boosted by federal funds — followed by applications with “secured government/partner funding.”

Modifying the public hearing process, which could mean hearings occurring during the day and many more of them, to optimize council’s consideration of priority projects is also a recommendation.

'Laser focus'

Almost 36,000 proposed units of various types of housing are “in the pipeline,” said O’Donnell, adding that it equates to three to four years of housing supply and meets the city’s housing targets.

“But we know many of those projects may not be in a position to proceed,” she said, reiterating again senior government money available to advance construction. “But that requires a laser focus on projects that are ready to proceed to construction. And we must act with a sense of urgency.”

Added O’Donnell: “I want to stress that if the backlog is not managed properly, this growing bottleneck could extend over multiple years.”

She also cautioned council in giving direction to staff that "if everything's a priority, then nothing's a priority."

O'Donnell pointed to pre-zoning areas of the city as one of the most effective means of managing rezoning application volumes. O’Donnell cited the pre-zoning of townhouses in the Cambie corridor as an example.

“It's also important to note that we do have existing statutory requirements that constrain our ability to pre-zone and we are in active discussions with the province about options to provide Vancouver more flexibility so that we can pre-zone more areas,” she said.