A provincial-federal expert panel on housing affordability focused too much on municipal issues, like missing middle housing, and not enough on the senior levels of government. (City of Burnaby)

Burnaby councillors scorn provincial-federal panel on housing affordability

The "Opening doors" report, produced by a panel on housing affordability, placed too much blame on municipal governments, councillors said.

By Dustin Godfrey | January 17, 2022 |5:00 am

Burnaby city councillors say they’re fed up with senior levels of government downloading the responsibility of housing affordability on them and pointing the finger when that fails.

The comments came in a planning and development committee meeting last week in which city staff presented on local implications of a report that came out last summer.

Opening doors: unlocking housing supply for affordability was published in June last year as the final report from an intergovernmental panel on housing affordability.

But that panel, Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley was quick to point out, failed to include municipal perspectives, instead only including representatives from the federal and provincial governments and from the developer community.

“If you’re not part of the dinner table, you’re part of the meal,” Hurley said.

“This is exactly what happened here. We’re part of the meal because they didn’t want to blame themselves for their own screw-ups.”

A diplomatic approach

Staff presented to the city’s committee on ways Burnaby was already aligned with the recommendations in the report, with director of planning Ed Kozak saying they opted not to take an adversarial approach to the report.

Instead, staff initially recommended the city send a more diplomatic note to the provincial government saying it needs to consult with municipalities before implementing recommendations that could have significant impacts on local governance.

That includes things like limiting negotiable development fees. While Vancouver has community amenity contributions, which go towards things like parks and rec centres, Burnaby relies on density bonuses.

Essentially, the city offers more density for major developments in exchange for building a community amenity or cash in lieu.

Opening doors, however, suggested the provincial government, which regulates local governments, include working amenity needs into official community plans or phasing out the negotiable fees in favour of broader development cost charges.

“Reducing or eliminating municipalities’ ability to collect these contributions without a replacement source of revenue could significantly affect the city’s ability to achieve the goals of creating a liveable and sustainable city,” reads the staff report.

Metro Vancouver has already sent a letter to the province urging it to engage with municipalities before enacting the report’s recommendations. And Burnaby city staff recommended the city back that approach.

“Rather than taking an adversarial approach, what we tried to do with this report was saying that, regardless of whether or not one would agree with the panel’s conclusions, we’re already doing a lot of the things that are recommended,” Kozak said.

“To try and point a finger at us, I think, was pretty weak. Pretty weak, and we had no representation on the expert panel.”

Photo: Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon

‘Pretty weak’

But council members on the city committee pushed back on this approach, noting the panel’s report put much more responsibility onto local governments than onto other levels of government.

Coun. Pietro Calendino, chair of the committee, noted that the contributions expected from senior levels of government focused on low-cost financing—that is, lending money—for more affordable housing projects.

“They unload onto the municipal governments things that should be in their domain, and then we have to assume responsibility, which we have done for a number of years,” Calendino said.

One city planner told the committee recommendations like providing government-owned land did also apply to other levels of government.

“It should be noted that no federal land in BC has been given up for housing. We had a site here in Burnaby that we were very keen on, but they couldn’t make it work. So I know all the fingers are pointed at municipal governments here, but really, it’s the responsibility of the other two levels of government,” Hurley said.

“To try and point a finger at us, I think, was pretty weak. Pretty weak, and we had no representation on the expert panel.”

Calendino added the panel, while lacking municipal representation, had “a lot of representation from the development community.”

While developers often point to slow bureaucratic processes at the city level to approve housing—a sentiment echoed in the Opening doors report—Calendino said much of that comes from the BC Building Code.

“Things were not all on the table at that panel of experts,” he said.

Hurley has similarly noted in the past that the city has put up a number of sites for development of affordable housing. But the senior levels of government have failed to fund housing on many of those sites, he told the Beacon earlier this month.

According to the city staff report, 14 sites have been offered up by the city for development of market housing since 2015.

While the report spoke on expediting housing development, Hurley said six of those sites were rushed by the city through the zoning process explicitly for this purpose.

“They’re all sitting ready to go. It wasn’t our processes that held it up. It’s funding from those two levels of government,” he said.

“That needs to be pointed out. … It was them that slowed it down and cost us 18 months of work for nothing.”

“Local government should have never had to direct property taxes toward housing because we were never designed to do that.”

Photo: Shutterstock

An ‘adversarial’ approach

And while staff had taken a more diplomatic approach with the current report, Hurley suggested the city should “write an adversarial response as well.”

“If we don’t, they’ll automatically take it that we’re accepting what they’re saying,” Hurley said.

Coun Sav Dhaliwal said senior levels of government have not taken the time to understand how local governments, like Burnaby, have stepped up on the issue of affordable housing.

“Every local government is doing something. Rather than giving credit to them for what’s happening in the Burnabys of British Columbia … they took the … easy route,” Dhaliwal said.

He noted the divestment of both the federal and provincial governments from housing, starting with the federal government in the 1990s and continuing with the provincial government in the 2000s.

“The report we are talking about, Opening doors, did not address those because they are the culprit for basically … where we are today,” he said.

“Local government should have never had to direct property taxes toward housing because we were never designed to do that.”

Dhaliwal said this has happened across Metro Vancouver, taking away municipal funding from other services and amenities.

“I want a comprehensive report from us to say how much local governments have done to really bring housing,” he said.

“Just see what Burnaby has done in the last two years. … We want you to support the system that exists, not tear it down to start something new.”

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Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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