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B.C.'s first rental-only zoning bylaw takes shape

Burnaby council passes first reading of a new framework for its zoning bylaws, as expert warns of challenges

As the City of Burnaby charges ahead with plans to become the first B.C. municipality to use new rental zoning powers, a local housing expert warns the plan is likely to run into unexpected challenges.

“It’s the first one on the beach that gets shot,” said Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program.

The province gave B.C. municipalities the power to zone for rental housing in May and Burnaby announced it wanted to be the first – a decision that came after years of harsh criticism for its handling of so-called “demovictions” in Metrotown. 

The city’s mayor and council passed first reading of a proposed amendment to its existing zoning bylaws on Monday at its last meeting before the Oct. 20 election.  

Yan said the proposed new rules could lay the framework for how rental zoning is handled in the Lower Mainland. But many cities are likely waiting to learn from Burnaby’s mistakes.

“It's the second mouse that gets the cheese,” he added.

But Coun. Colleen Jordan, who chairs the city’s community development committee, said the city is taking a measured approach. The changes currently under consideration are merely the first stage on the path to implementation, she said. 

According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., Burnaby lost 712 rental units between 2010 and 2017. During that same period, most cities in the region gained units, including Vancouver, which saw a net gain of nearly 2,500.

Many of the losses in Burnaby came from Metrotown, where several purpose-built rentals were razed to make way for condo towers. This dented the region’s “pool of rental stock for the working population,” said Yan.

Jordan echoed an explanation for the figures that Mayor Derek Corrigan gave the Burnaby Now during a Facebook Live interview on Monday. She said the Vancouver created those new rental units in large part by incentivizing developers and that many of those new units are unaffordable to individuals with average incomes. 

“We don’t think it’s right for taxpayers to support market rental with public money,” Jordan said.

Yan said there’s truth to that analysis, but “if anything, it also amplifies the magnitude of what was being lost in the City of Burnaby.”  

“I think that that really highlights why this type of zoning law needs to come into play, not only in Burnaby but then throughout the region,” Yan said.

The plan

The zoning framework lays out some ground rules for what may become the province’s first rental zoning.

It would allow for the creation of sub-districts within existing multi-family residential (RM) zoning. This would allow council to mandate a developer replace demolished apartment units with new units on a one-to-one basis, Jordan said. 

She said the replacement ratio is one of the “fundamental goals” of the initiative.

There is also a plan for more rental units above businesses in areas zoned as commercial districts. The report says many commercial buildings do not use all their allowable floor space and permitting rental units on the second floor and above “represents an innovative approach to the creation of new rental supply.”

The plan also lays out minimum sizes for rental units – 322 sq. ft. studio, 538 sq. ft. one bedroom, 699 sq. ft. two bedroom, etc. 

This, Yan said, would prevent developers from building micro-suites, which make for a better return on investment, but not long-term family homes. As homeownership becomes more out of reach, he said governments need to protect rental units.

City staff also recommended reducing the amount of off-street parking required per unit. Both the report and Yan noted that studies have found renters typically require fewer parking spaces. 

Yan said it’s important that Burnaby’s rental stock remains concentrated around transit hubs – especially SkyTrain stations (see map). Transit-oriented affordable rental stock is crucial to making Metro Vancouver a livable place in the years to come, he said.

New Metro Van renter map
Burnaby has some of the most dense clusters of rental households in Metro Vancouver. - Andy Yan, SFU

The zoning framework, however, leaves a big question unanswered.

Will rent be affordable?

“It’s not only the size; it’s not only the rental; it’s about the price,” Yan said.

When the city first announced its intentions to use rental zoning in July, Corrigan told the Now he hoped replacement units would be available at similar rents.

“I don't think council wants to over-promise that they’re going to be at the same rents, but they want to get rents that are going to be much more within the means of people who are living in those previous units,” Corrigan said in July.

Jordan said Tuesday keeping rents low remains a priority. She said the city could cap rents for a period of time, but doing so could result in developers walking away from proposals.

“They would say ‘have a nice life’ and go away and not build it,” she said. “So that's where we're going to have to be able to consult with the community and see what will work.”

What comes next?

Jordan said if the current council – comprised entirely of Burnaby Citizens Association members – is re-elected Oct. 20, it will continue to work full-speed ahead on this plan. She said city staff are already working on the next phase of the plan looking at how to apply the rental zoning.

Independent mayoral candidate Mike Hurley said he wasn’t sure whether the framework would get his vote if he’s in the mayor’s chair when it comes up for second reading.

“Hopefully it’s a good plan,” he said during an interview with the Now broadcast live on Facebook. “I haven’t seen it, so I’m not going to comment on it.”

But Hurley did say he didn’t trust Corrigan to push on with the plan after the election and questioned its timing.

After Corrigan’s 16 years as mayor and 31 on council, “the light bulb has finally come on that we need this kind of housing a few weeks before an election,” Hurley said.

Council candidate Rick McGowan said he and his fellow Green Party members would support the rental zoning amendment. But he too questioned its timing.

“This is election pandering by the BCA and the mayor to win votes,” McGowan wrote in an email.

If elected, Burnaby First Coalition members would vote in favour of the bylaw amendment, unless they heard a compelling reason not to during consultations, a spokesperson said.

Jordan said her council has moved as quickly as possible to take advantage of the new zoning powers and that the timing is not related to the election.

“We’re not being opportunistic,” she said.

While they are moving forward with some urgency, she said the city is not rushing through the process and will avoid the “first one on the beach gets shot” scenario described by Yan. She said the process will include considerable consultation with developers and the broader community.

“We don’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” she said.

The public will have an opportunity to add their thoughts on the rental zoning plan at a public hearing on Nov. 20.