The population of Metro Vancouver is projected to grow by one million residents by 2041. In a recent study, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) estimates that, if current growth rates continue, we need an additional 570,000 homes to achieve affordability by 2030.
The fact that Canada is in the throes of an extreme housing supply crisis is now widely accepted and the attention of political and industry leaders is squarely focused on determining where growth should be directed to meet the escalating need.
Densification of housing options within proximity of existing and proposed transit infrastructure, also known as “transit-oriented development” or “TOD,” is the key approach urban municipalities across the country are seeking to implement.
Transit-oriented development: An asset to homeowners, governments
Transit-oriented development provides citizens with many advantages.
Access to reliable transportation networks leads to less vehicle ownership and use, reductions in expenses and urban impacts related to fuel, car ownership, parking and maintenance, and promotes healthier environments.
Convenient and well-connected residential locations in close proximity to transit improve walkability, lead to healthy lifestyles and contribute positively to higher quality of life.
Governments at the municipal, provincial and national levels also benefit when cities direct growth to transit-rich locations.
Through Climate 2050, Metro Vancouver’s strategic climate framework that establishes aggressive policies to create change for organizations, agencies and people across the region, the city is targeting a 45 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050.
These greenhouse gas emission goals can only be met by directing concentrated growth away from sprawl and toward urban, transit-oriented locations.
As important as the environmental benefits are, there are also resulting positive impacts to another key governmental consideration: housing affordability.
Significant intensification along transit is critical to the provision of supply needed to meet ever-increasing demand.
Increased density of residents in proximity to transit significantly improves public transit ridership and generates higher levels of public revenue; this funding can then be used to increase volume, frequency and reliability of transit services in a self-reinforcing cycle.
Reform of Metro Vancouver's community plans, zoning by-laws essential
Governments play an essential role in ensuring growth is properly directed toward transit-oriented areas, given their power to affect change through control of municipal planning regulations.
All Canadian municipal governments do this through the approval, implementation and frequent amendments of their official community plans and zoning bylaws.
In Metro Vancouver, the Official Community Plan (OCP) and zoning bylaw are the important guidance documents that influence development footprints and designs across the city.
However, these plans are in desperate need of reform.
Originally implemented decades ago and amended haphazardly since, these policy documents in their current form are ill-equipped to deal with an era characterized by an extreme housing shortage, slow and expensive development, and white-hot demand.
For transit-oriented development to accelerate in Metro Vancouver, both of these documents must be decluttered.
Some areas which require review
A fresh and holistic review of the standardized requirements and procedures stipulated in these plans is needed to streamline the development proposal process, create predictable results and eliminate confusion during the design and entitlement stages of land development.
Municipal staff and elected leaders need to prioritize this reform with intention, effort and intelligence.
These planning documents provide the essential foundation of growth, but they will only be effective if they can be modified with an eye toward:
- clarifying internal contradictions and ensuring area plans are clear and consistent;
- applying uniform standards to remove subjective approval of design;
- removing or reducing minimum parking requirements that simply lead to more expensive housing and encourage the use of cars; and
- eliminating inclusionary zoning policies that require the implementation of affordable housing contributions from developers of new housing without providing for an equal cost offset or subsidy to ensure projects are still profitable – after all, if projects are not profitable, developers won’t build them.
Another way to speed up the development process and reduce cost is through pre-zoning.
If properties are located within 800 metres of transit (the equivalent of 10 minutes of walking time) and if proposals for development conform to the OCP, public hearings should not be necessary and, in fact, should be discouraged.
Look to Coquitlam and Ontario
This has already been done in Coquitlam: The city performed a fulsome review of its planning regulations, which led to the new Housing Choices Program.
The result, in 2019, led to pre-zoning for Coquitlam’s RT-1 Infill Residential Zone areas applicable to single-family, duplex, triplex, and fourplex residential housing types.
The majority of homeowners in the Housing Choices areas no longer have to go through the rezoning process to develop housing options under the revised RT-1 zoning. The Housing Choices Program has greatly increased the supply and variety of housing options in the municipality.
Ontario, like British Columbia, is in the midst of a housing crisis.
A report released by the Ontario Housing Affordability Task Force outlines recommendations to increase the pace and volume of development, starting with setting bold targets and making new housing the planning priority.
If Metro Vancouver’s housing crisis is to improve, supply must increase and this can only be achieved if our governments make the kind of aggressive reform recommended by Ontario’s Task Force.
With the provincial and municipal governments working together, transit-oriented development can significantly add to housing supply levels and address affordability while keeping the region on track to achieve bold climate goals and create more livable communities.