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Fixing Burnaby's housing crisis: task force urges action in final report

18 recommendations will come to council on Monday
Metrotown skyline
Metrotown has been the centre of Burnaby's housing crisis in recent years. A new report suggest a way forward to make housing more affordable.

After five months of meetings, surveys, workshops and reports, Burnaby’s housing task force has compiled its work into a final report with 18 recommendations for the future of affordable housing in the city.  

“The final report of the Mayor’s Task Force on Community Housing is a major step towards developing an effective approach to the housing crisis and is an invaluable resource to Burnaby city council in creating policies and other tools to address our city’s housing needs,” Mayor Mike Hurley wrote in an introduction.

The task force – comprised of renters, developers, local politicians and activists – began meeting in late February and presented its interim report, with 10 “quick start” recommendations, in May. 

On Monday, councillors will vote on whether to direct city staff to develop a citywide housing strategy incorporating the recommendations and to request a progress report by September 2020. 

The 18 recommendations are broken down into four themes.

Theme 1: “Create livable neighbourhoods”

“Develop a plan for introducing new housing forms and family-oriented housing in a variety of neighbourhoods.”

The task force says the city should push for more “missing middle” housing throughout Burnaby, particularly in its single-family residential areas, which have remained “largely unchanged” while the city’s centres have densified dramatically. 

Nearly three-quarters of the Burnaby’s land is zoned for detached homes, while just over half (57 per cent) of the city’s population live in those neighbourhoods, the report notes. 

The task force points to Vancouver – which recently rezoned most single-family lots to allow duplexes – as possible inspiration. It also notes Oregon recently eliminated single-family zoning statewide and Minneapolis “adopted blanket rezoning to permit missing middle housing everywhere in the city.”

City staff are already studying two potential answers to the recommendations: allowing suites in duplexes and detached accessory units, such as laneway or carriage homes. 

A citywide review and changes to Burnaby’s official community plan and zoning bylaws will likely be needed to fully achieve this recommendation, the report says. 

2.  “Create socially sustainable and accessible communities, with a range of amenities and services, in and around arterials and transit corridors.”

Burnaby’s major transit corridors and 13 urban villages are underdeveloped and present great potential for future medium-density housing, the task force found. 

“Burnaby has a number of areas that could be developed as sustainable, accessible and vibrant communities, featuring multi-family housing for a range of incomes, frequent transit routes and a variety of amenities and services,” the report states. 

The task force wants to see city staff revitalize its urban village community plans and its official community plan with this in mind, as well as potentially pre-zoning some areas.

3. “Launch an education and advocacy campaign to increase community acceptance of new housing forms.”

The task force does, however, acknowledge in-fill densification is often popular with residents until someone plans to build a medium- or high-density project their neighbourhood. 

“Increasing community acceptance of these housing forms and gentle density could aid in expanding the supply of these homes,” the report says. 

The task force wants to see the city partner with other cities and organizations to launch a campaign to build support for more development. 

“The campaign would illustrate what new housing forms and gentle density looks like, and convey the social, environmental and community benefits of such policies. The campaign should also include messaging on the likely consequences of taking no action.”

Theme 2: “Invest in Housing Partnerships”

4. “Review the City’s land assets to identify suitable sites to pilot a portfolio development opportunity.”

This recommendation aligns with the quick starts, which called on Burnaby to manage its land with a portfolio approach. By leasing separate lots together, nonprofits can create more affordable housing through cross-subsidization and economies of scale, the report says. 

5. “Create a program to facilitate redevelopment of under-utilized land for affordable housing.”

There’s a lot of “under-utilized” land owned by community groups that could and should be developed, according to the task force. Many of these groups simply don’t know how to bring a development proposal forward or the idea hasn’t even occurred to them, the report says. 

The task force is calling on the city to create “incentives, technical assistance and support” to encourage more affordable housing proposals.

6. “Review the mandate and allocation of the City’s Housing Fund to maximize its support for Task Force recommendations.”

The City of Burnaby is one of the few municipalities in Canada that operates debt-free and it has hundreds of millions of dollars in various reserve funds thanks, in part, to density bonuses paid by developers. The task force wants to see the city review how it spends its housing fund. 

“It is timely to review the terms and conditions under which Housing Fund monies are allocated and develop new policies and practices that meet the city’s needs.”

7. “Negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with BC Housing and CMHC to establish terms for partnerships.”

According to the report, such an MOU would provide a “concrete and proactive way for the city to plan to meet its future housing needs and expedite the development of new non-market housing.”

8. “Build on the city’s homelessness response to create more homes for people experiencing homelessness.”

The city is already making progress in supporting its homeless population by building a temporary modular housing project on Norland Avenue, opening warming centres and establishing a new temporary shelter. 

But the task force wants to see it do more, by developing a “‘made-in-Burnaby’ plan to reduce homelessness.”

9. “Co-locate affordable housing with community facilities such as community centres, fire halls, schools, libraries and other suitable public facilities.”

The city should consider “untraditional sites or airspace parcels” for new housing. 

“The air space above or beside libraries, fire halls and other community facilities can be considered as ‘free,’” the report says. 

The city should consider adding housing anytime a new community facility is proposed, the report says. 

Theme 3: "Support Rental Housing and Tenants"

10. “Adopt a robust tenant relocation policy.”

This is perhaps the most hotly anticipated recommendation in the report. 

Hurley campaigned on a promise to take better care of tenants displaced by renovations and demolitions. He is widely believed to have defeated longtime incumbent Derek Corrigan in large part due to the spate of demovictions that displaced thousands of Metrotown renters in recent years. 

Eight months after Hurley assumed office, the city now has a framework for a new set of tenant relocation bylaws.

The proposed policy would allow tenants in buildings with six or more units displaced for a renovation to return to their units at the same rent. 

It would also give tenants displaced by demolitions the chance to move into replacement units. 

The relocation policy would also provide “swing sites” to tenants as they wait for their unit to be renovated or built. The sites could be built via public-private partnerships or could come from the existing private market, with developers topping up tenants’ rent if necessary, the report says.

The recommendation also suggests developers should have to help pay their tenants’ moving costs. 

You can read more about the proposed policy on page 51 of the final report.

11. “Explore incentives and accountability for the maintenance of older rental buildings.”

The city could incentivize landlords to take better care of their buildings, adopt a standards of maintenance to enforce maintenance or both, the report says. 

12. “Increase the supply of affordable rental housing.”

The report points to Metro Vancouver data suggesting Burnaby needs 5,900 rental units. To build new housing, council must build on its existing rental housing strategy, the task force said.

Theme 4: "Promote Innovative Housing Policy and Build Capacity"

13. “Consider increasing the percentage of density bonus funds allocated to housing.”

Twenty per cent of the city’s density bonus revenue goes to its housing fund, which now sits at $123 million. To grow that fund, city should consider increasing that percentage, according to the task force. 

14. “Establish a housing department to coordinate housing work.”

According to the report, Burnaby only has two employees in its planning department dedicated to housing full time. That isn’t enough to address the complex issue, including the many task force recommendations, the task force says. 

It recommends establishing a new department or division at city hall with staff dedicated solely to housing. 

15. “Increase staff and review regulations to speed housing approvals.”

A whopping 92 per cent of participants at the task force’s community recommendations workshop wanted to see the city “fast track application review and approval for projects with significant affordable housing benefits.” 

To do that, the city need to streamline streamline some processes and hire new staff, the report says. 

16. “Support the development of more housing co-operatives.”

Not a single unit of co-op housing has been built in Burnaby in the last 20 years, the report says. The task force wants that to change and is calling on the city to support new co-ops via land leases, grants and expedited processes. 

17. “Pursue innovative financing mechanisms for non-market housing, such as land value capture.”

This recommendation builds on one of the quick starts from May. 

The report explains the logic behind such a tax: “When City plans are changed to permit greater density, land values increase. This increased value generally goes to the property owners that own the upzoned land, fuelling speculation. Land value capture is a way for municipalities to ‘recapture’ some of the value they’ve created by increasing density. This captured value can be used to build more community amenities and affordable housing, and can also serve to moderate speculation.”

18. “Adopt ways to support affordable home ownership.”

The city could adopt shared-equity and price-restricted ownership policies to make it easier for residents to make the switch from renting to owning their home. 

The road ahead

The report concludes by urging Burnaby city council to “carefully consider” its recommendations and suggests reconvening the task force in 16 months to check in on the implementation progress.

The Burnaby NOW will have ongoing coverage as the city deliberates how to respond to the task force recommendations.