Hiding in Plain Sight…and how we can find it Together (CC96: Where Vancouver hides housing data, how I find it and will share it) by Brian Palmquist

(City Conversation #96 was first published 15-Jan-2023)
(For a list of City Conversations by Brian Palmquist on CityHallWatchplease visit this page.)

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January 8th 2022—I have been working for sometime on how best to share Vancouver rezoning and development data which I describe as “hidden in plain sight.”

Above: Screen shot of  5 of 40 columns in one of more than 400 data rows in the Homes for Whom? Database

Readers of City Conversations will know that pretty much from the beginning (March 2021, to be exact), I have been presenting data about housing in Vancouver that is not easily available from City of Vancouver websites or staff and frequently at odds with their official numbers.

Since the October 2022 election the situation has further deteriorated. Some of my sources for raw city data advise that it has become nigh impossible for them to summarize monthly data around spot rezonings and Development Applications (DAs)—spot rezonings are where an applicant seeks to ignore what zoning bylaws currently permits, usually adding height and density; DAs follow rezonings and are the last information step before a Building Permit (BP) is applied for. I have done my own recent research and sadly, must report the same result. I think the data I have been reporting about is still available, hidden in plain sight. 

A few examples of what I mean by hidden in plain sight:

When a new spot rezoning project is proposed, only neighbours within a few block radius are informed by mail. A sign is erected on the site, but you have to walk by it to discover the basic details. This has been the practice for some long time, but with more than one new spot rezoning proposed each week on average during the 2018-2022 Council term, the pace of applications over ran that approach years ago. Neither the site signs nor the mailed cards advise when there have been any changes to an application.

Above: A typical rezoning sign—no mention of updates or changes

To find out more detail about a proposal, City staff also now set up a Shape Your City project website, where you can find some more details and comment online. Comments are summarized by city staff in their eventual report to Council. If a project changes during the review process, the website may be amended, but there is no alert about this—you need to keep revisiting the website to find if there are any changes. To find out when a project will go to public hearing, you need to monitor Council meeting minutes. Once the public process is completed, the data may be promptly erased.

Above: The top portion of a typical Shape Your City website

Above: Approved Project data gone from public view

There is no aggregation of data, meaning you can’t see the context of an application—how many other applications are underway in your neighbourhood, for example. To find what’s happening in any of Vancouver’s 23 neighbourhoods, you actually have to walk every one of its street more or less continuously—good exercise but inefficient.

Above: Applications are organized haphazardly rather than by neighbourhood or any other aggregated format—this image from https://rezoning.vancouver.ca/applications/ 

I am particularly exercised by the absence of aggregated data. What’s happening in my neighbourhood? What’s happening in the Broadway Plan, Cambie Corridor or other area plan? The city’s rezoning map ignores all neighbourhood or area plan definitions.

Above: Where are the neighbourhoods? The big Plans? This is the city’s map of current rezoning applications: https://rezoning.vancouver.ca/applications/ 

None of this makes for robust or useful communication between the city government and its citizens. Which is why I originally set up Homes for Whom (HFW). I tired of hearing friends and supporters of civic government change complain about their inability to find out what was actually going on. I had been using a relational web-based database application called Smartsheet for my professional work. Rather than rail against the inability to find data, I determined that I could capture key data around rezonings and DAs painfully but possibly.

In the face of further hiding in plain sight since the October 2022 election, I have figured out a workaround but will need your (readers) help to make it work.

I struggled for a long time to figure out how to automatically update interested parties about new and amended applications. If you want to be advised of new and amended rezoning and development applications in your neighbourhood, here’s the process. Note that your email address will sometimes be visible to others, but nothing else:

‘1. Send your name and email address to me at bpalmquist@shaw.ca Note that when I send out neighbourhood updates, everybody on my list will see all those email addresses—nothing I can do about that with the Smartsheet technology. Let me know if anyone hassles you and they will be gone. Also, in the interests of civil discourse, I reserve the right to block anyone from access.

‘2. Tell me your neighbourhood and subject interests such as the Broadway Plan, the Jericho Lands, etc. I will send you a listing of all of the projects I have tracked in your neighbourhood since 2018, including the URLs I have for Shape Your City websites, referral reports, media articles, etc. Thereafter I will send you updates as projects are added, amended or progress. If you are a real data geek and want to be advised of all projects, tell me and prepare for the onslaught!

    Above: What an all-in-the-neighbourhood email looks like (too narrow to show all 40 columns)

    Above: What a single project update looks like (several columns missing)

    3. Send me photos of any new or amended rezoning and DA signs you come across—that’s all I need to add them to the Homes for Whom (HFW) database. You will receive a confirmation with all the data I can find from city sites, and will be added to the list of folks to be advised of amendments and progress in that neighbourhood.

    4. Let me know when a project starts construction, preferably with a photo of the site, its address and its signage. The Building Permits (BP) database is completely separate from the Rezoning/DA database—that’s right, the two are not integrated! I mined hundreds of BP projects on that site in order to be able to say it takes an average of 2 years from a completed rezoning to the 1st building permit.

    5. Send me links to articles about upcoming development in Vancouver—these are often the first announcements of something “coming soon to a neighbourhood near you.” Let me know if you want to be updated on progress on those named projects.

    6. Tell me where I’ve messed up. I’ve captured data so far for 400+ rezoning projects in Vancouver, starting with the 2018-22 Council term. Because city staff don’t tell us what’s amended, delayed or approved, I am sure I will be behind or in error on some projects. Apologies.

    7. Tell me where I can do better. The HFW database is a work in progress. I may be able to improve it based on your thoughts. I will let you know if I can incorporate your suggestions.

    I wish this were easier, but to quote Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Hopefully it will someday be better.

    Today’s question: Do you want to be advised of new rezoning and DA applications in your neighbourhood? If so, send your name, email address and neighbourhood to me at bpalmquist@shaw.ca 

    Post technical questions as comments and I will answer them in the Comments, to avoid excessive email traffic and capture the collective experience.

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