Where’s all the new Rental Housing? (CC#111: A Homes for Whom database refresh answers the question…well, better than from any other source) by Brian Palmquist

City Conversation #111 was first published 8-May-2023 – https://brianpalmquist.substack.com/p/wheres-all-the-new-rental-housing. (For a list of City Conversations by Brian Palmquist on CityHallWatchplease visit this page.)

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Where’s all the new Rental Housing?

City Conversation #111: A Homes for Whom database refresh answers the question…well, better than from any other source.

Above: Excerpt from my Homes for Whom (HfW) database—9775 spot rezoned rental homes have building permits

Apologies for the delayed publication of this City Conversation. As I’ll explain below, I had to do a major refresh of my Homes for Whom (HfW) database in order to answer the question: “Where’s all the new Vancouver rental housing?” That’s the question I asked myself after reading about the Vancouver Planning Department’s proposal, on the May 9th [2023] agenda, to prioritize rental housing projects because there’s just too many housing projects arising from all of the city’s initiatives to solve the housing affordability crisis by just building more.

The Council and staff trickle down approach goes something like this: approve enough housing, especially rental, and purchase prices of condos and rents at purpose built rentals will become more affordable. What could go wrong with this thesis?

Plenty, as it happens. Some of you will know that I developed the HfW database starting a couple years ago and tracking back to the previous Council’s 2018 start date. I did this because city staff would not tell Council or the public what housing was planned, what was in process, what had been approved and what had been built.

I decided it can’t be that hard. In developing and maintaining HfW I have relied on four sources:

  1. The city’s Rezoning active and archived applications web page, which adds new projects sometime after rezoning applications are received and sometime before they are approved. The newest projects are added to the first of their (currently) 29 web pages, so I visit there once a week or so and add the latest greatest projects to HfW. Note that my database only considers rezonings, not projects that conform to existing zoning. Since existing zoning rental housing is pretty much limited to laneway homes and duplexes (in total, about 600/year), I think my numbers are a pretty accurate picture.
  2. The city’s Shape Your City web pages, where the individual details of projects are published, also sometime after rezoning applications are received and sometime before they are approved. When those numbers change nobody much is advised, certainly not me, so I may have a few dated numbers in HfW.
  3. The city’s Building Permits database, which is entirely separate from Shape Your City but includes details of building permits, their companions and precursors: demolition permits, trade permits, etc. This is the database I had to revisit and troll through 218 web pages to determine what’s actually approved for construction—the big item in my publication delay.
  4. Vancouver citizens—I am developing a healthy relationship with an increasing number of residents, who regularly alert me to rezoning, development permit or building permit signage that’s somehow not findable on city web pages. Drop me an email mentioning the neighbourhood(s) where you live, work or play and I’ll alert you via email each time there’s a new project or an amendment to an existing one in your areas of interest.

I’ve written recently about the plight of renters by the HfW numbers but I knew my numbers were a bit dated so undertook an update by:

  • Visiting the city’s rezoning web page to add the latest projects
  • Selecting the 218 projects in HfW that include a rental component (sounds like a lot!)
  • Trolling through the 218 on the building permits database
  • Identifying which of the 218 have actual building permits
  • Analyzing  the results a bit.

Disclaimer: City staff don’t make it easy to find out rezoning, development permit or building permit data. I may have missed a few, so may be out up to 2% in my numbers.

Here’s what I found:

  • 61 rezoning projects since 2018, totalling 9,775 rental homes, have at least a first building permit in hand—most multifamily projects are built with staged permits, so many of these 61 have a first permit for excavation and foundations only. To be clear, the vast majority of these projects has a building permit but has not yet been completed.
  • Another 157 approved rezoning projects totalling 21,738 rental homes, do NOT yet have any building permits yet. A few of these were started in 2017 or 2018, but the vast majority were started after 2019. That’s three or four years ago!
  • Wait! you say, your illustration above shows 48,095 rental homes in progress, not 21,738! Correct. The difference is in 26,000+ rental homes promised in the Broadway Plan, the Jericho Lands, Senakw’—all the projects that are still just a gleam in the developers’ eyes.
  • Together the spot rezoning projects with rental components comprise 218 projects, almost exactly 50% of the total number of residential spot rezoning projects (433) started under this and the previous Council. The remaining 50% are strata only.

Remembering that city staff, City Council and the provincial government all appear bound and determined to emasculate or override the public hearing process for housing, I can’t help but notice that the years it takes to get from an approved rezoning to an issued building permit are not on the public, rather on some combination of the developer/applicants and city staff in planning and/or building. A few contentious rezonings require multiple hearing dates—rightfully so in a democracy. The vast majority are approved unopposed.

My conclusions: City Hall can’t get its post rezoning job done, needs to have a hard think about its internal processes rather than blaming neighbourhood design guidelines and Vancouver residents for its inability to get a permit out the door. For applicants, too many projects are speculative and are being developed to the approvals stage with all the incentives that accrue to providing rental housing, only to languish until they can be flipped for a fast buck.

Today’s question: Who is to blame for the slowness in rental housing construction? The public? The approving authorities? The applicants?

I read and respond to all comments, also capturing them to relevant neighbourhood files for more detailed future conversations. Where readers indicate an interest in one or more neighbourhoods, I send HfW updates for each new or amended project in their selected ‘hoods.

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By Brian Palmquist

Brian Palmquist is a Vancouver-based architect, building envelope and building code consultant and LEED Accredited Professional (the first green building system). He is semi-retired for the moment, still teaching, writing and consulting a bit, but not beholden to any client or city hall. These conversations mix real discussion with research and observations based on a 45+ year career including the planning, design and construction of almost every type and scale of project. He is the author of the Amazon best seller “An Architect’s Guide to Construction.” and working on a book about how we can accommodate a growing population in the Vancouver we love.

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