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What will the provincial government’s housing plan mean for Squamish?

Q&A with the District’s director of planning.
An under-construction home in Squamish. The provincial housing plan aims to build more houses in B.C.

What will Squamish look like after Premier David Eby’s recently announced Homes for People plan is put into place? 

So far, the fine print details haven’t been released.

The province has said the actual regulations will follow in the fall.

What we know is that there will be a provincewide focus on creating more middle-income small-scale, multi-unit housing, strategies to streamline and modernize permitting to reduce costs and speed up approvals at the local government level; helping municipalities become more digital with permitting, and strengthening enforcement of short-term rentals.

“Even though our province is currently building more housing than ever before, it’s just not enough to meet the need. This plan will take us to the next level with unprecedented actions to tackle the challenges head-on, delivering even more homes for people faster,” said Eby in a news release when the plan was announced on April 3.

The Squamish Chief caught up with the District’s director of planning, Jonas Velaniskis, to find out his take on what is known about the plan so far. 

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

What is your overall take on the proposed changes at a bird’s eye view level? 

These are positive changes, and they were needed. Housing supply is a major issue; it is one of the biggest issues that we face. So we know we need to do more than what we’re doing now. The province coming to the table and bringing some basic requirements forward — and I’m expecting to see some tools that we could use to address the challenges with growth — is very welcome.

How long does it take to build an average multi-family building in Squamish right now? 

It depends on what stage, in terms of land use, the property is at when the developer starts the process.

If they need to go through a rezoning process — which is quite often what they need to do — that time between starting the rezoning process and getting an occupancy permit for the first units or several units is a long process; it could be anywhere between three years to five years, depending on the size of the project.

You have to go through the rezoning process, which typically takes about a year, then you go through a development permit process, where we deal with the details of the buildings and the form and character. That could take anywhere between eight months to a year. And then you get to the building permit process, which normally goes much faster than the other two steps. And then you go into actual construction. The construction itself can take up to three years, and sometimes even more for the larger project. So yeah, from a development perspective, there is a significant amount of time from when you start the project to when you actually finish.

Recently, after changes to provincial legislation, Squamish council has been considering a proposal to slightly reduce the number of public hearings for specific routine proposals. Do you have any understanding of what the other streamlining might be that the provincial government is proposing? 

The regulations haven’t come out yet. They’ll put a number of regulations in place, which is actually when the details are and have a real implication for local governments. We’re expecting them later this year.

We’re hearing from the province that single-family zoning is going to become more of a thing of the past.

In Squamish, we have single-family or duplexes, and the landowners get to choose which one to build.

Now, the province is talking about triplexes and fourplexes as a base. So as a landowner, you could build a single family, or you can build a duplex, triplex fourplex. It avoids the rezoning process for triplex and fourplex developments. So that will be a [time] savings on its own. Absolutely. The allowance to avoid public hearings for certain projects is fairly new as well, and we’re estimating that that would save a few months off of a rezoning application.

So we can still have single-family housing, to be clear, but the provincial moves discourage it and encourage more multi-family housing, correct? 

Yes, it will encourage more variety, more missing-middle type of housing, which is really welcome. I think it’s good when the province steps in with some base kind of housing options. We know we need more housing. And we know we need more missing middle housing in Squamish. So, we are doing fairly well in terms of the supply of new units. But our latest housing needs assessment shows that we actually need to be doing close to double what we’re doing now in order to impact affordability.

We are doing about 300 to 400 units annually right now, on average. In order to affect affordability, it looks like we need to be doing more like 600 units.

Given the push-back that happens in communities like Squamish when there are development and construction booms, does it help that the province is saying to do this? 

The triplex, fourplex allowance helps with that, and the province has mandated these housing needs assessment reports, so everyone has to do it.

There is an established method of how you do it. So, it’s no longer up to us to decide what our housing needs are — these reports are done following a specific methodology and are quantitative. The truth is in the numbers. So, we don’t have to debate if we need more housing; we know we do. If we want to address affordability, this is what we need to do.

It is easy for the provincial government to tell municipalities to build more homes, but what are the challenges with that — how do we have enough construction workers and infrastructure to keep up, for example? 

There are definitely challenges. Who’s going to build more than what we’re doing now is a really good question. And where are those folks going to live? 

It’s very complex. There’s no easy solution. The other challenge for us is, as a municipality, we’ve been super busy trying to make sure that we have this constant supply of housing, but if we need to double that, what does that mean for capacity? 

In planning and building, we can push projects; if we push projects quickly, that impacts other departments like engineering. Engineers have to review all of these policies, and there must be servicing agreements for them. 

In Canada, we are going to need a surge in planners, engineers, housing inspectors and officials to keep up.

There’s already high competition for, say, building inspectors in B.C. in general because of rigorous certification requirements for those folks — there’s a national competition for them.

And for Squamish, as a municipality with a limited tax base to fund positions, we have a limit on how many folks we can have doing these jobs, though, too, right? 

There’s only so much we can do, for sure. I know that CMHC [Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation] has recently announced a housing accelerator fund, which is a grant that is supposed to help local governments make systemic changes and add capacity, essentially, to the housing supply side of things. So it’s something that we are exploring. 

It is also expected that the provincial government will have to figure out tools for municipalities to improve capacity.

In Squamish, it isn’t uncommon to hear from residents, say at public hearings, who are impacted by the building and construction we already have without seeing a real benefit to the growth.  With more building, how can the impact on residents be managed? 

There have been no real details released about it, but we are expecting more tools for municipalities to make sure that development contributes to community amenities. 

So, right now, we can only secure those amenities through this community amenity contribution process (CAC), which means that only those projects that go through a rezoning are collecting dedicated CACs, which we can put into recreational facilities or fire halls, or anything else.

Right now, we have development cost charges [DCCs], which we charge for every new development, so every building permit has to pay those fees. And those fees go into paying for the expansion of the sewer system, water system, roads, and parks. Now, the recreation facilities, other critical facilities like fire halls, arts and culture, they don’t have a funding source. We can’t spend DCCs, which we collect a lot of, on those projects, on recreation facilities, arts and culture and things like that. So I’m expecting that there will need to be a change.

Were municipalities like Squamish consulted on these provincial changes? 

The province is doing quite a bit of consultation provincewide on this.

Another aspect of the province’s plan is the digitizing of processes. The District seems fairly digitized. What impact will this plan have on the muni?

We got a grant that we’re using to advance the digital development permit process — people being able to submit their applications online, and us to review them digitally. So, it would cut down on the amount of paper we have to process and store, and it would also allow the public a much easier way to apply for building permits. That’s a project that’s an active project right now with us. I expect that by the end of this year, we’ll have that ability.

Anything else you want our readers to know? 

I think some people worry ‘Oh my God, everything’s going to change in town.’ 

That we’re all of a sudden going to see triplexes and fourplexes pop up everywhere.

The research and experience locally suggests that it’s not going to be an overnight change.

If you think about the west side of towns, anything west of the highway, you can have a duplex on any single-family lot. 

And, we’ve been seeing the transition from a single-family neighbourhood to mostly duplex neighbourhoods happen very slowly over time. So when changes happen broadly, the impact is really diluted on the character of the neighbourhoods and values versus if we targeted one area with different densities, then you can kind of right away see the impact on land values, taxes, and, the change that happens. 

Part of the benefit of having this provincewide is there’s going to be time to adapt to these changes.

Find out more about the Homes for People plan. 

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