There’s an easy way for us to take part in solving housing unaffordability: voting. And I don’t mean for our prime minister. The elections that actually have the most impact on housing supply and affordability are at the municipal and provincial levels.
For nearly a century, Metro Vancouver municipalities have had zoning regulations to limit the amount of new homes and developments—especially when it comes to denser communities with lots of existing townhomes, mid-rises, or high-rise apartments. With the exception of single-family home replacements, nearly all other developments require city council’s vote for approval.
Sometimes a project can go to council three or four different times because it needs to align with the City’s official community plans, zoning and land-use regulations, or parking requirements. This process can take years, and doesn’t include obtaining actual construction permits. If there are slight changes after the initial approvals—such as reducing the number of parking stalls, or adding units—it has to go back to council all over again.
City councils are composed of the mayor and a number of councillors, each of whom has one vote. Councils reject development projects for a variety of reasons, but it’s most commonly due to public opposition over concerns about height and shadows. Such hyperlocal council meeting discussion about new buildings is not always reflective of our wider societal values, though; and research shows that public hearings on housing often underrepresent the interests of renters and low-income residents.
This is unsurprising given that council meetings often occur during the workday, or in the evenings from 6pm onwards—when most people are working, having dinner, or attending to family responsibilities and needs. There are also communication barriers, as council reports are often full of jargon; in addition, complex council formalities and processes are unfamiliar to the average person.
But there are a variety of council decisions that have a great impact on our lives and communities. City councils can reject new not-for-profit homes—even when the projects have provincial and federal funding on public land. They can also decide whether or not to enact tenant protection policies. They can also encourage (or discourage) development of low-density neighbhourhoods. When councils vote (as Vancouver City Council did) to no longer commit to being a living wage employer, or remove cycling infrastructure, or deny funding for the City’s Climate Emergency Action Plan, they illustrate what they value (or don’t).
Given that residents are unlikely to have the time and knowledge to access municipal affairs and decisions on a day-to-day basis, the best way to ensure municipal decisions are being made in the best interests of all residents is to vote. In 2022’s Metro Vancouver municipal elections, only about 37 per cent of eligible residents voted in Vancouver; in Surrey it was 32 per cent, in Delta it was 29 per cent, and in Burnaby it was just 19 per cent. By comparison, Canada’s 2021 federal elections saw 62 per cent voter turnout, and the BC provincial voter turnout in 2021 was 75 per cent.
The current BC Provincial Government is proof that voting can result in strong action. Since coming into power, the BC New Democratic Party (BC NDP) have enacted an array of housing policies—including leveraging our transit infrastructure for much-needed liveable, walkable density, and putting forward policies that open up housing options with effective design templates for areas previously exclusive to large, expensive homes. There are also new initiatives to address demand, such as the legislation to curb short-term rentals. These are all important actions to shift us towards more equitable, vibrant, and liveable neighbourhoods for more people.
We have a massive housing shortage. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation reports that to restore affordability, we will need 3.5 million more homes, on top of what’s already being built, by 2030. This means we’ll need to complete much more than our yearly average of approximately 200,000 new homes per year in Canada. Bold, drastic moves are crucial, and it can only happen when we vote for leaders who address our housing and affordability crisis with corresponding urgency.
If you can, meet with some of the municipal and provincial candidates in your area. Listen to what they have to say about their values, and challenge them on difficult but important issues. Will they support much-needed social or public housing projects, even in the face of opposition? Will they prioritize enacting tenant protections and focus on allowing development in exclusive, low-density areas? What will they do to prioritize public services that create liveable, walkable neighbourhoods, and what are their plans for addressing underrepresented and equity-deserving populations?
In short: vote in your municipal and provincial elections. Our housing crisis depends on it.