Urban Development Institute CEO says homebuyers pay high price for "paralyzed" bureaucracy at city hall

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Anne McMullin believes that it’s taken many years for Vancouver to develop a shortage of affordable housing. And the president and CEO of the Urban Development Institute, which represents real-estate developers, says that it will take a great deal of time and work to address this issue.

      “There aren’t easy answers,” McMullin emphasizes in an interview in the Georgia Straight boardroom, as she enumerates her concerns.

      A major issue is the amount of time needed to obtain approval for rezoning for a multifamily housing project in Vancouver. She says it can take five to seven years, whereas a project in the city of Langley gets a green light within seven months.

      “There are 25 steps that you have to go through in the city of Vancouver to get approval,” McMullin says.

      According to McMullin, delays in Vancouver not only add significantly to the cost of housing, they can also affect the building forms. That’s because a developer might start with a proposed eight-storey building, but the city might ask for something larger in return for more community amenity contributions.

      The negotiations are often complicated and time-consuming as different city departments put forward their wish lists. Engineering might want certain setbacks or parking requirements, heritage may seek preservation of historically significant aspects, and city sustainability experts sometimes seek more electric-vehicle recharging stations and better bicycle storage. And on it goes.

      “You’re at the fifth and sixth and seventh change—and you come all the way back to the beginning again—and your building no longer meets the requirements of that first department,” she says. “You’re constantly changing, to the point that sometimes, you get these very basic buildings.”

      McMullin says the city’s flat organizational structure reflects a lack of leadership. And she maintains that it’s driving up the cost of housing for two reasons.

      First, fees, charges, and taxes account for 30 to 40 percent of the cost of the average unit in Vancouver, according to her. Secondly, delays mean there’s less inventory on the market, resulting in less choice, less competition, and higher prices for buyers.

      “I don’t want to be critical of the people who work at city hall, but the bureaucracy is paralyzed,” she insists.

      Construction costs are also going up, rising 10 percent in a single year, according to Statistics Canada.

      McMullin regrets how reliant the city is on community amenity contributions, which cover about 55 percent of the capital budget. This money from developers funds everything from childcare spaces to parks to separated bike lanes.

      “I’m not saying that amount of money shouldn’t necessarily be collected,” she states. “It’s how it’s collected and how it’s driven planning. We need to step back and completely rethink how we plan our cities and how we develop.”

      McMullin favours a more predictable, citywide approach. And she worries that too many areas have become off-limits to developments because of moratoriums, such as along Broadway from Clark Drive to Vine Street and in the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown.

      “In the city of Vancouver, we’re still going six-storey, eight-storey, one by one, rezoning by rezoning along the Cambie corridor,” she points out. “We should have planned that and prezoned that a long time ago.”

      In addition, McMullin has concerns about some of the neighbourhood area plans approved by city council. While she’s satisfied with the West End plan, she worries that the documents for the Downtown Eastside and Marpole do not allow for enough new housing of different types to be built.

      “In Grandview-Woodland, they’re saying six-storey new buildings are too high—in the busiest transportation hub on the West Coast?” she says. “That’s where there’s a lack of leadership.”

      Metro Vancouver’s regional growth strategy forecasts the Lower Mainland population to increase by 65,000 in each year until 2021, according to a City of Vancouver report.* That’s double the annual growth rate over the five years from 2011 to 2016.

      She thinks communities should be asked how they can accommodate their share of this growth, and what they would like in return, whether that’s schools, community centres, libraries, or other benefits. She also says the city and province are major landowners, but they’re moving too slowly to help house this growing population.

      “You could double or triple the number of rentals being built.”


      * Metro Vancouver has informed the Georgia Straight that the City of Vancouver report was incorrect. The regional growth strategy forecasts the population in the region to rise by 30,000 per year until 2021.

      The City of Vancouver has apologized for the confusion. In a note to the Straight, it stated:

      The 65,000 per year population growth figure was determined by:

      1. taking the 2021 total population target for Metro from the Regional Growth Strategy
      2. subtracting the latest Census count (for 2016),
      3. then dividing the difference by 5 for an annual net change in population of 63,500 over the next five years.

      The City has since revised this projection in the Housing Vancouver Strategy to defer to the Metro Vancouver forecast that population will expand by 18% from 2,356,000 in 2011 to 2,788,000 by 2021, which is approximately 43,200 people/year. For Vancouver proper, population is expected to grow by 11% from 617,200 in 2011 to 685,000 by 2021.