The City of Vancouver’s new definition of social housing is facing a legal challenge.
According to a petition filed before the B.C. Supreme Court, the meaning of the term set out in a recent amendment made by council to the Downtown Official Development Plan (DODP) is “simply market rate rental housing”.
“Market rate rental housing is not ‘social housing’,” the Community Association of New Yaletown asserted in court papers filed on April 2 by lawyer Nathalie Baker.
CANY is the same organization that succeeded in a previous legal action against the city. In that case, a judge quashed a development permit, a rezoning decision, and a DODP amendment related to a land swap between the city and developer Brenhill Developments Ltd. The B.C. Court of Appeal will hear the appeals filed by the city and the developer on April 16 and 17.
In its new petition, the group asked the court to declare the city’s definition of social housing “unreasonable” and “void for illegality”.
On March 26, council voted 6–4 after a two-day public hearing to approve the new definition. Vision Vancouver councillors Heather Deal, Kerry Jang, Raymond Louie, Geoff Meggs, Andrea Reimer, and Tim Stevenson were in favour. Non-Partisan Association councillors George Affleck, Elizabeth Ball, and Melissa De Genova and Green councillor Adriane Carr voted against. Vision mayor Gregor Robertson was absent.
The public hearing was part of the city’s response to the Brenhill decision.
Previously, social housing meant residential units bought by the government or a nonprofit using government funding in order to house seniors, disabled people, and low-income families or individuals.
Now social housing is defined as a building in which at least 30 percent of the dwellings are occupied by households that cannot afford market rates. In the Downtown Eastside, social housing has a slightly different meaning. It refers to a building in which at least 33 percent of units are occupied by people who are on social assistance or receive an old-age pension.
The term low-cost housing was also removed from the DODP. A staff report considered in the March 24 and 26 public hearings noted that low-cost housing is an “outdated term no longer used in the affordable housing sector”.
A media release from Mayor Robertson’s office on March 27 claimed that the “change builds on other steps the City has taken to create and protect low-income housing in Vancouver”.
“The previous definition, in place since 1995, lacked any requirement for units to be rented at low-incomes, only that they be owned or operated by a non-profit or government,” according to the statement from the mayor’s office. The amended DODP will result in “strengthening the protection of low-income housing in Vancouver”, the release declared.
CANY believes otherwise.
“The definition results in large expensive market rate rental units being called ‘social housing’,” the association argued. This is because a whole building can now be considered social housing even if 70 percent of its units are market-rate rentals.
According to the CANY petition, the definition “does not fall within a range of possible reasonable outcomes”.
In addition to a new definition of social housing, on March 26 council also approved an amendment to the DODP that allows the Development Permit Board (DPB), which is composed of senior city staff, to approve additional development density in projects that include social housing.
In the past, the DPB could increase density for a development that included “low-cost housing” with “prior approval” by council.
Now the term low-cost housing is gone from the city’s lexicon. As well, council assent for increased density is only needed after the DPB has approved a development permit application for a project that has social housing.
In its petition, CANY asked the court to scrap this amendment, arguing that council can only regulate density through a bylaw and “cannot delegate this power to an unelected board, such as the Development Permit Board”.
CANY claimed that it’s an “unlawful delegation and is an evasion of the public hearing requirement” under the Vancouver Charter.