On Queensborough

This is going to be a bit of a lengthy post on various thoughts I have on Queensborough and the recently passed Temporary Modular Housing project.

On Yes In New West’s role

Yes In New West is a loose group of New Westminster residents who came together a couple of years ago to push for more choice in housing options, particularly those in the missing middle — townhouses and rowhouses. We’ve done a few small campaigns since then, an all-candidates meeting here, a letter-writing campaign there, but nothing that large.

During the process for rezoning the land on which the Temporary Modular Housing (or TMH) would be built, a group of Queensborough residents formed to try to stop it. They attended the Advisory Planning Commission meeting about the project and were unsuccessful at stopping it there.

Right around that time I made some modifications to Abundant Housing Vancouver‘s letter-generator program, and then launched a campaign to send letters of support to New Westminster city council. I was expecting maybe a couple dozen letters of support. I had asked AHVancouver how many letters they’d sent for various campaigns. They had put together a similar campaign supporting TMH in Vancouver’s Marpole neighbourhood, and another one for TMH in Richmond. These campaigns sent 119 letters in support of Marpole and 137 in support of Richmond. I thought we’d be lucky to get to fifty.

Then the New West Record put out an article about us. In our first day we had 30 letters of support. In three days we broke a hundred. After ten days we hit 138 and broke AHVancouver’s record for letters of support for a TMH project. A week later, and just an hour before the start of the public hearing, we sent our 196th letter.

The letters came from every single neighbourhood of New Westminster. They came from Sapperton, which has similar housing supplied by the Elizabeth Fry Society, in a building that faced similar opposition six years ago and is today hosts people that are a valued part of the community. They came from Brow Of The Hill, which has Westminster House and Last Door Recovery Society housing, whose residents volunteer at community events across Metro Vancouver. They came from Downtown New West, which has Genesis Society and Salvation Army housing near Qayqayt Elementary School, which have no problems coexisting.

And 25% of the letters that had addresses came from Queensborough. Queensborough has only about 10% of New Westminster’s population, so the Queensborough TMH had greater support there than from anywhere else in the city.

I was overwhelmed at all of the support Yes In New West was able to shine a light on. YiNW can’t take the credit, the 196 letter writers are more than deserving of all of the applause. We merely unlocked their support to let the city see how compassionate and welcoming they are.

On Queensborough

I like Queensborough. I think that it’s been dumped on in the past, but it’s getting better. The streets aren’t that great, there aren’t as many amenities as there should be (but it does have more park space per capita than the city average), the transit sucks, the sidewalks are crappy or non-existent, but it’s a nice community. I’ve been to the last two Queensborough Children’s Festivals, and they’re always full of energy, full of life, and full of community spirit. The last one I was at it was filled with people wearing shirts that said “Queensborough, Community With Heart”, and I still feel that that’s the truth.

Queensborough is filled with kind and welcoming people. Despite the efforts of the Facebook group Queensborough Residents for Responsible Community Planning (QRRCP), I cannot think of Queensborough residents as being unwelcoming. I believe that they’re just lacking the experience that others have when it comes to living in a community with housing for people who may have been living on the street, or are fleeing abuse, or are aging out of foster care with nowhere to go.

Acceptance often comes after exposure. We here in Brow of the Hill have been living with recovery houses for so long that they’re a fabric of our neighbourhood. We’re accepting of a wider range of people from a wider range of socioeconomic situations because we have that exposure. Queensborough residents don’t, so they can’t build up that acceptance and are more likely to believe in strawman arguments (“our kids will be playing in parks strewn with needles” or “mentally ill women will break into our schools with axes” or even “our property values will go down”) that have no bearing in reality. It’s only after exposure that the acceptance will come, and I’m very confident that Queensborough will accept these women as fellow neighbours and not as outsiders or others.

On Queensborough TMH

The Queensborough Temporary Modular Housing will provide shelter for 44 women who are either without a home or are at risk of losing their home. This isn’t a drug recovery centre, this isn’t a mental illness facility, it’s for women who do not have a place to live. That’s an important distinction, because being without a home does not mean you’re a drug user or have mental illness challenges. They could be teenagers turning 19 and aging out of foster care. They could be seniors on fixed incomes facing increasing rent and medical costs. They could be women fleeing domestic violence. All of these women — and those with other issues that were either caused by or the cause of losing their housing — have a right to a safe place to live.

So to hear fear-mongering from the Port Royal Mom’s Group or online petitions about vague “dangers to our children” is disheartening. Those same vague “concerns” in the QRRCP petition (which I will not link to) show up:

Queensborough Residents For Responsible Community Planning (QRRCP) is a group of local residents who are concerned with the precise location of this project, given its close proximity to large groups of children accessing school and community services.

…the current site is in direct proximity to over 680 students and hundreds of additional children who are potentially at risk to harm from exposure to active drug use, a potential increase in local drug trade/associated criminal activity, and, individuals exhibiting high risk mental health behaviours.

Of course, these concerns are largely unfounded. Qayqayt Elementary School has three recovery houses closer than this project is to Queen Elizabeth Elementary or Queensborough Middle School, and they coexist just fine. And tarring an entire group of vulnerable people with “active drug use” or “criminal activity” or “high risk mental health behaviours” is just plain scare-mongering. What about the 18-year old who’s transitioning out of foster care? What about the 75-year old woman who’s on a fixed income and cannot continue to pay her ever-increasing rent? What about the woman fleeing domestic violence? Why are you tarring these women with such fearful words? It’s almost as if they’re cherry-picking horror stories to drive up people’s fears to get them to oppose the project.

Nowhere in the petition does it mention the loss of parkland, which you’ll seen see was a theme of the majority of the speakers at the public hearing. I don’t know why they made this shift of narrative.

On The Public Hearing

It was disgraceful, and the overwhelming majority of that disgrace falls on the group of people who came out in opposition to the project. They were rude, they were disrespectful, and they created a hostile environment for everybody involved. The only raised voices I heard from anybody who was supporting the project was asking the loud opposition crowd to be quiet.

Women who had been given assistance through similar projects came out to speak in favour of housing, and a number of them bravely shared incredibly personal and heartbreaking stories. A lot of people from Elizabeth Fry and other similar organizations spoke about the massive benefits of projects like this, not only for the people involved but also for the community. I spoke, yes, but the brave women who shared their stories are the ones we should be focusing on.

And then there were the group of people in opposition. With threatening words towards council like “we’ll be watching” or “November, guys” (pro-tip: if you’re going to threaten politicians about an upcoming election, get the month right) and the clapping and shouting after anybody in opposition spoke, this group made City Hall feel like a riot was going to break out. Two women who were going to speak in favour were intimidated by this behaviour into leaving before they could speak. The safe and welcoming place that City Hall is meant to be was completely transformed by the intimidation of the opposition group.

Queensborough-Richmond MLA Jas Johal was in the lobby, but unfortunately did not speak about the project. After I spoke in favour, I passed him in the audience and he gave me some kind of a smug smirk. I learned afterwards that he was seen chatting and laughing with a group of people in opposition who were being loud and intimidating. This is poor behaviour from someone who is supposed to be a leader in the community.

None of the bullying came from people in support of the project. None of the intimidation came from people in support of the project. If someone in opposition to the project felt bullied or guilty because they stated their reasons for opposing the location, maybe that’s their conscience making an appearance. If you feel guilty because you’re opposing a project because it’ll take away park space when women who lived on the streets and could have died without projects like this speak up, then maybe it’s your conscience making you feel guilty that you place park space above housing a vulnerable neighbour.

I urge everybody to watch New Westminster City Council’s statements made after the Public Hearing as they voted in favour of the project. If you only have 15 minutes, skip to 30 minutes into the video and listen to Jaimie McEvoy’s heart-wrenching story.

On being heard

This group kept saying things like “we want you to hear us” or “yes to the project, but no to the location”. This sounds reasonable on the face of it. People want to be heard. But if you want to actually have a conversation, you have to do some listening as well. The people in opposition to the project stated that they wanted the project moved to another site such as a location on nearby Fenton Street. The city heard this request and did a detailed look at the site before determining that it would not work for this project. The money from the provincial government to build the building has a time limit on it, and the Fenton Street site required more work than could be done before that time limit, so it could not be moved to Fenton Street.

The city reported this, yet the people in opposition didn’t hear it. They continued to say “no to the location” even when they were told that the other locations would not work.

And the “yes to the project, but no to the location” argument is a typical (and here’s where some of you are going to get on me for using the word) NIMBY argument. It’s used to show some kind of sympathy, to show that you are actually in favour of housing vulnerable people, but for whatever reason the location just won’t work. “We’re in favour of townhouses, just stick them on busy arterials instead of our nice street.” “We’re in favour of towers, just not where they block our view.” “We’re in favour of temporary modular housing, just not so close to a school because we’re concerned about the safety of children.”

Well, guess what. If you’re opposed to the location you’re opposed to the project. The location is part of the project. You can’t separate them. Every location has its flaws; I can almost guarantee that if the Fenton Street site was the first choice of the city, these people would still come out and come up with excuses why the location is no good for the project. It’s next to single family homes, maybe, or it’s too far from transit, or some other excuse.

The only grace I’m willing to grant them is the loss of park space. Yes, the lot is currently covered in gravel, but it would not take much to throw down some grass and have it be a bit of a grassy field in a few months. The city should have come out right from the start saying “we realize that there will be a loss of green space, but the T in TMH means ‘temporary’ and the building will be gone in 10 to 12 years, after which we will restore the site to a much better quality than it is now.” Guarantee that the park space will be restored to the community and show that you’re listening to them on this point as well.

On The Future

The future is in Queensborough’s hands. It could go two ways:

One, the people in opposition rally in opposition to the project and protest on site when construction starts. The notice of public hearing sign was lying in the dirt when I went to the Queensborough Community Centre on Tuesday, and I’m hoping this wasn’t because someone was pissed off and knocked it over, I’m hoping that for whatever reason the city took it down and just left it there instead of hauling it away. I’m hoping that this wasn’t the start of larger protests. This reaction would obviously be a negative one, and definitely wouldn’t shine a great light on Queensborough.

The other way this could go is people welcome their new neighbours to their community. There are a number of people who have expressed interest in helping EFry with things like Compass Cards, or welcome packages. I’m hoping that kids from the two schools create gift bags for the new residents, similar to kids in Marpole. I’m hoping to see an overwhelming amount of support and compassion and empathy for our new neighbours and new members of our community.

After all, what did that wise man once say?

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

Renovictions and Airbnb in New Westminster

A couple of days ago the Queens Park Residents’ Association put out this plea for assistance on Facebook:

At the AGM yesterday a couple of residents from Maple Manor Apartments (304 3rd Ave.) were invited to share their story. The apartment has new owners who have received a renovation permit and those still there will be renovicted at the end of the month. There are very few rental options in Queen’s Park and a lack of affordable rental housing in NewWest. They are stable long-term renters (5 years, 21 years and 27 years). They have incomes, but that have not increased at the same rate as the escalating market rental fees. They love living in New West and have jobs and friends near-by, but are really looking for ANY option that is affordable in the $800 – $1,000 range.

This is a too-common situation in New Westminster, and the City is working on steps to address renovictions.

But, and there’s a really big but here, rental stock in New Westminster isn’t as high as it could be, and increasing the rental stock does not involve building new buildings. It involves cracking down on people putting suites, houses, and apartments on Airbnb and other short-term rental platforms in New Westminster.

A fraction of the Queens Park Airbnb listings.

Airbnb and other short-term rental platforms are legal in New Westminster. Let’s make that abundantly clear. They are classified as a Home Based Business and an owner can apply for a business license. There are restrictions on what you can rent out for example, (it has to be an accessory use to the residential use, which means you can’t rent out an entire house on a Home Based Business License, you’d need to have proper zoning and permits to run what’s classified as a hotel). But if you look in the Open Data Catalogue you’ll find that there are currently four bed & breakfast permits issued for 2017, and none of the addresses listed are in the Queens Park neighbourhood.

So, that means that the overwhelming majority of listings on Airbnb in New Westminster are operating illegally. A number of them are for single rooms or people renting out their houses when they’re on vacation. Fine, let’s not look at those for now, because those aren’t units that would be suitable for long-term rentals.

But there are some listings that are for a separate suite in a house, or for the entire house, or for multiple units in the house, and these listings have months of available times for booking. These are listings that could very easily be long-term rentals for these people being renovicted.

227 Third Street has four Airbnb listings.

Let’s look at one example. This listing, this listing, this listing, and this listing are all rooms and suites within the same house at 227 Third Street. Right there are six rooms that could be rented out long-term, providing housing for a couple of families, that are instead being rented out to tourists.

Or this listing for a one-bedroom basement suite. Or this listing for a recently-renovated one-bedroom suite on First Street.

Of course, there are other basement suites up on Airbnb in other neighbourhoods, like this two-bedroom suite in Massey Victory Heights that would be perfect for a family.

Please note that the owners of these properties may well have all of the permits necessary and I may have missed their business licenses in the dataset. But even if they are legal, they are still potentially taking away from rental stock.

Is rental stock being eaten up by short-term rentals in New Westminster? It’s hard to look at these examples and say no. These Airbnb listings are the perfect type of suites that could be rented out to long-term renters, yet are being turned into bed and breakfast rooms for short-term visitors. I haven’t even touched apartments or condos in this cursory search. A number of stratas do not allow short-term rentals, but others don’t, and strata fines may be seen as a cost of doing business for someone putting up their unit on Airbnb.

And with the recent passing of the OCP to allow more laneway houses, will we see those go up on Airbnb or will they be long-term rentals? Financially it probably makes more sense to put them on Airbnb, but at what cost to our communities?

To answer the Queens Park Residents’ Association’s plea, I’d say go knock on the doors of your neighbours with listings on Airbnb and ask them why they’re not willing to rent out to a fellow Queens Park resident in need of housing.

Further reading: Short-term consequences: Investigating the extent, nature and rental housing implications of Airbnb listings in Vancouver, Karen Sawatzky.

On Preserving Single-Family Homes in New Westminster

There are five houses near the corner of Ash Street and Gloucester Street in New Westminster. Four of them were built in 1900 or earlier, making this one of the oldest cluster of houses in the city. The fifth was built in 1971. From building details it appears that the five (and possibly one other) properties were subdivided from one larger property sometime around 1889 and built over the next ten years. The 1971 house previously had a house built in 1890 on it.

One of the older houses is currently up for sale. Here’s part of its listing:

A true heritage home gem. Built approximately 1898 this home has been cared for but not at the expense of its character. You will be surprised at how large the home feels, the owner loves to entertain and regularly has social functions with over 25 guests. Double french doors lead to a fully fenced, landscaped backyard that adds to the livable space and creates an outdoor oasis. The ancient grapevine trunk has been carefully pruned and gives off shade from the supporting trellis as well as a bountiful harvest from its shoots.

It sounds really nice, and given the current asking price of $848,000, it’s amazing that it’s been on the market for weeks now. It was previously listed for $899,000, and I guess being on the market for so long has got the sellers to drop their asking price.

Houses at Ash & Gloucester

It probably isn’t selling because it’s on a very small lot: 33 feet by 66 feet. Compared to the standard New Westminster lot size of 50 feet by 130 feet, this lot is about a third the size of a standard lot. And the house is almost as big as you’re allowed to build (you could add another 170 square feet) so it’s probably not worth knocking the house down to build a new one.

In fact, this cluster of houses is an excellent example of fairly gentle densification with single family houses. The total area of these five houses is just about the same as two standard lots (1,202 m2 compared to 1,215 m2), meaning it’s 2.5 times denser than your standard New Westminster single-family house neighbourhood.

Gentle densification! Yay! Single-family homes! Yay! (for some non-extreme value of yay)

But let’s mention the last part of the listing for the house that’s for sale. This part wasn’t in the listing until the recent price drop, as my wife pointed out to me at the time:

INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY: This home along with the surrounding houses is not on the heritage registry. It is likely that at some point they will be assembled as a multi family development.

No!

First off, the houses on either side of this house sold at separate times within the past year. Sure, “at some point” there might be some land assembly but I’m willing to bet that that won’t happen for years to come. There’s already a lot of low-hanging fruit in Brow Of The Hill where land assembly will mean two lots being merged instead of five. Dealing with two owners is a lot easier than dealing with five.

Second, this corner is exactly the type of gentle densification that’s great! It’s got heritage, it’s got curb appeal, it’s even got a mid-70s house with a carport. What more can you ask for?

I mean yes, I’m all for densification, but not here. Let’s densify two standard single-family lots and put six townhouses on them. But let’s not tear down five single-family houses to put eight townhouses on them. This corner is already perfect, let’s not ruin that with some mad rush to assemble lots and put multi-family buildings everywhere we can.

Mapping New Westminster – Building Ages

New Westminster has published a bunch of datasets under its Open Data portal, one of which is building age. A couple of months ago I grabbed the dataset, converted the SHP file (details forthcoming, mostly because I did it a couple of months ago and can’t remember how I did it) and followed Mapzen‘s One Minute Map tutorial series to make a map showing every building in New Westminster coloured by when it was built!

I’ve made two colour schemes for this map. The first colours buildings along a seven-colour spectrum. Basically red is old, white is mid-century, and blue is new:

  • earlier than 1900
  • between 1900 and 1919
  • between 1920 to 1939
  • between 1940 and 1959
  • between 1960 and 1979
  • between 1980 and 1999
  • between 2000 and older

The second one uses the pre-1941 cutoff used for the Queens Park Heritage Conservation Area. Buildings built before 1941 are afforded greater protections in Queens Park and are coloured orange in this colour scheme. I came up with this one to see if there are any areas in the city that have similar age distributions to Queens Park, and maybe spur people to ask why Queens Park is considered more special than, say, parts of Moody Park, Sapperton, and Glenbrooke North…

Map Detail for 217 Ninth Street

Toggle between the colour schemes by using the little ‘layers’ icon in the top right corner.

You can also click on any building to find out when it was constructed and who the developer and architect were! And if you move around and zoom into a specific spot you’d like to share with friends, the URL will reflect that. For example, here’s Port Royal in Queensborough.

Enjoy the map!

Be Like Brow

On 18 September 2017 I visited New West City Hall and addressed city council about the Official Community Plan that they were voting on later that night. Here’s the transcript of what I said.

My name is Brad Cavanagh and I am a resident of New Westminster. I would like to speak with you about the Brow of the Hill neighbourhood and the Official Community Plan.

Brow of the Hill is a neighbourhood unlike any other in New Westminster. Its population is about 11,000 people, making up 15% of New Westminster’s population. It has a higher proportion of renters than the average New West neighbourhood. It has a higher proportion of lower-income families, a higher proportion of recent immigrants to Canada, and a higher proportion of younger families. It has recovery houses and churches. And the older low-rise apartments mean that it has some of the lowest rents in New Westminster, meaning it’s more affordable as well.

It is one of the most walkable neighbourhoods in New West, and has one of the highest percentage of residents using active transportation — walking, cycling, and transit — despite having zero SkyTrain stations. Traffic calming done over the past few years has resulted in quiet streets where often the only sound you hear is that of children playing in the front yards of apartment buildings, people singing while they cook dinner, or families going for a walk to the corner store.

I live in Brow of the Hill. It’s a great neighbourhood. I can walk to get groceries or to the library. I know my neighbours, we have block parties, and we have fig parties. It’s a fantastic community made up of all kinds of people from all walks of life.

And it’s been an experiment in gentle densification over the past forty years. On my block are single-family houses, townhouses, and low-rise apartment buildings. We don’t have moving vans clogging our streets as “transient renters” come and go — the renters that are in Brow stay in Brow. We don’t have traffic racing up and down our street despite having three low-rise apartment buildings on our one block alone. What we do have is a great community.

And we have heritage houses in our community too — a house across the street from me was built in 1885 and is being painstakingly restored after a 2011 fire. An 1892 house on Third Avenue is being preserved thanks to an innovative Heritage Revitalization Agreement that will restore the house and add four townhouse units.

So that’s why I’m disappointed with the Land Use Designation map for the Official Community Plan. It keeps large portions of the city untouched and reserved for single-family homes, which shows that we have not learned anything from the gentle densification of Brow of the Hill over the past 40 years. Brow shows with flying colours that you can have gentle densification in a community. Single-family houses and townhouses and low-rise apartments can all coexist on a block without negatively affecting a community. Heritage can be maintained. In fact, this all adds to the diversity, vitality, and livability of a community.

The OCP and the Land Use Designation map are meant to form a vision for what New Westminster will look like 40 years from now. 40 years from now, I wish that the rest of the city would be like Brow — a walkable, affordable, and livable community that’s welcoming to immigrants, lower-income people, and younger families, but unfortunately the OCP won’t allow that to happen for the majority of our city.

I support the passage of the OCP bylaw, but hope that when rezoning requests cross your desks for other New Westminster neighbourhoods in the coming years you keep these three words in mind: be like Brow.

I thank you for your time.

A Modest Proposal for Queens Park

The Queens Park neighbourhood in New Westminster is full of old houses and apartment buildings. Some people want to tell their neighbours that they can’t tear down these old houses so the city is debating turning Queens Park into a Heritage Conservation Area. An owner of a house built before 1941 would have to go to council to make changes to it, basically — obviously there are other subtleties to this but that’s the gist.

Proponents say that the character of the houses and neighbourhood needs to be preserved. That’s fine. Because obviously the shape of the house dictates the character of a neighbourhood and the people living there have nothing to do with character.

Never mind that zoning bylaws were started because of racism and classism. Never mind that Queens Park has the lowest proportion of immigrants living in it. Never mind that houses in Queens Park sell for much much more than houses in any other neighbourhood in New West.

But the paint and wood and windows need to be preserved. So let’s preserve them. In fact, the HCA doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.

Let’s preserve every house in Queens Park. Let’s turn Queens Park into an unchanging museum of housing styles ranging from the 1890s to today. Let’s preserve all of the (English, white, rich) heritage that exists in Queens Park.

And let’s put up a fence around Queens Park, with giant signs that read “HEREIN LIES QUEENS PARK, A TRIBUTE TO THE SHATTERED HOPES AND DREAMS OF YOUNG NEW WESTMINSTERITES WHO WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO AFFORD A SINGLE FAMILY HOUSE” and “HEREIN LIES QUEENS PARK, A TRIBUTE TO OLD PAINT AND WOOD” and “HEREIN LIES QUEENS PARK, WHERE NIMBYS SAY PRESERVING OLD HOUSES IS AFFORDABLE FOR YOUNG FAMILIES”.

Honest to god there was a letter in The New West Record whose last two sentences were “In other words, property values are enhanced, fluctuations in house prices are reduced, and there is a greater sense of community ownership and involvement. I believe Queen’s Park [sic] will become the ‘heritage mecca’ for Greater Vancouver and will continue to attract young families as a great place to live.”

So yes, let’s put that on the signs too, as a fine example of the cognitive dissonance that comes from believing that somehow young people are going to be able to afford to buy a two million dollar house in Queens Park whose “property values are enhanced”.

And I apologize to those who thought from the title that this proposal was going to involve raising babies for food. God knows with the way zoning bylaws work you can’t raise any animals for food in New West, so how would you think we’d be able to raise babies for food here?

Addendum: Stephen Crosby pointed out that I didn’t go nearly far enough. No vehicles newer than 1941 should be allowed. Horse-drawn carriages, totally allowed (but not as high tech as the Amish make them). Men must wear hats, and ladies must wear gloves. If you’re a white woman living in a house built before 1918 you can’t vote. If you’re Asian or Indigenous, obviously you won’t be allowed to vote. Because 1941 is heritage and heritage is great and let’s all continue to believe we’re living there!

New Westminster’s business community wants more affordable housing

At the January 16, 2017 New Westminster Council Meeting, Mustel Group (a market research consulting company) presented the results of a survey that they had done of New West’s business community during September and October 2016. You can read the full survey results in the agenda package I linked to above, but I would like to highlight some important pieces of data.

First, in the quantitative section (this is where they just look at survey question responses and not free-form answers), the factor influencing a local business’s location that had the worst satisfaction rating was local affordable housing. In other words, current businesses are not satisfied with the availability of affordable housing here.

Second, affordable housing was the fourth-highest priority that local businesses wanted to see improved in New West, after being more business friendly, transportation, and taxes.

In the qualitative section, where an interviewer sat down with business owners and representatives to get more detailed and personal responses, the lack of affordable housing was seen as one of the challenges of doing business in the city. Related to this was the concern of the lack of mixed-use developments, which the business community feels contribute to a thriving city.

One of the suggestions that came out of the qualitative section was to “develop the business community — but keep green space and affordable housing in mind to make New Westminster a more livable city.”

And one of the questions that was asked was “what would you do if you could make one change?” One of the responses was “creating more affordable housing and student housing which will contribute to the overall growth and development of the city; and help to create a balanced city in which it would be comfortable to work and live.”

It’s pretty clear that the New Westminster business community wants more affordable housing in New Westminster. It only makes sense.

People shop more and use more services close to where they live. If people can’t afford to live in New West, they’re usually not going to make special trips to go grocery shopping in New West. They’ll come for specialty items like wedding dresses (which has a good knock-on affect for local businesses like restaurants) but most businesses rely on a relatively steady stream of local customers. They can’t all rely on tourists to our city.

If people can’t afford to live in New Westminster, then they’ll have to commute in to their jobs in New Westminster. This either increases the amount of traffic on the roads (which was the business community’s biggest challenge of doing business here) or if they rely on transit, they’ll miss shifts because of transit delays or be unable to make early morning shifts on weekends because of cutbacks to TransLink schedules. In either case commuters need to spend more money and time to get to their jobs, money and time that could be spent shopping locally.

And not only that, if a family is mortgaged up to their eyeballs, they don’t have any extra money to spend on a night out for dinner, or shop locally for gifts for loved ones, or buy a new bike from the local bike store, or meet up with friends at the local brewery. All of these businesses (and more!) take hits from housing being too expensive.

Not every job is going to pay a living wage, unfortunately. As a recap from a Kelowna Chamber of Commerce discussion on ending homelessness and supporting affordable housing put it:

The reality of the labour market is that some people make lower wages than others, yet are critical to our labour pool. These workers and community residents need affordable housing, and need it in order to work, to continue to contribute to the economy, and to avoid the risk of becoming homeless.

Without local affordable housing we run the risk of requiring people to pay more for transportation to get to their jobs, which means they have to cut from other parts of their budget. Without local affordable housing we run the risk of people holding too much debt, which doesn’t allow them to support local businesses. And without affordable housing we run the risk of losing these local businesses entirely.

The New Westminster business community sees this, and they rightly want more affordable housing in New Westminster.

How property taxes work (in New Westminster)

There’s been a lot of talk recently about property taxes, now that the property value assessments are out. Property taxes are based, kind of, on property value, so when people see their property assessment go up by 40%, they flip out because they think that their property taxes are going up 40%. They won’t, but people are confused because they don’t fully understand the link between property values and property taxes. Hopefully this blog post will help make things simple to understand.

Keep in mind that this is only for New Westminster. I’m pretty sure other jurisdictions around work the same way (especially those in BC) but I’m not 100% certain, so keep that in mind. And it only looks at residential property taxes; commercial and industrial taxes might work differently, but given people are confused about their residential property taxes, that’s what I’m focusing on.

Suppose you have a city. In one year, that city requires $1,000,000 to keep running — potholes need filling, roads need to be cleared of snow, police officers need to be paid, that sort of thing. Now suppose there is only one person living in that city and the entire city is made up of one plot of land. That landowner needs to give the city $1,000,000 in taxes. Easy.

Now suppose there are two properties in the city. Each property is the same size, and each is worth the same amount of money. Each landowner owes half of the city income, or $500,000 each. (This is an expensive city to live in, but what do you expect when you own half a city?)

Now suppose that there are still two properties in the city, but one is mostly swamp and the other isn’t. Both properties are the same size, but the swamp property is worth 10% of the other one (let’s say the swamp is worth $100,000 and the other one is worth $1,000,000). There are two ways we can split up the amount owed to the city: by property size or by property value. In this case one could argue either way, but maybe the swamp property receives fewer city services (maybe swamps don’t need much policing or sidewalks, for example), so if we split the amount owed by property value, one property owes $90,909.09 and the other owes $909,090.91. The total property value across the city is $1,100,000, so the swamp property owes $100,000/$1,100,000 = 9.1% and the “good” property owes the rest.

Now suppose there are still two properties in the city. One swamp, one not swamp. It’s been discovered that swamps actually contain gold, so the property value of the swamp property has skyrocketed from $100,000 up to $2,000,000. That’s an increase of 1,900%! The other property’s value goes up as well, but not that much — only by 100% to $2,000,000. The total property value across the city is now $4,000,000, and the city still needs $1,000,000 to operate, and because each property is worth the same amount of money, each property owner owes $500,000.

This is where the disconnect between property value and property tax comes in. The swamp property’s value went up 1,900%, but their tax bill “only” went up 450%. The “good” property’s value went up 100%, but their property tax actually went down by 45%!

There’s obviously a wrinkle in this in that the city doesn’t need a fixed amount of money each year. The amount they need typically goes up, because of inflation, rising salaries, and extra projects that the city wants (or needs) to take on. That’s why every year you see a news story stating that “property taxes are going up by 2.73%“. Well, they’re not. Well, they are. On average property taxes are going up, but not everybody’s taxes go up. What the 2.73% refers to is the amount of money the city needs to take in from property taxes is going up.

Let’s take our example again. The city needs $1,000,000 one year and $1,100,000 the next. 10% property tax increase for everybody, right? Wrong. The swamp property paid $90,909.10 in year one, and will pay $550,000 the next, for an increase of 505%. The “good” property paid $909,090.90 the first year and will pay $550,000 the next, for a decrease of 39.5%.

What matters is the difference between a specific property’s value and the total value of all of the property in the city. And that’s why you can’t look at a news report about property taxes going up and think “oh great my property taxes are going up”, and it’s also why you can’t look at a news report about property values going up and think “oh great my property taxes are going up”, because the “property taxes” (the amount of money the city needs to take in via taxation) can go up AND your property value can go up BUT the actual taxes you pay can go down.

In New Westminster, “property taxes” are going up 2.73% (or maybe 2.98%, I don’t know exactly). The average change in property value for 2016 is 28.5%, so if your property’s value has gone up by 28.5% then your property tax bill will go up by about 2.73% (or 2.98%). If your property value “only” went up 20%, the amount you pay in property taxes will go down.

And that’s how residential property taxes work.

My response to Susan Dextras

Today the New West Record printed a response to the Yes In New West story that ran a couple of weeks ago. It was written by Susan Dextras, a New Westminster resident, who has been outspoken about the proposal in the draft Official Community Plan to change the land use designation (note: not zoning) of the block that she lives on from single family houses to rowhouses and townhouses.

Her letter was fairly NIMBY and since she addressed my family directly, I’m responding to her points.

My husband and I are long time residents of New Westminster since 1984. When we first arrived in the Lower Mainland, there was no affordable housing in Metro Vancouver, so we looked in New Westminster and found the property where we have resided and raised our family for the last 32 years. We plan to continue living in our home for many years to come and we have no intention of selling to a developer or anyone else in the next 25 years.

In 1984 the average price for a single family home in Greater Vancouver was $116,444, and the average total family income was $30,070, which is a ratio of just under 4. In 2014 the average price for a single family home in Metro Vancouver was about $1,400,000 and the median family income was $76,040, which is a ratio of over 18. Since 2014 the housing prices have grown even more, yet incomes have not kept up.

There was affordable housing available in Metro Vancouver. House prices were not huge multipliers of income like they are today.

I would note that Mrs. Dextras’ husband holds a BEng in Civil Engineering, which he obtained in 1976. Civil Engineering is a fairly advanced field of work and pays well, so the odds are quite good that the Dextras family had an above average income in 1984. For Mrs. Dextras to say that “there was no affordable housing” is a stretch.

I would also note that the Dextrases (is that how you pluralize it?) managed to have enough money to tear down the 1903 house they purchased and build a new one in 1990. People who complain about housing not being affordable don’t generally build their own house six years into a mortgage.

Oh, and she says that she has no intention of selling to a developer. Great! Then don’t! Nobody’s forcing you to. Just like how you shouldn’t be forcing your views on your neighbours, over half of which didn’t sign your petition, by the way.

So my advice to Mr. and Mrs. Cavanagh and young couples like them would be to search for affordable housing in the outlying municipalities of the Lower Mainland where land is cheaper and more available, much like we did when we first arrived here. And yes, there will be a commute to and from work but it is what most people have to deal with to be able to afford housing of any kind in our expensive city. Such is life.

Basically what Mrs. Dextras is saying here is “we don’t want anybody young or poor to move into our city”. It reeks of classism. She also seems to be in favour of people not spending time with their families. Mrs. Dextras, I like my family. I like spending time with them. For you to say “just suck it up an commute” is offensive. You might not like spending time with your family, but I like mine and I would rather spend my time with them instead of commuting.

Mrs. Dextras also seems to be proposing that our traffic get worse. Instead of being able to live close to where you work, you should have to live out Langley, Abbotsford, Mission, or Chilliwack and drive through New Westminster to get to your job, right? One of the best solutions for traffic is reducing the need to drive to and from work, and Mrs. Dextras seems to think that maybe more traffic on our streets is a good thing. More pollution is a good thing. Greater dependence on oil is a good thing. Right, Mrs. Dextras?

When we became aware in September of this year of the City’s Draft Future Land Use Map which was sent by Canada Post to the households in our neighborhood, we were astounded to see that the City Planners had arbitrarily colored our 5th – 6th Street Corridor (from 10th Av. To 6th Ave.) “orange” to designate that our streets had been changed from RS1- Single Family Detached zoning to Residential Townhouse zoning – without our consent.

I’ve been told that you’ve been told numerous times that you’re wrong about this. Well, here’s one more time:

YOU ARE WRONG.

The zoning isn’t changing. After the OCP is implemented your property will still be zoned RS-1. The land use designation may change to townhouses, but that is not rezoning! What that means is that if someone wants to rezone their property, the densest it could go is to townhouses. They wouldn’t be able to rezone it to a condo tower (at least, not without a huge fight).

Let me give you an example of the difference between land use and zoning. Queen’s Park is a lovely park in the middle of the city. It has an arena, a baseball diamond, some tennis courts, a nice rose garden, a really good playground, a petting zoo, and wonderful trails. It’s a park. It’s also zoned RS-1. Now do you see the difference between land use and zoning?

If Mayor Cote and the City Councillors take the time to walk down 5th Street, they will see a lovely eclectic collection of old and new homes, all well maintained, some with manicured gardens where neighbors meet for special events and family gatherings.

If Mayor Cote and the City Councillors take the time to walk down my street, they will see a lovely eclectic collection of old and new homes, townhouses and low-rise apartment buildings, all well maintained, some with manicured gardens. We had a street party right in front of my house this year, and another one right around the corner. There are Christmas lights everywhere, and people are always out walking on the sidewalks. Kids play in their front yards, whether they be in front of single family homes or apartment buildings. It’s a vibrant and diverse community, and it should be held up as a model community for the rest of New Westminster.

This is NOT a neighborhood which should be rezoned by the City and then offered to a developer who would then systematically over the next 20 years, demolish each house and begin construction on 450 townhouse units in our 15 acre Corridor.

That’s not how rezoning works, and that’s not how this process works. Again, just to make this clear, the OCP process is not rezoning. Nobody is offering developers anything. There are no bulldozers coming for you. Stop with the paranoia.

What the OCP process means that should one of your neighbours decide to sell their house, someone can buy it. And then maybe their neighbour sells their house, and that same someone buys that one too. Now they own two neighbouring properties. At that point, the landowner can apply for a rezoning. Only after that gets approved would there be any hint of demolition.

In fact, this is exactly the case of the block of houses up for sale along Eighth Avenue at Cumberland Street. One man bought one of those houses decades ago. Then the neighbouring house came up for sale, and he bought that. Let one of his kids live in it. He did that for four or five of the houses there, and members of his family were living in each house. And now the families have grown up, started moving away, and the gentleman has decided to try to sell all of the properties at once so that the adjoining lots can be rezoned to townhouses, making more affordable housing for young families to move into. His view is that young families should be able to enjoy New Westminster and afford to live here, and he’s trying to help that by trying to increase the number of family-friendly townhouses in New Westminster.

It’s a shame that you can’t see that, Mrs. Dextras. It’s a shame that you got lucky on the land lottery and are now so selfish that you can’t bear to see a few younger families move into your neighbourhood.

And all of this done to meet the City of New Westminster’s OCP agenda, which ultimately was initiated by Mayor Cote and council … to satisfy Metro Vancouver’s regional growth strategy and its need for more densification. However, Metro Vancouver’s strategy is “only guidelines and not the rule of law,” as Chief Justice Sharma of the Supreme Court of B.C. has outlined in her decision of the (Metro Vancouver vs. the City of Langley) court case in 2014.

Here’s a tip for readers at home: if someone who isn’t a lawyer starts talking about court decisions, they’ve usually misinterpreted that decision. In this case, she not only gets the defendant wrong (it was actually the Township of Langley, not the City of Langley) but the entire jist of the case. Metro Vancouver was trying to get the Township of Langley to not develop a “University District” because it didn’t fit into Metro Vancouver’s regional growth strategy. The Township of Langley argued that they were operating under the old plan. And yes, the judge did say that the regional growth strategy is “guidelines expressing policy” and that Metro Vancouver “does not have superiority over land use management within the boundaries of a municipality.” But Metro Vancouver isn’t telling New Westminster how to manage its land use within New Westminster. The whole point of the OCP is that New Westminster is telling New Westminster how to manage its land use within New Westminster. Is New Westminster supposed to take New Westminster to court to try to get New Westminster to not manage its land use?

(Astute readers will note that I’m someone who isn’t a lawyer and I’m talking about a court decision, but my information comes from this news story and you can go read it and determine for yourself if my synopsis makes sense instead of Mrs. Dextras’ throwaway line with no backstory.)

Therefore, the city is not legally bound to follow Metro’s strategy and should not be using it as an excuse to rezone, devalue and eventually dismantle our existing private property neighbourhoods in the name of creating more affordable housing in the future for someone else’s benefit.

New Westminster is not rezoning your property. Pay attention.

But I guess we just have different views about the future of our city. I see a city that embraces newcomers of all kinds. I see a city that’s welcoming to young people, to immigrants, to people who aren’t as well off as others. I see a dynamic and evolving city. And I think Mrs. Dextras wants to wrap the city in Saran Wrap and keep it the way it is forever, to the detriment of future generations.

And that’s a shame.

My ‘Yes In New West’ address to New Westminster Council

On 7 November 2016 a group of New Westminster residents called ‘Yes In New Westspoke before City Council to ask that they add more ‘missing middle’ housing — duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, townhouses, and rowhouses — in New Westminster as part of its Official Community Plan. Here’s what I had to say:

My name is Brad Cavanagh. I have been a resident of New Westminster for nearly seven years. I am a member of Yes in New West, and I am here to speak to you regarding housing affordability and how the draft land use designation map can help future generations of New Westminster residents afford to live in our city.

New Westminster, like Metro Vancouver, has a housing affordability problem. The benchmark price for a single family house in New West is over a million dollars. To qualify for a mortgage on a million dollar house a family needs an income of at least $170,000, and that’s only if the family has saved up $200,000 for a down payment.

When I moved to New Westminster I was in my early thirties. My wife and I both held well-paying jobs, but with childcare costs we had no extra money to put aside for a down payment. We rented an apartment, then moved into a housing co-op, but home ownership was a distant dream. Condos offer very little outdoor space, and buying a single family house in New Westminster, the city we chose to move to and have grown to love, was completely impossible for us.

Luckily for us we found a townhouse for sale. It ticked all of the boxes we had on our list so we made an offer. After a stressful weekend of waiting, our offer was accepted. We scraped together a 5% down payment, signed a lot of paperwork, and are now homeowners.

Six months later the neighbouring unit sold for 20% more than we paid.

This morning there were thirteen townhouses for sale in New Westminster. Five are under construction, all in Queensborough, and three are in adult-only buildings, leaving only five available for families with children to purchase and move into today. Only one of those is listed for less than what we paid ten months ago.

For families like mine who would like a little more outdoor space than a condo can offer, the current situation is bleak: try and bid on the rare townhouse that comes up for sale and compete against a dozen other offers, or move out of New Westminster.

In 25 years this situation will be even worse if we choose to keep large areas of New Westminster designated to protect the single family house. There needs to be more of the affordable missing middle in New Westminster for families like mine to move into.

Luckily, the draft land use designation map has identified some areas of New Westminster for potential townhouse development. Some of these areas are on busy arterial streets and others are on quieter boulevards but still very close to commercial districts and transit, and all of these should be kept. City staff has identified and recommended that council designate further areas for townhouses. I strongly urge council to accept city staff’s recommendations regarding townhouses to make the missing middle more prevalent and affordable in New Westminster.

I love New Westminster. It’s a great place to raise a family. I am glad that we chose to move here, and I urge council to make the decision to increase the housing options across all neighbourhoods in New Westminster. Keep in mind that these decisions won’t just impact you or me, but also our children and grandchildren. Let’s give them more housing options so they too can grow up and raise their families in New Westminster.

I thank you for your time.