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.


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.