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.

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.

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.