To break housing gridlock, we need to democratize unrepresentative public hearings
Housing policy has a democracy problem. Amid a housing crisis, highly unrepresentative public hearing processes contribute to land-use decisions that fail to reflect the perspectives and interests of all affected residents. But the right reforms can help deepen democracy and break housing gridlock.
At the municipal level, decisions about providing new housing are typically made on the basis of lengthy site-by-site rezoning and public hearing processes. This system of decision-making falls short on democratic grounds, and it makes building new homes more difficult and expensive for public, non-profit and private housing developers alike, contributing to the housing shortage in BC and Canada.
Public hearings on housing systematically underrepresent the interests of renters and those who have been priced out or otherwise excluded from communities. This problem is increasingly recognized and studied in cities across North America. Public engagement should take a more representative and deeply democratic form, and one that is consistent with rapid action to address the housing crisis.
Our argument proceeds as follows. In the next section, we discuss the limitations of status quo public hearings on representational grounds, as well as in terms of their consequences for the housing crisis.
In the subsequent section, we examine the democratic case for broadening the geographic scope of decision-making on land-use, including shifting away from site-by-site rezonings and involving senior levels of government, each of which goes some way to improving the representation of excluded voices.
We then lay out our argument for how the structure of public hearing processes needs to be overhauled to ensure they include a much more representative cross-section of affected residents. Specifically, we make the case for using deliberative mini-publics (also commonly referred to as citizens’ panels and citizens’ assemblies) as a primary form of public engagement on land-use questions.
While mini-publics come in many forms, central to all of them is some form of democratic lottery to select participants, coupled with various practices to bring about high-quality and well-informed discussions among those participants. We believe mini-publics have much to offer if incorporated into our public engagement repertoire, and present a variety of different applications.
Public hearings and their discontents
As is typical in North American jurisdictions, public hearings are a regular feature of local decisions about land use relating to new housing in BC. Provincial law sets the overall legal framework for municipalities including legal requirements for local governments to hold public hearings in certain circumstances. Two key sets of policies that determine what type of housing can be built and where are a municipality’s overall Official Community Plan and its more specific zoning bylaws. Public hearings are legally required when changes are made to a community plan or zoning bylaw, including rezonings.1 Some forms of public engagement are held at the discretion of municipalities in cases like zoning variances, as well as by local and senior levels of government to solicit broader policy input.
Existing community plans and zoning bylaws tend to highly restrict the types of housing they allow. Without the process of a rezoning and public hearing, most of a city’s residential land disallows apartments and allows only low-density housing like single-family homes or duplexes. In effect, this imposes the most expensive forms of market housing as the default use of residential land.
There is a growing recognition among researchers, housing advocates, non-profit developers and governments that this system of site-by-site rezonings and public hearings for apartments is broken—it fails to give voice to all those affected by these decisions and contributes to the housing shortage.
A recent expert panel report commissioned by the BC and federal governments noted that this approach to land-use decisions tends to disproportionately “amplify the voices of groups opposing new housing at the expense of citywide objectives and affordability,” while “those who support or stand to benefit from new housing supply often do not attend public hearings to voice their views and priorities.”
Indeed, site-by-site rezonings and public hearings have structural features that lead to the underrepresentation of renters and skew participation towards opponents of new housing rather than supporters. For any given rezoning application, existing homeowners in the area—worried about issues like construction noise or lower property values—are geographically concentrated, making it relatively easy to self-organize and mobilize against a proposed housing development.
In contrast, the benefits of new housing—such as easing the overall housing shortage and lowering upward pressure on rents—are diffuse among renters around a region and modest for any individual project, making it challenging for these beneficiaries to mobilize politically. For example, renters priced out or excluded from a city are strongly affected by the scarcity of new housing, but these potential beneficiaries lack political standing in the cities they’re excluded from. These dynamics can be self-reinforcing: wealthy enclaves that don’t build enough housing to meet demand see rents and prices rise, driving out renters and lower income residents, further weakening the political standing of these groups.
Existing community plans and zoning bylaws tend to highly restrict the types of housing they allow.
The lack of representativeness in public hearings on land use is also highlighted in academic research. For example, Katherine Levine Einstein’s detailed study of public hearings in Massachusetts found that local public hearing participants were disproportionately homeowners, older and whiter than the broader community, and they were also more likely to be opponents of new housing.
The skew towards property owners and social housing opponents in municipal political participation is well documented in Canada, too (though we are not aware of detailed studies of public hearing participants specifically). The lack of representativeness is a generally recognized feature of neighbourhood associations in Toronto and Vancouver and public engagement processes relating to land use more broadly. For example, a recent online engagement process about policies on rental housing in low-density areas in Vancouver included twice as many homeowners as renters, even though renters are the majority in the city. City-wide opinion polling in Vancouver has also shown majority support for allowing multiplexes and small apartment buildings in areas now zoned for detached housing, but these views are often not reflected in public hearings for specific projects.
The lack of adequate representation on the public engagement side is compounded by the makeup of city councils themselves. For example, every member of the current Vancouver council appears to be a property owner despite renters being the majority of residents in the city. A study of 10,000 local, state and federal officials in the US found that on average “renters are starkly underrepresented by a margin of over thirty points” compared to their makeup in the population. At the provincial level in BC, 93% of MLAs are homeowners and more than half own multiple properties. This dovetails with broader research showing the underrepresentation of working-class people among elected officials.
In terms of substantive effects on the housing crisis, the system of site-by-site rezonings and public hearings is time-consuming and adds significant uncertainty to multi-family housing projects, delaying them, raising costs and generally discouraging investment in new housing. This was the finding of the BC-Canada expert panel referenced above, which included prominent representation from the non-profit housing sector. The panel recommended “reduced reliance on site-by-site public hearings and council approvals,” finding that this system “prevents new housing supply… by restricting or impeding growth as a consequence of lengthy, uncertain and costly processes.” Ontario’s housing affordability task force and BC’s Development Approval Processes Review report found and recommended much the same.
A promising first step: Shifting the locus of decision-making
Part of the solution to unrepresentative public hearings is to move away from site-by-site rezoning towards decision-making at a more encompassing geographic scope. Within a municipality, this could mean a city-wide land use planning process. A broader scope of planning recognizes that renters across a city have an interest in whether apartments are allowed on the majority of residential land usually reserved for low-density, expensive market detached homes. Holding fewer but more geographically encompassing public hearings also means renters and housing supporters wouldn’t have to mobilize to back the provision of new homes on a project-by-project basis.
Vancouver city councillor Christine Boyle recently proposed allowing social and non-profit apartment housing to be built in all areas of the city without rezoning or public hearing, delegating the decision to city staff in a process akin to that for permitting construction of single-family houses. Victoria’s city council recently passed a city-wide policy that allows new buildings in previously single-family areas to be divided into up to six units, though the actual additional housing floor space permitted is modest.
Vancouver has also undertaken a long and winding multi-year city-wide planning process, which is ongoing. But the “Vancouver Plan” will only inform the creation of a set of narrower area plans in the future, which would then seemingly still require individual project rezonings—leading some to criticize it as “a plan to make a plan to make a plan”.
While homeowners’ advantages in terms of political mobilization may be most potent when it comes to site-by-site rezonings, they also extend to city-wide politics. Renter representation during the public consultation phase of the city-wide Vancouver Plan was higher compared to many rezoning public hearings, but it still didn’t include renters proportionately to their 55% share of the city’s dwellings.
Part of the solution to unrepresentative public hearings is to move away from site-by-site rezoning.
City-wide politics also don’t give voice to those renters and prospective owners who have been priced out or excluded from a city but would like to live there. Nor do they account for broader society or economy-wide ramifications of a housing shortage, driven in part by the accumulation of many highly localized decisions about land use.
For these reasons, there has been growing attention to the role that senior levels of government should play in shaping land-use decisions, recognizing they have society-wide implications. For example, BC Premier David Eby recently brought forward legislation that would see the provincial government take steps to ensure that municipalities create an adequate supply of new housing. Under the new law, the province will work with cities to create ongoing assessments of the pent-up need for housing, make the resulting targets binding and, if needed, the province can intervene directly in land-use decisions if cities fail to meet housing needs. The Premier also promised minimum standards for zoning in urban areas to allow at least three housing units on a lot, shifting the default land use to include options other than detached houses.
Senior governments in other countries have likewise increased their involvement in land-use decisions, including at the national level in New Zealand and at the state level in California. In Japan land-use decisions have long been made at the national level. Federal proposals to nudge better land-use policies have been put forward by progressive US politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Expanding the geographic scope of decision-making about housing and land use is helpful and can contribute to ensuring a broader set of interests are represented, but it is not a complete solution.
A promising second step: Deepening public engagement through mini-publics
In addition to shifting the locus of decision-making, we need to rethink public engagement processes relating to housing at whatever geographic scope they occur. New and more representative democratic processes are needed to fully come to grips with the housing crisis, processes that can tap into the knowledge and creativity of citizens to deliberate and resolve some of the difficult trade-offs involved in land-use planning.
We see mini-publics as a promising tool to add to our collective repertoire. Mini-publics can be commissioned by governments, non-profits and academics to provide insights and judgements on a specific topic, which to date have included everything from electoral reform to climate change to workplace democracy. The outputs of mini-publics vary based on their type and remit, though often include individual responses to survey questions or collective decisions. These are usually captured in a report shared with the commissioning body and, often, with the broader public to inform public discussions.
Mini-publics have several distinguishing characteristics that we argue have the potential to contribute to more representative and informed public input on land use, all while being relatively efficient.
Rather than relying solely on self-selection–which, as we have seen, can lead to public hearings skewed towards groups like home owners, older individuals and whites–mini-publics select participants through some form of democratic lottery. This means that if 40% of a city’s residents are renters and 60% are racialized folks then approximately 40% and 60% of the participants in a mini-public will be renters and racialized, respectively. The same logic applies to other characteristics like age, gender and income.
Mini-publics include a variety of practices to ensure that these participants, once selected and onboarded, can thoughtfully engage with each other about the topic at hand. They often include a learning phase, in which participants can read balanced briefing materials and hear from and question expert and stakeholder witnesses. With the aid of trained facilitators, participants can have honest conversations with each other in both small-group and plenary sessions to make sense of this information in light of their own experiences. The broader public is often enabled to observe and, in some cases, contribute to mini-publics. For example, the Grandview-Woodland Citizens’ Assembly included a consultation phase in which Assembly members received feedback on their initial work.
These characteristics garner a remarkable set of benefits. When compared to public meetings where participants self-select, mini-publics bring together a far more descriptively representative group of individuals. Mini-publics often help engender high-quality deliberation among these diverse participants, more so than in many other bodies. This is the case even when participants tackle more complex topics. Researchers have highlighted how participants in mini-publics make high-quality decisions based less on their own personal priorities and more on those of the broader community.
Institutionalizing mini-publics as a means of public engagement on land use
Mini-publics have been used intermittently to tackle housing-related topics. In 2008, 238 residents gathered over a weekend to participate in the San Mateo Countywide Assembly on Housing Choices. Following their learning and deliberations together, a significant number of participants reported shifts in their attitudes about the need for more housing, the need for more housing density and the importance of increased regional authority over housing decisions. In 2020-2021, 29 residents of Eugene, Oregon met online during 15 sessions on the Eugene Review Panel on Housing to provide input on the city’s efforts to revitalize its land use policies. In an example with a narrower geographic scope, from 2014-2015, 48 residents, business owners or property owners in the Grandview-Woodland neighbourhood of Vancouver participated in the Grandview-Woodland Citizens’ Assembly, which was launched following the tumultuous launch of Vancouver City Council’s proposed land use plans for the neighbourhood.
While these one-off applications of mini-publics are promising, when compared to the countless self-selected meetings convened every year, they are not even a drop in the bucket. We believe it is time to make mini-publics a cornerstone of public engagement efforts on land use in British Columbia and throughout the country. We highlight three possibilities here: two at the local level and one at the provincial level.
First, complementing efforts to expand the geographic scope of decision-making about housing and land use, mini-publics could be used as a regular part of the development of city-wide plans and changes to zoning policies. They could be used earlier on in the development of these plans to help distill residents’ priorities and values, and/or they could be used later on to provide a critical appraisal of drafts of plans.
Mini-publics could be used to help facilitate broader policy-making on housing and land use.
Second, while site-by-site rezonings should be minimized for the reasons discussed above, to the extent they continue to play a role in housing policy, mini-publics could replace unrepresentative public hearings at these narrower geographic scopes, as Fitzsimmons and Pek have recently proposed. Municipalities could, for example, create permanent mini-publics tasked with considering all rezoning applications, or convene them intermittently to tackle more complex and controversial applications. Mini-publics could also be used to improve public engagement processes that some municipalities choose to hold on smaller zoning variances (though a better approach would probably be to delegate these types of smaller decisions to staff as provincial law already permits).
Third, mini-publics could be used to help facilitate broader policy-making on housing and land use at senior levels of government where a more encompassing geographic scope better reflects the breadth and depth of the housing crisis. Consider BC Premier David Eby’s recent proposal to set a new minimum zoning standard by allowing three housing units on single-family lots in major urban centres. This is welcome, but it represents only a modest step compared to the need, and a more ambitious upzoning from the province may be desirable. However, a more ambitious province-led upzoning may also be politically contentious. Convening a provincial (or regional) mini-public to consider these types of issues would allow for a representative set of residents to deliberate on and tackle the issue in a way that brings a province-wide lens to the housing crisis and its consequences. This could help build greater public consensus on how to proceed and facilitate more ambitious housing policy reforms.
It is helpful to address three important concerns people may have about this model. First, some may be concerned that the use of mini-publics will displace other opportunities for interested residents to get involved in policy making. In light of this concern, it is crucial for these uses of mini-publics to allow for other residents to share their views and contribute to deliberations, whether through survey data or in-person testimonials, and to share their outputs as widely as possible. Designers of these mini-publics should also consider ways to incorporate the views of renters in the broader region who are strongly affected by the scarcity of housing in a given municipality but may be priced out or excluded from it. Furthermore, it is important to make these processes transparent to the broader public while ensuring there is enough privacy to facilitate free and open deliberation. To achieve this, many mini-publics make small-group discussions private while publicly disseminating plenary sessions and presentations. Our targeted uses of mini-publics should not be seen as a replacement for other ways residents can engage in a vibrant democracy, such as social movement organizing or contacting their representatives.
Calls for “more consultation” ad infinitum are sometimes used by opponents of new housing as a stalling tactic to block developments.
Calls for “more consultation” ad infinitum are sometimes used by opponents of new housing as a stalling tactic to block developments.
On the other hand, a second concern relates to the fact that calls for “more consultation” ad infinitum are sometimes used by opponents of new housing as a stalling tactic to block developments, contributing to the scarcity of homes and worsening the housing crisis. Could the call for mini-publics be used as ammunition for this tactic? Possibly, but the genuinely representative structure of mini-publics means they also have the potential to be understood as uniquely legitimate and decisive forms of public engagement, undercutting unending calls for more consultation. In addition, if mini-publics are combined with the expansion of the geographic scope of land use decisions, this can reduce the proliferation of unrepresentative site-by-site public hearings.
The third concern some may raise is cost. While mini-publics share some of the same costs as public hearings like physical space and AV equipment, additional costs include expenses related to the lottery process, facilitation and any honorariums paid to participants to reduce barriers to participation for those who ‘won the lottery’. It is important to consider these additional costs in light of the immense benefits that can be garnered through more representative and informed public engagement processes and to recognize how the thoughtful use of mini-publics might reduce the need for a substantial number of public hearings. It is also possible to reduce the costs of mini-publics by, for example, holding some or all parts of longer mini-publics online, which has been a growing trend in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Getting from here to there
What could a transition toward the use of mini-publics in housing and land-use decisions look like? There are options for either local or provincial governments to move in this direction on their own, and action and cooperation at both levels of government could open up even more possibilities.
When it comes to Official Community Plan and zoning bylaw changes that legally require public hearings, municipalities could likely overhaul these processes even without changes to provincial statutes. Although provincial law requires public hearings for these types of changes, it leaves municipalities with considerable latitude about how these hearings are organized. Key requirements are that persons who believe they are affected by the change be “afforded a reasonable opportunity to be heard or to present written submissions” and that at least one member of the local council be involved in the hearing. This would seem to allow for a reorganization of public hearings along the lines of a mini-public as long as it included the opportunity for open submissions from the public as described above. If public hearings had to be maintained largely in their current form, though, a mini-public could be convened in parallel as a more representative element of public engagement and input.
Better yet would be if the provincial government amended legislation to remove any ambiguity, explicitly allowing the use of mini-publics in place of the status quo form of public hearings. The province could also provide a model framework for how to conduct a mini-public for these purposes, which municipalities could use or adapt. Indeed, given how deeply flawed and unrepresentative public hearings are, a good case could be made for the province to simply require the replacement of self-selected public hearings with mini-publics.
Finally, with or without legislative changes of these kinds, the province could convene its own mini-publics at province-wide or regional levels to address important housing policy questions. In addition to making substantive housing and land use policy reforms at the provincial level, this could help demonstrate the potential of the mini-public model to interested local governments.
There is growing recognition that the current system of public engagement on land-use decisions is unrepresentative and inefficient. This system is failing on democratic grounds by amplifying the interests of only a subset of the population, as well as contributing to the severe housing crisis and shortage in BC and much of Canada. Mini-publics can help deepen democracy in relation to housing policy. Combined with expanding the geographic scope of decision-making, mini-publics can help better align land-use policies with the informed views of people from all walks of life and living circumstances. This can help break the gridlock that for too long has been contributing to the housing crisis.
- An exception is that, under the Local Government Act, if a proposed rezoning is already consistent with the Official Community Plan, a public hearing is not legally required but is often held anyway. The City of Vancouver is subject to a similar but slightly different set of rules under the Vancouver Charter, wherein changes to zoning bylaws always require a public hearing even if they are already consistent with the Official Community Plan.
This post is a part of an ongoing research project into affordable housing funded by the Vancouver Foundation.
Topics: Democracy, Housing & homelessness, Municipalities