Feb 21, 2024

Vancouver’s go-slow multiplex policy could blow a hole in provincial housing projections

By affordable housing crisis

The long reign of exclusionary single-family zoning is being challenged in British Columbia—and none too soon amid a severe housing shortage.

The BC government has unveiled major pieces of housing legislation in recent months, including a policy that requires cities to allow multiplexes with three to six homes on the huge portions of land where they have long blocked all but single-family houses.

According to modelling carried out by independent experts, this provincial multiplex policy could enable the completion of more than 130,000 badly needed new homes over 10 years, which would help contribute to easing ultra-low vacancy rates and rising rents.

To achieve this level of housing creation, however, all cities would need to meet or exceed new provincial standards in their updated zoning rules. But the City of Vancouver is set to become a major wrench in the works, as its own multiplex policy falls far short of those standards.

The City of Vancouver is set to become a major wrench in the works.

A key fact has gone largely unnoticed about the new provincial multiplex legislation: it applies only to areas currently restricted to single-family and duplex housing. As a result, much of Vancouver isn’t affected since the city had introduced its own (much weaker) multiplex policy a few months prior. So far, the province is only “strongly encouraging”—not requiring—the City of Vancouver to align with its higher standards.

While it does allow multiplexes, Vancouver’s existing policy severely limits total housing floor space permitted for each project, adding only 16% to the Floor Area Ratio over the previous zoning. This undermines the viability of many potential multiplex projects. As a result, city staff have projected that only 150 multiplexes will be built per year.

Vancouver’s policy is far more restrictive than the provincial government’s standards, which would allow 50% to 80% more floor space by comparison (1.5 to 1.8 Floor Area Ratio, compared to the city’s 1.0). The provincial standards would enable the creation of a far larger number of homes as well as more spacious and family-sized ones. 

In fact, if Vancouver doesn’t amend its multiplex policy to meet provincial standards, about 30,000 net new homes projected to be created under the provincial rules won’t actually get built, according to modelling commissioned by the BC government.1. 

Vancouver’s policy is far more restrictive than provincial government standards.

That represents the loss of about a quarter of the new homes expected under the multiplex legislation across the province over 10 years. Given that Vancouver has among the province’s highest rents and lowest vacancy rates, this loss of potential homes would be a huge blow to those suffering under the housing shortage in the city. 

Moreover, this “Vancouver problem” could be compounded if other municipalities also use wiggle room in the legislation to attempt to sidestep its spirit and intention. 

While BC municipalities are required to update their zoning bylaws to reflect the provincial legislation (by the end of June 2024), many of the new provincial standards are not strictly binding. This includes the crucial question of how much additional housing floor space will be allowed on a given lot. Instead, these provincial standards are provided to municipalities in a policy manual as “expectations” and “guidelines”. Cities are obligated under the legislation to “consider” these guidelines but they are not strictly binding even outside of Vancouver. 

Given the track record of cities in adopting restrictive and exclusionary zoning policies, this light touch approach to provincial regulation is concerning. 

If cities don’t step up their game, the province ought not sit on the sidelines. Instead, the government could implement its standards as a binding “alternative minimum zoning” which would apply wherever cities fail to meet these minimum standards in their bylaws. Ironically, this is how the media and public likely already expect the new provincial rules to work.

Many of the new provincial standards are not strictly binding.

Challenges could also arise relating to the province’s other big new zoning reform law on transit-oriented development (within 800 metres of rapid transit stations like Skytrain). While a major and welcome step, it’s also not a direct provincial upzoning. Rather, the law means that cities cannot reject rezoning applications based solely on height and density for housing in these areas (if height and density are within the provincially specified standards). 

However, cities can still impose various other requirements on the rezonings and that latitude could be used by a motivated municipality to undermine the viability of new housing (unfortunately a long-standing practice). More hopefully, cities might instead choose to embrace the opportunity presented by the legislation and exceed provincial standards for housing creation.

Ultimately, the new provincial legislation represents only a first step in dismantling exclusionary zoning and addressing housing shortages. To catch up after decades of underbuilding, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation estimates that BC needs to build 610,000 more homes by 2030 above current trends, consistent with the findings of independent analysts. 

By comparison, even with robust implementation at the municipal level, the recent provincial multiplex and transit-oriented development reforms combined are projected to create about 250,000 new homes over ten years. This is significant and, if achieved, would put a meaningful dent into addressing the need identified by CMHC. But it still doesn’t get us where we need to be. 

The new provincial legislation represents only a first step in dismantling exclusionary zoning and addressing housing shortages.

The province should look to expand its action on zoning reform. In addition to tightening up requirements under the recent reforms, one promising next step would be to expand the upzoning of single-family areas to allow low and mid-rise apartment buildings (in addition to multiplexes) in line with recommended standards set out by my colleague Marc Lee and others

Further zoning reform in single-family areas is especially important in the City of Vancouver, where allowing only multiplexes on most of the land would still fail to reflect the enormous scale of housing need and demand. Far denser Indigenous-led projects like Sen̓áḵw and the Jericho Lands are a better benchmark for appropriate land use planning on the west side of Vancouver. The city’s land use policies have long failed to allow enough housing to keep up with demand, pushing the vast majority of regional housing growth out to the suburbs

Another key step would be province-wide zoning reform specifically for non-market housing. For example, the province (or indeed any city) could pre-approve non-profit and public housing providers to build apartments at double or triple the standard densities in a given area. This would essentially remove zoning as a constraint on non-market housing, giving providers a strong leg up in competing with private market developers for the acquisition of any given parcel. 

The province should expand its action on zoning reform.

To be sure, zoning reform is only one part of addressing the housing crisis. We urgently need a massive build out of non-market housing (well-funded by government), stronger tenants’ rights, taxation of land wealth and the expansion of renter power through organizing.

But dismantling exclusionary zoning is a key step to tackling the housing shortage, creating equitable access to our cities and reducing exclusion and displacement amid housing scarcity. 

BC has taken major strides in its recent zoning reform legislation. But if Vancouver and other municipalities don’t get on side, much of the housing creation promised by these changes won’t materialize. Robust implementation of these measures and a further wave of reforms by cities and the province alike are both needed to bring the housing crisis to heel.



  1. Instead of more than 35,000 net new homes getting built in the City of Vancouver over ten years if it adopted the provincial standards, the city will see only an estimated 4,000 net homes built under its own restrictive policy over that same period.

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