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New West formalizes policy for repurposing space in apartment buildings

New West aims to bring clarity to builders wanting to convert “underused space” — such a parking or storage — in rental buildings into housing units.
520 Eighth Street
An apartment building on Eighth Street converted parking spaces and storage into new rental units.

A new policy aims to help streamline the process for converting “underused space” in rental apartments into housing units.

A staff report to council noted that New Westminster’s housing stock includes a large, aging stock of more than 9,000 purpose-built market rental units, much of which makes up some of the most affordable rental housing stock in the city.

Since 2014, the city has received 20 applications to add units in existing rental buildings. That was the year the city made changes to zoning bylaws to allow for the conversion of unused or underutilized spaces in existing purpose-built rental buildings and to provide parking reductions as incentives.

At a Feb. 5 workshop, council unanimously endorsed a policy related to the review of new unit additions in existing rental buildings.

Demian Rueter, the city’s acting senior manager of climate action, planning and development, said an application of this type generated “considerable discussion” last year, before being turned down by council. He said staff took a lot of the feedback from that process and incorporated it into the policy.

“We have had this program in place for a number of years. It’s been, basically, something that’s developed organically so we want to sort of codify that into a clear policy for applicants and the public,” he said. “And also, some of the earlier applications were relatively straightforward; we are now getting into a little bit more complex applications. We want to be clear about what the expectations are. So that’s why we have brought this forward.”

Rueter said staff developed this policy to help streamline the review process and to be clearer about the city and council’s expectations when developers are wishing to add additional units to existing apartment buildings.

“Almost all of it is current practice,” he told council. “We just felt there would be real value in having that codified and put before you to have you adopt it as a policy, and then we can have those conversations with applicants.”

One of the items in the policy relates to pre-permit inspections, something staff say would ensure the safety of the future units and the overall building.

“Having a pre-inspection prior to council consideration, that’s something that hasn’t always occurred,” Rueter said of inspections that would be done by staff in the building and integrated services departments.

Housing agreements, which can stipulate that the units must be secured as rental for the life of the building or 60 years, whichever is longer, is something that’s been occurring and will be included in the policy.

The policy also requires a livability reviewing (ensuring units have suitable access to natural light and outdoor space) and a tree review (a review of any proposed tree removal, with the goal of minimizing the loss of mature trees).

The removal of trees was one of the concerns cited by council when considering last year’s application at 311 Ash St.

“It’s also codifying what we heard before with regards to trees and the importance of those trees,” Rueter said. “It’s a bit of a flexible thing, but we wanted to put that in the policy as well because there have been some difficult conversations around that. So we wanted to make sure that that was clear.”

According to Rueter, the city would try its best to ensure, where possible, any significant trees are retained on the site, particularly in areas of New West where there is low tree canopy cover.

Rueter said storage rooms, particularly in the basement of apartments, is the type of space that could be a candidate for conversion to rental units.

“There is provisions in the bylaw that requires laundry to be available to units, so that would be an amenity that you could not replace,” he said.

Policy approved

Coun. Daniel Fontaine said it’s good for the community to know that the vast majority of what’s included in the policy is already the city’s current practice.

Johnstone said it’s a good thing to have all the information in one policy so applicants are aware of all the requirements.

“It’s nice to have everything streamlined and together so we have transparency for people who want to do this,” he said, “but also transparency for tenants and for people who are potentially impacted by these changes.”

Johnstone believes the city will benefit by having a “clear and transparent policy” that staff can use when talking to builders, as it will provide clarity about what’s required.

“I think there is a real opportunity here  in New West for us to potentially add decades of life to some of these older apartment buildings and to make sure we are securing purpose-built rental and that we are not displacing people,” he said.

Coun. Ruby Campbell supported the policy. She questioned if notification of existing tenants is something that should be added to the policy, so applications to their buildings don’t come as a surprise to them.

Rueter said that’s not something that needs to be formalized in the policy.

“I think that’s a pretty standard practice that we are asking developers to be good neighbours to their neighbours around them, as well as people that are living in the building,” he said. “We can definitely take that feedback and continue to have those conversations with developers.”

If the policy is adopted, Coun. Tasha Henderson asked when residents of rental buildings would bring their concerns an applications to council.

“I just want to ensure that we have a mechanism to communicate their thoughts around these projects,” she said.

Because the policy is streamlining the city’s current process with applicants, Rueter said the process would be the same.

“The actual process of when applications come to council would not change,” he said. “So development variance permits, where there is a change in parking requirements – which often is the case with these – those still are referred to council. And there still would be the notification that we had before and people can still express their concerns to council directly in those ways.”