Rethinking Civic Engagement on Housing

Back to Fall 2023: Volume 112, Number 3

By Alex Hemingway and Simon Pek

Housing policy in North America 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 British Columbia 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.

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 in most cases when changes are made to a community plan or zoning bylaw, including rezonings. 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.

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 (often exclusively 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, in so doing, 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 or, in some cases, healthcare and public transit infrastructure.

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.

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 townhouses 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 percent of members of legislative assemblies  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. Here, public input could be used more proactively in developing plans and strategies, rather than using it to apply existing rules. 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. Minneapolis was an early mover in modestly upzoning single-family areas city-wide in 2018 with mixed success. Auckland, New Zealand enacted a more ambitious city-wide upzoning with impressive early results. Victoria, BC’s council recently passed a city-wide policy that nominally allows new buildings in previously single-family areas to be divided into up to six units, though with such onerous restrictions that there has been no uptake to date. A forthcoming city-wide Vancouver policy on multiplexes in low-density areas is also designed with the intention that its provisions will lead to only very modest uptake in practice.

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 percent share of the city’s dwellings.

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, modestly shifting the default land use to include options other than detached houses. In addition, Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon has signalled that the province may go further by directly changing zoning to allow “additional density permitted in areas well-served by transit.”

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, Washington State and Montana. 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 homeowners, older individuals and whites—mini-publics select participants through some form of democratic lottery. This means that if 40 percent of a city’s residents are renters and 60 percent are racialized folks, then approximately 40 percent and 60 percent 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 in Vancouver 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 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.

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 Stacey Fitzsimmons and Simon Pek recently proposed in an opinion column in the Times Colonist. 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 centers. 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.

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.

In our suggested model, any interested residents could still make submissions about decisions on a self-selection basis, but this feedback would flow through the much more representative mini-public, which would serve as the hub for public engagement and input.

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.

(Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article originally appeared in Policy Note, the blog of the BC Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. This version has been slightly modified.)

Alex Hemingway is a Senior Economist and Public Finance Policy Analyst at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He holds a PhD in political science from the University of British Columbia, where his research examined the relationship between economic class and political inequality.

Simon Pek is an Associate Professor at the Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria. His primary research interests center on helping democratic organizations like co-operatives, schools, and unions achieve their social and environmental objectives through the use of democratic innovations.

More from the issue

The mission of the National Civic League is to advance civic engagement to create equitable, thriving communities.

View All

Thank You to Our Key Partners