The Fraser Valley’s fastest growing community doesn’t need more houses, community plan says

Harrison Hot Springs' population grew 30% in five years, but the area's new community plan doesn't have recommendations to increase its housing stock.

By Grace Kennedy | August 24, 2022 |5:00 am

The Fraser Valley’s fastest growing community doesn’t need any more houses—at least according to a draft community plan set to be discussed this morning.

Three years ago, Harrison undertook a housing supply study to determine how many new homes it would need to support the area’s future population. The answer: almost none. The study said that Harrison’s overall population was declining, and any future growth would only come from the general population growth of the Fraser Valley.

It was wrong.

In the last five years, Harrison Hot Springs has added 437 people, growing its population by roughly 30%. That was the largest population surge out of any Fraser Valley community, and came right when high housing prices created an affordability crunch across the Lower Mainland.

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Harrison has always been a small Fraser Valley community, dominated by the concerns of a tourism-centred economy and the restraints of an aging population.

Five years ago, more than one-third of its residents were over the age of 65. And the population only seemed to be getting older. Few young people had moved into the municipality between 2011 and 2016, and that seemed unlikely to change in the coming years.

With those statistics in hand, Harrison staff put together the 2019 Housing Needs and Supply Report, outlining exactly what the village would need to support its future residents.

In short, the village expected it would need very little new housing to keep pace.

The report did say that Harrison needed at least 45 affordable housing units, mostly one-bedrooms. (That was based on 2016 census data, when 28% of households were spending more than 30% of their income on shelter. This data is not yet available from the 2021 census.)

Despite Harrison house prices climbing from an average of $340,000 in 2016 to $550,000 in 2019—and completely eclipsing that figure at $830,000 in July 2022—the village sold all of the new homes that were built in 2019. Even though rental vacancies across the eastern Fraser Valley were at 1.7% that year, a growing number of Fraser Valley residents were either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, and a tenth of Harrison renters lived in overcrowded homes, the report said that Harrison was “removed from the current affordability crisis dominating Vancouver” and made few recommendations for change.

The report did note a couple of discrepancies between residents’ experiences and the census. In particular, people who came to public engagement sessions noted that there was an increase in the number of pre-school aged children and younger families, based on what was found in the 2016 census.

That was a harbinger of what was to come.

The 2021 census recorded a record 30% increase in the population. Although most of the increase came from an increase in seniors, there were also far more children and young adults living in the village compared to five years earlier.

The demand for housing seems to have led to fewer homes being used as vacation residences or rentals, and more being lived in year-round.

Between 2016 and 2021, Harrison added 117 new homes to the community and 437 more residents. That amounts to 3.7 people per new home, a rate far higher than the village’s average household size. That suggests the pre-existing housing stock has filled up with more permanent residents. In 2016, just under a quarter of all residential units in Harrison were vacation homes or vacation rentals. In 2021, that proportion was closer to 15%.

The Village of Harrison Hot Springs now looks very different than what staff expected in November 2019, when the initial housing report was prepared. But it doesn’t seem like there are any significant plans to accommodate Harrison’s new reality.

Harrison Hot Springs has been inaccurate in two of its most recent population predictions, adding too many people in its 2007 estimate and too few in its 2019 estimate. đź“Š Grace Kennedy

The village’s Official Community Plan, a document that outlines what the future development of Harrison should look like, envisions a residential future that is very similar to what currently exists in the community.

High-density buildings will be focused in the waterfront area, so long as there are also commercial units attached at the ground floor. Medium-density townhouses would be designated for the eastern Lillooet Avenue area, and low-density houses would continue to sprawl along the eastern edge of the Hot Springs Road.

Harrison’s 2022 OCP envisions a continued sprawl of single-family homes, with some dense pockets near the waterfront. 📸 Harrison Hot Springs Official Community Plan

“The significant growth in residential development has led to increased interest in maintaining the quality of the residential environment,” the OCP reads, adding that it has an objective to promote the “compatibility of new residential development with existing developments and with the overall character of Harrison Hot Springs.”

The future expansion of low-density houses, like what dominates most of the village, will be considered “on a case-by-case basis.” The OCP also suggests that council should encourage the provision of affordable, rental, and special needs housing as part of new housing developments. It recommends a density bonus system to encourage private developers to add these kinds of “special needs housing” into their proposals.

Those two items may seem like small concessions to the changing valley, but they are actually the same promises that were included in the 2007 OCP—the last time Harrison’s Official Community Plan was updated.

In a special meeting today, Harrison council members will discuss the proposed 2022 Official Community Plan and decide whether to give it first and second reading, which would send it on to a public hearing for discussion. The dates for that hearing are unknown, but would likely be straddling the line between one council and the next. And that means it’s unclear how set in stone the OCP would really be.

Despite the name, Official Community Plans are only as binding as the council of the day wants them to be. Development proposals that don’t fit the mold suggested by the OCP can be amended by a willing council upon request.

The current council recently rejected two development proposals that fit roughly into the proposed OCP: a six-storey apartment building near the waterfront, and a 18-unit townhouse development on Pine Street.

Council’s concern mostly centered around the loss of trees from the apartment building, and the potential traffic problems from so many new houses on Pine Street. Both issues speak to the “quality of the residential environment” that is emphasized in the proposed OCP. And according to the Agassiz Harrison Observer, all residents at that meeting applauded the decision to kibosh the proposals.

With public support like that, Harrison might see its growth taper off after all. After all, only so many people can fit in 1,045 houses.

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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