Mission: more rental homes, finally

After lagging behind neighbours, townhomes and rental apartments are finally taking shape in Mission.

By Tyler Olsen | March 29, 2022 |5:00 am

Better late than never.

The Fraser Valley’s cramped and increasingly expensive housing market has spurred a wave of construction across the region to meet the unsatiated demand for homes. But, until very recently, that wave hadn’t reached Mission.

While thousands of townhomes and apartments—many rentals—have been built in Abbotsford, Langley, and Chilliwack, Mission has lagged far behind, completing less than half the new homes that it needs just to meet demand. That was driving people out of the community, or out of homes altogether.

In the last six months, though, things have taken a turn—especially when it comes to rental homes and townhouses, two key categories needed to help families and those priced out of the market.

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Catching up

Most larger Fraser Valley communities have now seen several years of record home-building.

With rental vacancies at an all time low, housing costs skyrocketing, and a push to increase density in core areas, communities across the region have spent years talking about the need to create more purpose-built rental buildings, townhomes, and apartments.

And it’s the construction of those types of homes that have led to record levels of building in Langley Township, Chilliwack, and Abbotsford over the last five years. The vast majority of new home starts in the three largest communities have been in multi-family buildings; of those, around 3,500 are purpose-built rental units.

But Mission hasn’t been pulling its weight. As of last summer, construction had begun on less than 1,000 homes over the previous five years. More than half were single-family houses that now frequently cost more than $1 million, and fewer than 150 were rental homes.

The shortfall has been a topic at city hall for years, with council being warned in 2020 that Mission’s housing situation was “in a critical state.”

Mission’s 2020 housing needs assessment suggested that the City needed to build 412 homes each year. As recently as last fall, it had been building less than half that figure. Last March, council had rejected a proposal to build a large apartment complex after opposition from neighbours.

It was enough to wonder whether Mission would ever reach its goals.

But as 2022 progresses, there are signs of a change. In just the last six months, building has started on 84 townhomes and 189 rental units. That latter figure is more than the number of rental homes built in the entire 2010s. And those starts mean that construction has started on 423 homes over the last 12 months—finally meeting the city’s annual house-building need.

Whether it will maintain that pace remains to be seen, but Mayor Paul Horn says the city is hoping to make it happen.

“We need to have more than just single-family homes with secondary suites, which has been a big part of how Mission has formally and informally addressed affordability,” he said.

Secondary suites, although useful to add some density, bring challenges with parking and bylaw compliance, Horn said. And although they provide some rental housing, the stability of those homes for renters can evaporate if a home’s owner decides to sell.

That’s where purpose-built apartments can come in. But Horn said developers have said they struggle to make the economics of such projects work, leaving them dependent on financial help from government agencies like the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). Access to such funding is competitive, and the money is doled out sporadically. But Mission has found success, Horn said, by looking to local non-profits along with BC Housing.

Like other municipalities, the city also created incentives that aim to encourage developers to provide rental and affordable housing in central areas.

Historically residents in Mission, like those in other communities, have expressed concern about new, denser projects in neighbourhoods dominated by single-family houses. And last March, such concerns led Mission council to unanimously reject an application to build three apartment buildings with 152 units on Stave Lake Street, even though the project fit the city’s long-term plans for the area. (Horn, who was elected mayor later in the year, was not on council at the time.) Council also approved a 103-unit rental apartment building that same month.

Opposition isn’t always predictable.

A year later, the project has been replaced by an application to build 35 townhomes. An early public information meeting saw few opponents of the project, with the majority of comments positive. Meanwhile, council considered a comprehensive plan for a not-yet-built neighbourhood a stone’s throw away to the east. That plan would set the stage for apartment buildings and townhomes along the eastern side of Stave Lake Street but prompted essentially no opposition and was passed unanimously. (Future developments will still need to navigate the rezoning process, at which point neighbours will have another chance to comment.)

Like Abbotsford, where many apartment projects in the city’s core have been met with minimal public opposition, the more-positive response could show the importance of building density upon a solid planning foundation.

Horn said more diligent planning, and more openness about the goals of density,He stressed the importance of creating a mix of housing, and to explain the approach, and how it benefits the entire community.

“Many people misunderstand what we mean by affordable housing. They think we’re only talking about rental housing, and sometimes they only think that we’re talking about housing such as shelters,” he said. “We’re talking about housing across the spectrum. So we’re talking about housing that people can actually buy if they’re entering the market, for example, as a young family, or that they can downsize to if they’re senior that doesn’t want to maintain their property.”

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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