Rezoning bylaw holds up in BC court, inspiring Ontario MPP

VANCOUVER — A BC city’s bylaw that rezones property as rental-only has withstood another court challenge, affirming legislation brought in by the province to protect renters.

It’s a legal victory that Ontario housing advocates have once again turned their eyes to developments on the West Coast.

The City of New Westminster, a Vancouver suburb of about 70,000 people, won a provincial court decision appeals Monday, preserving a zoning bylaw preventing owners from living in their properties in areas designated for rental use only. The aim is to protect rental units by not letting individual owners move in or demolish them to build condos.

“The bylaw is not inconsistent with the Residential Tenancy Act,” Justice Harvey Groberman wrote in his summary of the judgment, confirming an earlier court’s verdict. “Further the Local Government Act, reasonably interpreted, gave the municipality authority to enact it.”

The case centered around the owners of units in six buildings that had been built as rental housing but were “stratified,” enabling the units to be sold to individual owners if desired. The shift to a condo building — called strata buildings in BC — could, under provincial law, open renters to being evicted if building owners wanted to move in themselves.

However, New Westminster rezoned the buildings to be rental-only in 2019, after the province passed a law enabling cities to do so. (Building owners could still live in suites if they had been living in them prior to the city making the zoning change.)

The owners’ legal bid was meant to get the bylaw quashed, but the Court of Appeal for BC rebuffed them on Monday, rejecting the argument that the rezoning was vague and outside of the city’s jurisdiction. (According to the judgment, the owners were all “corporate landlords” with no intention of actually occupying the units themselves.)

Major Patrick Johnstone said the victory showed the BC law could help all cities in the province preserve rental stock, and also proved wrong those who slammed the rezoning when it was passed.

“We heard two things: we heard that we would lose in court, and we were also told that the rental investment would end in New Westminster,” Johnstone said. “Both have turned out to be false.”

He said rental units in the city are now being built at a faster rate than anywhere else in the region. Monday’s decision “sends the message” the courts will protect the right of cities to rezone to rental-only, he added.

“You don’t often hear good news about cities acting boldly to protect vulnerable renters,” Johnstone said. “It’s a good day for renters in New West and province wide.”

Howard Shapray, lawyer for the owners, said he believes his clients had solid arguments, but added that it’s too early to know if they intend to take the case to a higher court.

“We’re still pondering the issue,” he said. “We have to identify an issue of national importance, something that would attract the attention of the Supreme Court of Canada.”

Some would like to see similar laws introduced in Ontario.

Ontario’s NDP housing critic, University-Rosedale MPP Jessica Bell, said such rezoning protections are needed in her province. Bell said rental housing has been in increasing jeopardy, across the GTA in particular.

“We have seen developers continue to prioritize the construction of condos over purpose-built rentals because they make their profits more quickly,” Bell said. “A purpose-built rental is a long-term investment.”

She said about 3,000 rental units in Toronto are at risk of being demolished and turned into condos. Municipalities “need more tools” to protect such rental stock, she said.

It’s not the first time New Westminster, a historic city on the banks of the Fraser River that was the province’s first capital city, has caused a stir with its laws around rentals. The city also won a court challenge in 2021 of regulations aimed at stopping so-called “renovations,” when an owner boots out a tenant, ostensibly to make renovations, but then puts the property on sale.

Those regulations require that landlords of purpose-built rentals provide for temporary accommodation of tenants forced out due to renovations. Landlords must also send the tenant a written offer to move back, at the same rent, when the renovations are complete.

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