The brass tacks: You can’t move into a new home without a working toilet or running water

Metro Vancouver residents don’t often hear splashy announcements about underground infrastructure, sewer and water systems, because it is not all that sexy and often taken for granted.

However, more than a century go, it was the talk of the town. The region’s population was booming and inadequate sewer systems resulted in typhoid outbreaks and beach pollution. This led several metro municipalities to come together to develop a long-term strategy to fund, build and maintain infrastructure we use all day, every day.

While we have more sophisticated infrastructure today, the challenges remain exactly the same as they did more than 100 years ago. We have a rapidly growing population, greatly influenced by federal immigration targets, that requires additional housing and an equally rapid expansion of water and sewer infrastructure.

The Metro Vancouver region is expected to grow by over 1 million people over the next 30 years and we anticipate $11.5 billion in growth-related sewer and water infrastructure.

Compounding the problem is a housing and overall affordability crisis – issues that capture headlines.

Federal and provincial governments, along with opposition parties, are desperately trying to address the solving crisis and are turning to local governments to deliver more housing, more quickly.

In British Columbia, the provincial government set housing targets for 10 municipalities (noting this is just the beginning with more municipalities to come). Something I agree with.

Nationally, the federal government launched the Housing Accelerator Fund to incent local governments to increase housing supply and deliver more affordable housing. As these applications are being approved, federal conditions include asks for increased density in traditionally low-density neighbourhoods.

I do not take issue with the greater engagement of provincial and federal governments – setting policy targets and including conditions on grants are not new tools. I have spoken to MPs and MLAs from all sides about this. Nor do I take issue with the fact that municipalities, including my own, need to enable greater density and approve new homes faster. We are working to do just that.

That said, municipalities manage more than 60 per cent of Canada’s public infrastructure. Much of that infrastructure is aging, must be replaced and greatly expanded to meet never before seen population growth and housing densification.

In recent weeks, Metro Vancouver, your regional government responsible for your sewer system, clean water supply, air quality monitoring, regional parks and affordable housing, has been the subject of much discussion and scrutiny over proposed development cost charges*. The guiding principle behind DCCs is that growth pays for growth; they are designed to recover capital costs associated with residential growth from developers so current residents don’t have to pay.

Metro Vancouver, along with Translink and all municipalities levy funds related to new development and forecasted infrastructure needs. The alternative is to fund these infrastructure needs by increasing ratepayers utilities bills or undertake longer-term borrowing to be paid by the next generation. In both scenarios – it is residents – working families and people that pay more. In the midst of an affordability crisis and an all-time inflationary environment, these costs add up and have a cumulative impact on households.

And all the while, municipal governments are reliant on a 19th century property tax system to fund 21st century infrastructure needs that far exceed the roads and sanitation of days past. Local governments are dealing with almost century old infrastructure that needs replacement and new infrastructure in the face of issues like climate change. You need only look at the King tides of 2022 that destroyed parts of the Stanley Park Seawall or the 2021 flooding of the Fraser Valley to appreciate the modern day issues facing cities.

Building new housing quickly is crucial in an environment where too many residents can’t find an affordable home. But municipalities can only approve new developments if new and existing infrastructure is built and maintained. Here’s the brass tacks: You can’t move into a new home without a working toilet or running water.

Local governments rely heavily on provincial and federal dollars for capital infrastructure, and we are grateful for what we receive. However, it is not enough and likely will never be enough. Other levels of government who have greater taxation and revenue powers also need to respect local government’s autonomy to address the gap through their own revenue tools.

Moreover, we need to continue the dialogue on municipal finance reform. Both the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM) and Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) have called for new frameworks to address community infrastructure needs, including sharing in provincial/territorial sales tax revenues.

Let’s continue this work in a pragmatic, non-political way and advance a new approach so all levels of government can better work together to solve the challenges people elected us to do.

*** After writing this blog, the federal Housing minister requested Metro Vancouver delay implementation of the DCCs and consider additional waivers for non-market rental projects. I thought these were reasonable asks in the interest of housing affordability concerns and working together. I moved a motion at our November 27th board meeting to delay enactment of the DCCs by 12 months. This motion was defeated. However, Metro Vancouver has committed to continue economic analysis of the DCCs, report to the provincial and federal governments annually, and explore additional waivers for rental projects.


Lisa Dominato is a two-term Metro Vancouver Regional Director and Vancouver City Councillor with a background in public policy. She is also a Board Director with Federation of Canadian Municipalities.