Megahouses, vacant homes, speculation and affordability aren’t just issues for Vancouver.  Reporter Graeme Wood in the Richmond News has been writing about the transformation of Richmond.  Here’s an excerpt.

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Mega Homes: Absent homeowners, foreign speculation, overdevelopment and skyrocketing land value has reached a boiling point

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New homes in single­-family home neighbourhoods are pushing the boundaries of floor space ratio, by uprooting lawns, and height restrictions, by adding a third level. It’s a result of increased land values and housing demand that has seen this resurgence of the megahome in Richmond. …

On Spires Road, one of the last bastions of “Old Richmond” is about to get a major makeover; Yamamoto Architecture Inc. has applied to develop seven market rental homes into 60 townhomes for purchase. The densification of the City Centre neighbourhood (one quarter of a major city block) is planned under the city’s Official Community Plan.  But with a rental crunch in Richmond, renter Don Watters, who has lived on Spires for 25 years, doesn’t see the  justification.  “Where can we go and it be affordable?” …

Roland Hoegler, left, and longtime friend Don Watters have seen their Spires Road neighbourhood vanish with the densification plans of the City of Richmond.  …

Richmond 1

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“The question is, who is benefitting from  this change?” asks Hoegler.

His answer? The developers and real estate agents, who have incessantly harassed his “holdout” father to sell his home.

“Seven down, 60 up, you do the math,” he says.

“Who’s benefitting? It’s not the people like Don,” says Hoegler, pointing to high rises looming over Spires he says are mostly empty.

Richmond’s OCP states between 2011 and 2041 about 80,000 more people will move here.

“That number comes from an expectation of what portion of the projected growth of the region will go to Richmond,” notes Peter Hall, associate professor of urban studies at Simon Fraser University.  The decision is inherently political, notes Hall, but Richmond has taken on about seven per cent of the 1.2 million more people projected by regional planners to live here.

New housing demand comes from three sources: in­region, out of province and out of country. Over the last 10  years, roughly nine out of 10 new residents (326,000) of Metro Vancouver were immigrants, according to population  data.  Richmond plans to accommodate about 55,000 of its newcomers in the City Centre and preserve single­-family neighbourhoods by building townhouses along arterial roads.

According to Gordon Price, director of the SFU City Program, densifying the City Centre is a “relief mechanism” for  single­family neighbourhoods; by building up housing stock, it gives the market more options. …

Richmond 3Price and Hall say land speculation and demand are raising the value of land in Metro Vancouver.  So, essentially, it becomes a waiting game between the speculators/developers and the homeowner.  “One way or another that land is going to be redeveloped to reflect the value of it,” says Hall.

Hall notes the slumlord mentality on Spires is a result of “planning blight.”

“When land is not rezoned for how desirable it is, what sometimes happens is the landlord will say, “I’ll wait out the municipal government and I’m not going to fix up this house. I’ll let the municipality get so upset and frustrated until they allow me to rezone it,” says Hall.

Starchuk notes many old homes are abandoned. The city has noted there are currently 36. …

The problem, Starchuk sees, is that not only is the land being heavily speculated on, many of the homes sit empty, resulting in the erosion of community.

There is no data to back up her assertions, however Price and Hall support the theory that foreign homeownership is a big part of it.

“There is no doubt huge amounts of land and apartment complexes are turning into safe deposit boxes,” says Price.
Residents of Richmond have gotten used to living in shameless messes due to construction of
megahomes.

Like so many other problems in Richmond, Starchuk says a discussion on restricting foreign homeownership — an  idea floated in recent civic elections and common in other G8 countries— has never taken place.

That discussion should include provincial and federal politicians, who form immigration laws and affordable  However, Price challenges the likes of Starchuk and Hoegler by asking: “Are these people willing to have their land values plummet if the governments intervene?

Starchuk says she would welcome an adjustment to the market.

“Money is not the whole answer and I think we’re putting greed before need,” says Starchuk.

Richmond 2

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Price also notes that the preservation of single­family neighbourhoods is “classist.  He says it’s the lower income families who are relegated to the townhouses on the main arterials, buffering the elitists residing behind them from noise and air pollution.

Preserving single­family homes is “defensible code (for classism). It’s the place to raise kids, the Canadian dream. It’s what every society wants.”

Price notes these homes are preserved under the current market conditions and zoning, Richmond may very well simply end up like West Vancouver — multi­million dollar homes side ­by ­side (although Richmond’s won’t have any lawns or trees, for that matter).

Noted Price: “Vancouver is splitting up into class according to housing value.”

What can council do?

Coun. Bill McNulty has consistently pledged to maintain single­family home neighbourhoods outside of the City Centre.  McNulty disagrees with Price’s “classist” argument, but he acknowledges there are problems with housing in the city.  He acknowledges the city has a rental crunch and that developers have not filled that void in decades.

New multimillion dollar gated homes are often unlived in for long periods of time in Richmond. When occupants do arrive, they’re sheltered from the rest of the neighbourhood.

He is also aware of the way homes are being built and how it affects neighbourhoods.   He says provincial height restrictions via land­use contracts have allowed builders to build higher than what the city normally allows. He hopes to fix that.

He’s also put in a referral to planners to look at banning gated driveways. “It tells me you don’t want me in, and you don’t want to come out,” says McNulty.

When asked if the city could postpone development in areas like Spires, where market rental units still exist, he said it’s possible, even with the OCP.

Coun. Carol Day was recently elected on a platform of slowing the rate of development in the city, often criticizing McNulty and his partners’ record over the past 20 years.   Day has proposed to work with developers to make rebuilds smaller (floor size) and perhaps allow for lots to be subdivided to discourage megahomes.

“Just because we have done this, doesn’t mean we have to keep on doing it,” Day said at a recent planning committee meeting where she’s already become a lone voice of opposition to applications.

But as Price noted: “Restrict the square footage and that would result in a drop in land value. Ask (homeowners) how they would feel about that.”

 

Full story here.

 

Comments

  1. Gordon, I’m always surprised when you seem to infer that preserving ever – escalating property values should be municipal government’s main concern. Where does this come from. Surely ensuring liveable vibrant neighborhoods is more important? The insane run – up in house prices over the last decade is not something worth preserving. It is changing tight knit neighbourhoods into desolate expanses of darkened windows.

    Richmond is a horror show. From the endless stretches of townhouses and midrises in areas with absolutely no focal point to the gaudy mansions paving over any open land. It’s a nightmarish misreading of “density = successful urbanism” colliding with the worst of single family suburban architecture.

    1. I should clarify: I’m not arguing that preserving property values should be municipal government’s main concern or obligation. I’m just cautioning advocates who promote policy that would result in a drop of existing property values. Decision-makers must be aware of the blowback which would occur, even among those who believe that those values are outrageous and having detrimental effects on the community.

      Best example so far: Vancouver council’s temporary moratorium on the demolition of character houses. One day Sun columnist Barbara Yaffe is bemoaning the loss of our heritage, and in then a column a few weeks later is chastising council for the loss of half a million on an elderly couple’s $3 million pre-1940s home because of that act. (https://pricetags.wordpress.com/2014/10/30/lets-play-another-round-of-the-no-win-game-city-heritage-version/)

      Imagine if a council deliberately tried to reverse the run-up of house prices in the last few years, and enacted policy knowing that millions would disappear from the property market so that housing would be more affordable. Unimaginable. Even slowing the escalation of prices – if done as a deliberate and accountable act – would likely be political suicide.

      I explore some more options here: https://pricetags.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/vanishing-vancouver-the-dilemma-of-incompatible-values/

      So have some sympathy for policy makers when people ask them to do something to preserve the fabric of the community, but assume or insist it should not negatively impact the value of their major asset.

      1. The problem with the council policy on character homes is that it was all stick and no carrot. What they need to do is work with developers to convince buyers to retain and modify the existing stock (where worthwhile) rather than teardown. We also need to have an adult conversation about the effect of offshore buyers and what empty homes do to neighbourhoods.

        As a homeowner I’d be happy to see my property values retreat back to 2005 levels. Why not, I haven’t borrowed against it. Everything else would come down in value as well, so if I ever to choose to downsize I wouldn’t be paying $500k for a one bedroom condo.

        1. Serious conversation about offshore buyers Starts with Harper. This is globalization and this is the end result. Canadians voted him in over and over, unfortunately the effects to conservative voters in Manitoba and Sask, etc. aren’t going to be felt at all compared to here if they had to experience what we do with rocketing empty home prices if so I doubt they would sign up for it. If they really wanted to get serious I would start by removing the dual passport system, if you want a Canadian passport then you live here, contribute and give up your other one. That would make a big difference in my opinion. If Americans cry foal you could make them exempt under NAFTA

        2. Bob: “As a homeowner I’d be happy to see my property values retreat back to 2005 levels.”

          …seriously? That’s hard to believe.

          1. Why? I bought q home, not an investment or retirement plan. As I said, if prices retreated it would be more affordable to trade up, as spreads between standard lots and large lots have widened. If I decide to downsize, condos will likewise have become cheaper. The situation where homeowners have been able to take 2 to 3 million out of a bungalow they bought years ago for $100k is an aberration, actions should have been taken years ago to quash it.

    2. Agree, Richmond has zero sense of place. Concrete podium along 3 Road with no human scale qualities to the street scene. Stroads everywhere. Where are the places with human qualities to linger? An absolute mess of density done terribly that the city and planners involved with should take a serious look in the mirror or read Jane Jacobs or Christopher Alexander because this pattern of development is an absolute sellout of Crap. Metrotowns not far behind.

      1. I have to admit: I’m not often in Richmond. But I don’t think you’ll get a real heart to the city unless you do something about the malls (same with Metrotown). It just sucks so much energy indoors.

        Can you imagine demolishing Lansdowne mall and connecting a pedestrian street from the skytrain station right to the back of the property, lined with shops, fountains, little squares and restaurant cafes with patio seating? Of course, much of the property would have to be redeveloped as condos to pay for it, but it could be a real benefit.

        1. I agree Tessa, redeveloping Landsdown would be a great place to start. The problem with Richmond that I see is adding all the density is doing nothing for increasing/encouraging walk-ability. All those apartment units are coming with car stalls that are pumping more and more cars on the road.

        2. Excellent idea Tessa. Those condos to finance it could be of a manageable size. There are examples of fairly dense four or six storey built areas, many or all with commercial on the ground floor. It would certainly give No 3 Road some focal point. I’m sure it would be successful.

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