I recently attended the Vancouver City Planning Commission event, A Chronology of Vancouver’s Planning and Development, at the Museum of Vancouver. The event was moderated by Stephen Quinn and panellists included Frances Bula, Noha Sedky, Jennifer Marshall, and Bob Rennie. An incendiary Q&A period followed, mostly directed towards a frustration of where and how to introduce density in Vancouver

From my experience in these kinds of settings, the vast majority of questions that get raised are from implicated parties who are defending their own interests. Further, it is rare for someone under 40 years old to stand up and voice their opinion.

For me, it was a breath of fresh air to see a young student stand up and talk about biased demographics and city-building. Andrew Martin is a Master’s of Community and Regional Planning Student at SCARP, UBC. A transcript of his question follows. I hope you find it as lucid as I did:

We live in a region and country in transition; I suspect most of today’s Canadian-born land owners grew up in single-detached family homes, an experience that is less common today as Canada becomes an increasingly dense, urban nation.

As a result, we’re experiencing growing pains, as every great city of the world has also experienced.  In my lifetime, Metro Vancouver will likely grow to be a region of 5 million inhabitants, and it won’t stop there.  The majority of those 5 million aren’t here right now to speak for themselves, but we’re making key decisions that will profoundly affect their lives.

Are our decisions serving their best interests?  Who speaks for them?  

The challenge here is to accept the reality of growth, and undertake this transition in the most just and sustainable way possible, with attention to creating quality living environments conducive to human well being.  Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” As a region, we have done this well in the past.  Can the residents of metro Vancouver now embrace this next evolution with rationality, optimism and careful consideration for all residents, now and to come? 

-Andrew Martin

For older generations, the notion of single-family home dwelling is considered the norm. For mine and Martin it has become less so. Will it be significantly easier to give up on preserving our pool of single family homes in Vancouver as new generations take over and what prospective future does that suggest for our dwellings?

Comments

  1. High level policy is currently all that exists for ‘speaking for’ (or at least, preparing for) those people not already here. Metro Vancouver’s 2040 and normal zoning permits and targets far greater density than currently exists. However, that is where the advocacy stops.
    Planners and elected officials are afraid to stand in front of groups of put-upon residents and tell them their neighbourhood is going to change. Better to avoid a confrontation than defend the nebulous idea of ‘regional growth’ to frightened residents who are fighting to retain some sense of control over their lives in the guise of opposing a new development.

  2. Kudos to Andrew Martin.
    Having grown up in deep suburbia in Western Canada, then moving to Vancouver to the shock of 20 years of low vacancy-induced limited rental choice, starting with a rooming house full of artists, musicians, drunks, roaches and shared bathrooms in Strathcona, then graduating to another 20 years of hard labour and debt renovating a tear down, I can appreciate today’s feelings on the housing dilemma.
    Where I have little patience is with younger folks who grew up knowing nothing more than the comfort of the West Side detached home experience of their parents, and believe that is the standard by which to measure all housing. They will quote today’s detached housing price stats and speak of it as though it covers apartments, which have not had the same inflationary pressure, all the while ignoring the nearly extreme evolving land planning issues. That is not a fair contribution to the discussion of Vancouver’s future.
    Up-zoning West Side (and East Side and all Metro subdivisions) lots is not rocket science. But the implementation requires much wisdom. I would suggest incrementalism is the best strategy to steadily increase the supply of cheaper attached single family homes in detached home neighbourhoods. At the eastern edges of the original CPR land grant and in Grandview Woodlands small time builders subdivided many standard lots in the years immediately preceding WWI, so two standards often became four or five small lots when sliced crosswise. This often created charming streetscapes with front steps descendnjig right to the sidewalks, adding variety to the adjacent regimented older subdivisions, now peppered with laneway housing.
    Today, this same concept (which became illegal when new zoning bylaws were enacted two generations later) could be used on the pair of standard lots on the ends of blocks, but to create five, six or even seven attached rowhouses crosswise and facing the side street. The rowhouses would be perhaps 1/3rd cheaper than the detached neighbours, and even cheaper if internal parking was eliminated from half the units within 400m of transit. The city could place an annual limit (or a lottery) on the subdivision numbers in each neighbourhood to prevent a mad rush by builders and small developers. Density increase incentives could be offered to cover the cost of retaining an existing house or recycling the materials. The trade-off policy could be developed with the goal of balancing the costs of not demolishing existing homes which may have to be moved at great expense (or recycling at least 90% of the materials) with the revenue from extra units, be they purpose-built suites or an additional unit.
    Admittedly, council will have to get some courage, and planners will have to become more creative, to tackle this one.

    1. I like this idea … fresh off of designing a house in RS1 land … I do find it odd how the N-S streets are treated only to the side-yards of the houses … without really much ability to consider that the street might allow its own face. There are plenty of precedents for both row-houses, as well as large coach-houses next to the alleyway entrance, which by virtue of having their own street face could entirely justifiably be larger than their landlocked cousins in the middle of the block.
      Even without row-houses, this would allow an additional 4 real houses + basement suites per block, and start to eliminate the blank walls on North-South Streets.
      The row houses in Strathcona and Mount Pleasant are some of my favorite buildings in the city, I wish they were actually permitted anew!

    2. Indeed. Just look at Van Map at the hundreds of blocks in every neighbourhood outside of downtown, and you’ve got a small developer’s wet dream on those block ends. The conversion of two lots to six crosswise would still occupy a site of reasonably small size, and the neighbourhood impact would not be widespread unless the city allows too many to occur at once. Today you see in some areas a 1:1 demo-replacement occurs in two places on the same block at the same time with few rules on demolition and recycling materials. That is not sustainable urbanism.
      Take Point Grey. The city could allow six to ten 2:6 conversions each year in the neighbourhood (with stricter demo rules) and ensure they are spread out. In effect, a net gain of 24-40 single family homes with lower sticker prices will be added to the neighbourhood annually on a fraction of the land. More units if some were suited.
      Creative solutions will be required to save existing character houses. And if they are close to arterials with decent transit service, then perhaps only the two end rowhouses will have garages. Alternatively, 2-car garages could be built in the “back yard” spaces of the end units with access off the lane and avenue. The Engineering Dept could also explore stepping up residential permitted parking zones to actually leasing street parking spots out front to specific houses. The revenue could be substantial.

      1. This is an extrapolation also of the ‘thin streets’ idea, which got some press a couple years ago following the ‘rethink housing’ competition.
        I wanted to propose the opposite – thin the E-W streets which are wide enough to serve as both a laneway and the footprint for laneway housing – the ground floor of the LWH’s could be garage space for use by the whole block (rented per month) so that the streets which are, at the moment, quite choked with cars and only passable as one way streets often anyway, could be laneways instead, and instead of looking out on someone’s beater, you’d have a nice little huisje to look on instead. You could do 16-20 little rowhouses per block quite easily (and double that number of cars in garages under), so instead of a 4-8 per block increase, you’d have double that. To drive across the neighbourhood more than a block or 2, you’d go up to the nearest main street, over, then back (this works prettymuch anywhere from the water to 16th st, where the streets are wide enough).
        Not that this is likely, but its an interesting thought to substantially increase density of the neighbourhood, while doing absolutely nothing to the existing buildings. Also, since this is city land to begin with, a single developer could come in and do a whole block at a time.
        This would also be a way that (with changes to the LWH code) laneways could be turned into rowhouse-land … allow a developer to build essentially continuous laneway houses on the back of leased (lease-hold likely, but subdivision and sale would also be a possibility) land from each homeowner. I’m always amazed just how much it costs here to build a LWH, considering the land is ‘free’ … if this could be done a bit more like suburban development, costs could come down substantially, and each home would no longer need to be quite so bespoke and precious as they do now ($300k for a LWH seems quite normal, and quite $$$ per square feet considering its construction cost only!)

      2. Intriguing. That speaks to correcting the inefficiencies in land use we still practice here. Those 24-foot front yard setbacks are also prime candidates. The half lots that were carved from standard lots usually have 10-foot setbacks, and the streetscape becomes an attractive and friendly urban feature as the result.
        One issue that will require resolution through design and with the city will be providing fee simple rowhouses. I don’t like strata councils and much prefer freehold ownership. Architecturally, that could mean avoiding shared load-bearing party walls and adequately addressing sound proofing with additional mass and dense insulation. That will add cost, but then a smart developer would look into factory-made modular components that would really cut back on time-consuming and labour-intensive on-site stick framing. Erecting precision made pre-fabricated glue-laminated structural posts and beams and prefab wall panels with an on-site crane and bolting them together on site with minimal measuring and cutting, will enable the contractor to get the roofs on quickly and cut back on the exposure of the open structure to wet weather. One crane would be able to reach a number of unit in the row.

  3. Building new housing isn’t easy. Entrenched land owners and old habits die hard.
    What’s even harder is figuring out what type of housing to build and getting that built.
    We’re inviting thousands of young people to move to the city, but denying them the opportunity to stay here because the new housing mix is tilted toward the 1BR end.
    Where I used to live (Knight & 33rd) there’s a community centre, a convenience store, 5 elementary schools and a whole lot of single family houses. But the population far exceeds 2.2 persons per lot. Families greatly outnumber empty nesters and most houses have been chopped into suites.
    So what would happen if the area was rezoned to fee simple row houses?
    There would be a greater supply of housing for people with good incomes.
    There would be a significant loss of rental accommodation, especially for those with low/moderate incomes.
    The net cost of owning a home in the area might actually rise. Old house with rental income could be less expensive than a brand new row house.
    There could be little or no increase in the number of people living there.
    Improving housing supply and affordability is difficult.

    1. Old house with rental income is probably still more expensive than new townhouse or row house, especially with townhouse and row house having lock off suites. Overall there would be more units available. I don’t know about the area you describe, but in North Van the old houses with suites are being knocked down and luxury houses are built. Definitely not affordable at starting prices of over $2 million in less desirable neighbourhoods. Not doing anything does not maintain the status quo.

    2. It’s important to consider stocks and flows separately. Yes, some people on modest incomes still live in that area. But no, nobody with a modest income buys in that area anymore, nor will they ever do so again. So the future of the neighbourhood is written into the flows. It’s quite misleading to portray this area as affordable now, based on home prices that current residents paid 10-15 years ago.
      Another way to say this is to say that houses there cost well over $1 million already, and it would be very difficult to make the place less affordable than it is now.
      With home prices where they are now, the current stock of cheap rental is already on borrowed time. We know that it is disappearing, and that it will disappear. So a failure to plan for some kind of replacement would be disastrous- and that’s what maintaining the current zoning would be.

      1. My point is that things aren’t as simple and straight forward as some would have us believe. I gave an example where gentle rezoning may not actually increase the number of units available. You have to look inside the houses to see what’s really there. The old ones have been chopped up in sometimes illegal and dangerous ways to create suites. The new ones are all built with multiple kitchen spaces and locking interior doors so they can be configured as 1, 2 or 3 independent suites under one roof.
        – If every detached house is already a de facto triplex then little is gained by making triplex zoning official.
        – If, however, a large number of the houses are not being used to full potential then rezoning will definitely increase the number of units available to home buyers.
        Certainly we must plan for more units per hectare and rezoning that forces density rather than making it optional will work. What I’m pointing out is that there are neighbourhoods where such a move would simply replace renters with owners.
        Most of the debates here on Price Tags focus on home ownership, but not everyone is going to own a home and some don’t desire it. Renting is an important housing option that must be preserved at multiple price points to maintain work force mobility and make it possible for a service industry to exist in otherwise unaffordable areas. Nobody in their right mind is going to commute from a Langley townhouse to work at a shop in Kerrisdale.

      2. All good points, David. But I do see more housing units per hectare coming on stream if the backyards of those houses could accommodate two narrower attached minimum 2 br houses with suites.

      3. I grew up near there and I’d hate to see those renters displaced. But it’s wishful thinking to hope that current single-family zoning, with current house prices, isn’t already displacing them.

  4. I was at the same session and found it most interesting. While I don’t recall the specific comments noted in the posting, I applaud Andrew for putting them forward here. What I most disliked and disagreed with was one prominent panelist repeatedly calling out people for implied racism when issues of global wealth impacts on our local housing market were raised, and also suggestions of ageism, because of the noticeable presence of older folks in the audience.(cue the sounds of disgruntlement.)
    Now for a highly personal perspective, of all my nearly 35+ years in Vancouver I owned (or, actually, the bank owned) a single family house for about 4 years or just one tenth of that time – on the far east side. 20% mortgage interest rates and a shitty economy for architectural firms forced us to sell. The rest of the the time I either rented an apartment or owned a condo downtown, because those were the options available that met my needs.
    My conclusions – a) affording a house in Vancouver has always been pretty tough.
    b) more family-friendly housing choices are necessary = townhouse-scale densification off arterials, near parks and schools.
    c) one’s housing expectations have to have some degree of reality.
    The latter means most young people will likely never be able to afford a single family house here, unless the bank of Mom and Dad or an inheritance comes through big time. Or, shudder, there is an unprecedented total “correction” (collapse) in the real estate market.

    1. Frank, unfortunately not having been able to attend I can only assume that was Bob Rennie? Hardly likely to welcome criticism of the offshore money real estate gravy train.

  5. Please don’t take this any sort of attack against anyone. I’m trying to just state what I see, while trying to be as non-partisan as possible. But, it’s a touchy subject, and rightly so, I would agree.
    The DTES is gentrifying. It is changing to accommodate a wider mix of household incomes. Currently, it is low income, lowest postal code in Canada. The people who are there now are not speaking for the ones moving in. They worry about how they and their friends will be displaced. They worry that the retail and restaurant mix will change to cater to higher income buyers. They worry that the current sense of community village will be lost. They worry commercial and residential rents will increase. And, their fears are genuine, and based in truth.
    Now, consider what’s happening to the DTES and compare that to all neighbourhoods in Vancouver. Even in Shaughnessy, existing, traditional residents are being displaced by wealthy (wealthier) newcomers. The neighbourhoods are changing. People are being displaced. The retail and restaurant mix is changing. It is essentially gentrification as well. But, wrt to the topic, no one is speaking for these newcomers too.
    I’ve been to quite a few planning events, talks, workshops. I didn’t go to this one though. I hope there’s video somewhere. I’d love to hear the racism/ageism comment that Frank mentioned.
    Anyway, if it’s a neighbourhood event, it will be mostly elderly white people. If there’s any commercial or SFU tie-in interest, it’ll be elderly white people with young white people. Now, compare that to the people who are moving here. Are they represented? In terms of community outreach, these events are done very poorly. A small (and, dare I risk gently stating), statically shrinking demographic are planning neighbourhoods for newcomers who might have entirely different opinions on things like density and bike lanes. The demographics of the planning committees don’t even come close to representing the demographics of the citizens.

    1. I expect you would find the newcomers rather less receptive to bike lanes than the demographic you are gently disparaging. Many of them are escaping memories of whole cities on bikes (remember photos of Beijing circa 1980?). A car is likely to see the automobile as the desired, prestigious mode of travel.
      I get tired of those who disparage “old white people” who turn up at planning events. Most of these events in my neighbourhood have notices that go out in at least two other languages. If those demographic can’t be bothered to show up, how are “old white people” to blame for that?
      Similarly as a “middle aged white person”, I don’t have much sympathy if young people of any colour who live in my neighbourhood can’t be bothered to show up for planning and development open houses. Maybe they should put aside the craft beer for a night if they care at all for their ‘hoods. If they don’t care or can’t be bothered, well they’ll get the city they deserve.

      1. Um. Craft beer, or maybe a second job to pay rent. (Or a young child … Or etc) I have an idea which is more likely!
        You might not have sympathy for people who don’t show up, but please don’t disparage a whole cohort with patronizing slang and presumptions.

        1. Oh, you mean the way posters disparage “old white people” with their assumptions? Urbanists can’t wish for a utopia of engaged community-minded citizens, and then disparage them when they show up because of their age.

          1. No-one disparaged ‘old white people’ … Kirk was making a statement based on observed fact – that one demographic is apparently well served (though I would argue also that that demographic is not as well served as one might think … the one that is well served is the generally the voting + property owning segment, which only describes only part of that generation).
            I don’t think anyone is saying that ‘old white folk’ get less of a voice, but rather that there are those who need more of one.
            A utopia of engaged citizens is still one in which we worry about having broad representation, the difference is that this worry would be one that worried about keeping a broad representation, not about getting one.
            At the moment, we have some groups represented. Great. Lets have more.

        1. Beer is the most unerefined ethelyne alcohol. Since the price of Lysol increased, beer is now the cheapest way to get legally drunk. Take a cheap product, add some ‘authentic’ hype and a funky label, and you’ll have devoted drinkers. Beer drinkers are also the least brightest, which is why short-serving of pints is standard practice; they either don'[t know, or don’t care.

          1. Last time I checked … wine was just, in essence, ‘crush grapes and wait’ … how is that more complicated than beer?
            The least brightest folks I know drink fireball. Maybe you know a lesser grade of least brightest folks than I do 😉

      2. Old people show up at planning events more because it’s a lot easier to do so when you’re retired. Many of these events (aside from quick open houses) take multiple hours, that’s not easy to manage when you’re working, going to school, or raising kids.
        I’m not faulting the olds for this, but it does mean feedback at planning events tends to be very biased. Unsurprisingly, people who already own a house in Vancouver (homeownership rate is higher in older age brackets) don’t see much need for more housing.

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