Sun columnist Barbara Yaffe tackles a topic that’s gaining increasing traction as the civic election approaches: the loss of Vancouver’s pre-1940s stock of character homes:
… the wrecking ball these days takes out 70 a month …
These older homes, with their pitched roofs and leaded glass windows, French doors and narrow-slat oak floors, often are architecturally charming, part of the city’s history, a positive for tourism, deserving of refurbishment.
Of course, it’s personal too.
The beautifully appointed and lovingly tended 80-year old character home I once owned in Dunbar now awaits the wrecker’s ball.
Last December I moved to Kitsilano, only to find the diminutive house next to mine was headed for the dump; it got demolished this week. A big new duplex is taking its place.
And she’s not alone:
That’s certainly the view of Caroline Adderson (interviewed here) … The writer, who lives in Mackenzie Heights, on Vancouver’s west side between Kerrisdale and Dunbar, says: “Delay action for a year, and we will be down another 850 (homes), by which time city staff may be hard pressed to find a concentration of character homes.”
Adderson launched her “Vancouver Vanishes” Facebook page in February, featuring photos of homes that once were, along with a petition urging the city to take fast action to stop the demolitions.
More than 2,500 signatures have been gathered and Adderson told me she aims to make her cause an election issue in November’s municipal vote.
There’s also “Disappearing Dunbar” that maps the loss of character homes in just this one small part of the city.
Unfortunately, few address (other than to bemoan) the underlying issue: land values so high they cannot be realized without the demolition of the smaller, older house, combined with the cost, regulation and complications of upgrading a character home to contemporary standards. Or the even more difficult issue of ‘offshore’ money (whether from Asia or Alberta) sustaining a real-estate market that does not or cannot incorporate intangible values.
So let’s blame the politicians.
Having been there, let me articulate the challenge:
Who is willing to take a loss on the sale of their property – if the City could indeed come up with a way to lower land values?
Who will take less than the market would pay by constraining a subsequent owner to ensure the preservation of the existing home?
Or to say it another way, who is willing to be taxed on the unearned increment (the difference between what they bought the property for and the escalation of value separate from improvements) – if, for instance, that could create a fund to purchase the character homes of the City ?
Or yet another way: Who is willing to have their property taxes raised sufficiently to allow the City to compensate the difference between what the character home is worth on the market and the value if it were designated and protected as a heritage property? Which is what the law requires.
Or yet another way: Who is willing to rezone neighbourhoods or other parts of the city so drastically that it would flood the market with housing sufficient to make the character homes competitive?
Or, especially in Dunbar, who is willing to support the scale of density bonusing or infill required to make retention of the existing house sufficiently attractive?
Who, in fact, is willing to run for office on a platform of lowering property values or increasing taxes enough to protect homes almost a century old? Or to put in place regulations so onerous it effectively prohibits demolition? Or do anything that would negatively affect the current owners before they can cash out?
Ironically, Yaffe’s column is on the business pages, and yet is devoid of any hard-nosed analysis or alternatives.
If we can’t take on the big questions, we’ll only be left with small answers.