Amidst the ongoing housing affordability crisis in the Vancouver region, and just four months before municipal elections, City of Vancouver council earlier this week unanimously approved a new financial strategy for the Housing Vancouver strategy.

Intended to support the addition of 72,000 new homes across Vancouver over the next 10 years — half of which will serve households earning less than $80k/year, and two-thirds of which will be for renters — this is just one among a number of decisions made by Council supporting their Making Room program, including:

  • creating Affordable Housing Endowment Fund
  • allocation of first $8M of Empty homes tax revenue to support co-ops, rent bank and SRO upgrades
  • amendments that would: allow triplexes, quadplexes and other multi-unit forms in low density neighbourhoods; set maximum unit sizes in low-density neighbourhoods; reduce or eliminate parking requirements; provide greater support for projects with community benefit, such as new rental, co-ops, co-housing or land trusts; and, in some circumstances, reduce or eliminate setback requirements and design guidelines that limit housing options.

All of Wednesday’s actions are summarized in this press release from the city.

Some critics have expressed concern that increasing allowable density on sites without significant changes to the rezoning and development permit process will just recreate the same affordability crisis we are in today, thus “kicking the can down the road”.

Are we sure this will bring affordability and sufficient options to the city? We asked some regular Price Tags contributors what they thought.

Photo: Lanefab Design/Build. Check out their #NoAssemblyRequired collection on Pinterest: “Built Examples of Small Lot Multifamily Housing”.

Ian Robertson, m.arch.

In business, when a stock becomes too expensive to be well traded on the market, companies will often engage in a ‘stock split’ that does nothing to change overall value, but that does break the stock into more approachable pieces.

Allowing more density in single family areas is simply a manifestation of this idea brought to property. It won’t magic instant affordability for those in dire need, but it does create a class of more affordable housing, that may help many.

Is 3 or 4 units per lot enough of a split to help enough people? Perhaps in East Vancouver, but it will split West Side properties insufficiently to be helpful for much of the city. It will be interesting to see what is meant by ‘other multifamily’ and where it is intended for that ‘other multifamily’ to go.

This will be a massive service to simplifying what can be built throughout the city, as at the moment the micro-segmentation of zones is cumbersome at best. I worry, though, that unwritten and secret rules will still fight against any additional apparent zoning simplicity.

The $8m will do some help, but will run out quickly unless augmented substantially by additional funding measures.

It will be very beneficial to the cost of building if parking requirements are adapted to reflect realistic actual parking ownership. There will be a report released later this year which will give even better data for this.

Stuart Smith – Abundant Housing Vancouver

The biggest benefit to allowing significantly more buildable (not necessarily built!) square feet of floorspace throughout the city, and throughout the region, is to limit the ability of landowners to extract monopoly prices and rents per unit of floorspace.

We have only one built form that can add housing (measured however you wish, floorspace, bedrooms, homes) to a city that cannot expand, and a region that doesn’t want to drive 3 hours per day or build a freeway: multifamily.

Tiny homes are great and should be legal. Laneways are great and should be legal. Collective houses are great and should be legal. Multiple conversions are great and should be legal. Basement suites are fine and should be legal too. Every form of housing should be legal, on every lot, in every neighbourhood.

But the biggest bang (# of sqft of floorspace, bedrooms, homes) for the buck (time, construction cost, construction externalities) is going to be a wood frame apartment building without parking.

However, land that’s legal to build multi-family on is extremely constrained (by law, not reality or physics), and after 90 years of concentrating all population growth on it, mostly already has higher than average density.

So in the status quo, the only way to add housing is to demolish an old apartment build a newer, larger one. This has been the cycle for 90 years since zoning was invented – push new housing on top of the already dense, usually lower income areas.

Owners of this multifamily land know that buyers have few options but to buy their land, so they can and do ask for the moon. And remember, they are pricing in terms of buildable floorspace, not dirt. So doubling the density on just one single piece of land doesn’t reduce the land cost per home or per sqft of floorspace – the landowner will be demanding a given $ per unit floorspace and will just double their price.

However, doubling (or 10x’ing!) the density on every piece of land has the opposite effect, creating far more buildable sqft chasing the same amount of consumers — buyers or renters.

By opening up more land to build multifamily on, the landowners of existing multifamily land lose negotiating power. If they ask for too much, the buildings go elsewhere. The rate of construction isn’t going to change radically. But where buildings go and how much unit land cost is can change a lot.

By opening up land that is low density and high income, we minimize risk of displacement.

Positive steps, but as long as the type of housing average buyers/renters are able to afford are illegal on most of the land, we are a long way from any sort of equitable land use policy.

Michael Mortensen, ma, mcip, rpp – Liveable City Planning

A basic financial analysis indicates that duplexes do not go far enough towards a more affordable housing form in Vancouver’s suburbs.

Our RS-1 neighbourhoods occupy around 85% of our land base, but accommodate less than 75% of our population. Suburban homes in these areas priced at $1.5M or more are affordable to less than 15% of our households, and require down-payments north of $380,000.

Allowing 4 or more smaller units per lot and relaxing parking just makes sense in this day and age. This form of gentle multi-family infill is not what the luxury market is looking for, but it is vastly more affordable — and accessible to a wider cross-section of Vancouver families — than the existing Single Detached or Duplex paradigm.

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