Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of three- (arguably four-) storey frame apartment buildings were constructed in Vancouver after the Second World War. Here’s a classic at Comox and Bute in the West End.
Though (not arguably) the blandest architectural housing ever built in this city (at least Vancouver Specials had balconies), it supplied quick accommodation to meet the post-war demand for affordable rental apartments in non-car-dependent locations. That’s how we handled housing crises in the past: lots and lots of cheap, plain housing and apartments.
So what happens to that stock when it gets old? Here’s an example of what that same apartment block looked like last week:
Though it seems to be a new building, I’m assuming enough of the original structure was saved to constitute a ‘renovation.’ I’m assuming it still fits in the zoning envelope even with the effective addition of a fourth floor where the penthouse was. I’m assuming it’s still a rental building, since it’s doubtful the City would approve a condo conversion. I assume there’s been a big increase in the monthly rents.
I’m also assuming that if this proves doable and profitable, it will be the first of many. For years now, the development industry has been eyeing these walk-ups (hello, Goodmans), arguing that they have long outlasted their best-by dates as more than half-century-old wooden structures.
In the late 1980s, as land values escalated, a few were demolished, notably in Kerrisdale, leading to an immediate backlash. Tenants, particularly elderly women who had lived in them for decades, were being evicted so their buildings could be replaced with concrete highrise condominiums – at a loss of affordability and density (condos, even at 15 or more storeys, had less units). Neighbours objected to loss of views, and of course a change in the scale and character of their community.
The Council I was on knew we had to stop what would be a political nightmare, as each demolition would be covered by the media, and not in a good way. Publicly it was a lose-lose-lose all the way around (loss of affordability, density and character) even though a logical and profitable change for the developers.
So we stopped it, particularly in the West End, with the zoning amendments of 1989. Development pressure was offloaded on to the megaprojects and to the rezonings of Downtown South and Triangle West, thereby providing new housing stock adjacent to the West End but not in it.
A new West End plan was approved a few years ago, with the intention of keeping the centre of the West End much like it is, and allowing growth to occur on the border blocks east and north, and at the west end of Davie. The take-up has been immediate and dramatic. But it leaves unanswered the question of what to allow for the still-serviceable, affordable, low-rise wooden walk-ups.
Burnaby has just approved directions for changes to its zoning to discourage demolitions and renovictions of similar stock, requiring that current tenants be compensated, accommodated and returned at existing rents – likely making renovations as above economically impossible without dramatic increases in density. The political response to change is, as it was in 1989, to try to keep things as much the same as possible, regardless of the severity of the ‘housing crisis’ – suggesting that the crisis isn’t all that real so long as current tenants, owners and communities can retain the status quo.
Or maybe my assumptions are wrong.