Stats-and-numbers guy Andy Coupland does a backgrounder on The Grand Bargain and what Vancouverites (City and Metro) should know about this town.

Here’s the first post in the Andy Coupland Primer. Here’s the second. The third.  And now the fourth and final:

Random Acts of Density

Can the city or the region build itself out of the current ‘housing crisis’? The proportion of rental households actually went up in Vancouver between the 2011 and 2016 censuses (and in the rest of Metro too, although with a lower overall proportion renting). The past five years have seen over 33,000 starts in the city – the past four years have seen over 28,000.

But for the city to achieve an average 8,500 new units a year (the target the mayor has mentioned) would mean moving away from the caution we generally see.* Perhaps it won’t be as difficult as it seems. It was a bit surprising that there wasn’t pushback when Wall built a huge complex on Boundary Road, quite a way from the SkyTrain. That was the most extreme example (in Vancouver) of a street of modest houses replaced by over 1,000 condos in 32 floor buildings.

The take-up of the Cambie Plan also shows a different approach – not so much the six-storey buildings along Cambie already mentioned but the more recent additions. The City now has a method to fast-track rezoning for 1.4 FSR townhouses. One existing house can become six or even eight units, half of them 3-bed family-sized. There are already 32 projects as current rezonings – all but two approved in the past year. There are nine other sites already at Development Permit stage, and they represent 341 townhouses – which for Vancouver is a huge change.  The same sort of thing is happening in Marpole and Grandview Woodland, as those plans took the same forms and density.

That will be another way in which Vancouver will continue to grow in ways other municipalities don’t, because there’s actually a lot of change happening in some of Vancouver’s single-family neighbourhoods, which really isn’t the case in other municipalities. It would be interesting to know who is buying them. The family homes generally cost well over $1 million each – so more affordable than most existing Vancouver houses, but still a pretty steep haul to finance as a young couple.
It will be interesting to see the take-up of the newly permitted rental townhouse idea – around schools and parks, and near arterial. Will they be built? If so, by whom? The financing for building these multi-million dollar rental townhouse complexes can’t be easy, although with mortgage rates as they are, there’s probably never been a better time for developers: huge demand for the product and affordable financing.

Arguably it’s the first attempt to take up the broadly accepted idea of where growth could occur in the city. Most of the CityPlan Visions tended to stick the growth ‘over there’ on arterials, but most also agreed to adding townhouses or low apartments around schools and parks. That seemed to be a really good way to add density in the least disruptive way, in the places that would also benefit from the amenity of those facilities. It’s possible to see what that might look like in the Norquay Plan area. The new forms of townhouse there seem to work pretty well, given that we can’t re-create a house with a big private yard for everyone and still achieve a reasonable residential density.

5043 St Margarets Street

Not all the growth is on transit, or gently boosting the density of the detached home neighbourhoods in Vancouver (They’re really not single family any more). There has been a lot of opportunistic rezoning – but it’s pretty much confined to arterial streets. That’s because part of the Grand Bargain that evolved from the Visions – precursors to plans that didn’t really settle quite how the City of Vancouver would accommodate future growth) – was to reluctantly allow growth on arterials.

Large sites with old motels (Eldorado, right), supermarkets (Granville Safeway, Arbutus Village), old hospitals (Pearson), unwanted transit yards (Oakridge) or underdeveloped malls (Oakridge) allowed large-scale and larger density interventions. Some came from policies in node plans after the Vision – Knight and Kingsway (another ex-Safeway), Main and Broadway from the Mount Pleasant Plan. There were very few of those plans, and rolling them out has been slow and often painful. Housing growth has occurred, often many  years after plan approval (like the buildings now being developed from 2nd to 7th on Main), but it isn’t going to be enough meet the ambitious development targets the City says it wants to achieve.**

There are still several really big interventions to come.  As well as the previously mentioned Pearson Hospital site, there’s Langara Gardens, the Bus Barns (below), more of River District, more of Southeast False Creek, the whole of Northeast False Creek, and, once there’s a plan, along Broadway.

Oakridge bus barns site

There should be plans formulated to replace those three-storey aging, energy-challenged rental walk-ups with more dense rental, without forcing tenants into higher rent alternatives. That could yield a lot more rental around Kitsilano, Fairview, the West End and Mount Pleasant, if the City can get it right so it’s not horrendously disruptive to existing tenants.

Outside Vancouver there are still some large sites around SkyTrain stations, which will allow the mega-clusters to grow denser.  But to get significant numbers, other municipalities are going to have to renegotiate the Grand Bargain or see dwindling growth, as the easy sites get built out. That won’t be in the immediate future, but in a decade or so it seems possible that with a new Citywide Plan, Vancouver could have a variety of new ways to modestly continue to densify the low density housing areas of the city, and maybe a few bigger moves where transit expansion continues. Will that be true in other municipalities, or will it stay as business as usual?

One really intriguing change on the near horizon is the imminent arrival of 10,000 well paid Amazonites. Will they all live in Senakw, the proposed Squamish Nation project of mostly rental towers. Will there be unmarked shuttles running from their offices above the Georgia Street Post Office over Burrard Bridge? The new arrivals (and there are plenty of other more modest new tech expansions in the wings) could seriously disrupt the affordable housing we have that’s in private hands. The pressure for more rental could be even greater if the dramatic surge in insurance costs for stratas starts to impact the market.


Having lived in London for many years, it’s always amazed me that the owners of old, tired former hotels didn’t gradually run out their tenants floor by floor and refurbish the buildings as ‘the Balmoral and Regent Lofts’ at four times the welfare rate. Only a few landlords have done that, although enough that the stock of welfare rate housing hasn’t expanded as fast as the need.

Getting enough housing to meet the demand is one challenge. Getting the right mix between wefare rate, subsidised social housing, market rental and owned homes is even more difficult.

*In nearly 70 years of CMHC data, housing starts in Vancouver reached 8,500 in only one year, 2016. The average for the past decade is just over 5,000 a year.

**It’s a similar story outside Vancouver. Brentwood Mall, Lougheed Mall, soon Richmond’s biggest mall, underdeveloped retail near Metrotown, and soon Metrotown itself are all seeing projects with a forest of really tall, often large footprint residential towers being added.


  1. I worked on the rezoning for the Wall project that bookends Collingwood Village, for the developers who initially assembled the 33 lots that were eventually sold to Wall, and for Bruno Wall. This site is (in actual walking distance) 615 meters from Joyce Station and about 1,050 meters from Paterson Station. It is within the “pedestrian shed” of a major transit station (commonly defined as an 800 meter radius). This was a CD-1 zone originally that contemplated mid-rise development in the Renfrew Collingwood Vision Statement (for whatever value these visions statements have). It was a strategic site that had the potential to accommodate a form of development that could “complete” the Collingwood Village neighbourhood with a major project that would demarcate the eastern edge of the neighbouhood along a high capacity arterial (Boundary Road). Concert Properties had developed much of the earlier multi-family housing in the neighbourhood, with some mixed-use along a successful Joyce Street. They had engaged the community during their time planning and building the community. The community received a number of benefits from Concert’s developments, including Collingwood Neighbourhood House, a community health centre and a community policing office. When I began reaching out to residents, they demonstrated an immediate understanding of development and the benefits it can bring and the trade-offs necessary. They were very clear early on that they wanted more space to supplement Colllingwood Neighbourhood House’s main facility on Joyce. Having an annex at the other edge of the compact community made sense to them. The City also was looking for space for a major non-profit that would really “fit” in the neighbourhood– MOSAIC– the immigrant settlement support agency that does so much good, especially in Vancouver’s Eastside. With much of the housing in Collingwood Village consisting of rental housing– some of it non-market and social housing, where immigrants often first settle– this was be a great location for MOSAIC’s new head office. The City negotiated with the residents of the neighbourhood to decide how to split up the in-kind community amenity contribution from the developers of the site (eventually Wall) to ensure the neighbourhood needs were met and the City’s needs were met. The neighbourhood also felt that, at the time, they had enough non-market housing in the neighbourhood. When this project went to a public hearing– a month before the election– the public hearing was about 15 minutes long for a project with more dwelling units than the Olympic Village. It satisfied all of the needs and desires of the local neighbourhood.

  2. To quote the movie Interstellar: “Now is not the time for caution”.

    The city has an ambitious goal housing goal, yet is still using the same cautious ‘bargain’ approach. The two do not go together.

    It’s time to really free up the development opportunities so the market can properly respond to demand. I would recommend simplifying density into 4 categories: single-family, small apartments (up to 4 stories), midrise apartments (up to 8 stories) and highrises, then give developers permission to build one density level up without requiring a rezoning. That way you have organize growth without getting too many developments that seem out-of-place.

  3. I wonder what the rationale is for the 8,500 target (new units per year)?

    The suggestion above, that the most affordable rental forms in Vancouver (the three story walk-up) should be demolished, is absolutely appalling. To be replaced by what? Something that is costlier to rent if at all? Something that is carbon intensive to construct in order to replace an existing carbon neutral project? These buildings are not “energy challenged” as if that is a real thing anyway.

    1. That’s really only because of location or the perceived “gentle step” from lower density multi-family to higher density multi-family, as opposed to the “giant leap” from single family to high density multi-family.

      So the alternative would be to demolish single family houses and a bit farther out (but still close to downtown and transit) and build there.

      If you think about it, you wonder how the single family homeowners have more political sway than the apartment dwellers, when you’re upsetting a far larger number of residents with demolition of one or two walk-ups than you would with the demolition of even 5-6 houses.

    2. Jolson, how do you figure the old building is carbon neutral?

      If a new building is built to Passive House or Net-Zero it will recover its construction footprint in a decade or so and be near carbon free after that. The old building will continue to be a heavy emitter until it too needs to be replaced anyway. I’m not suggesting we should be in a hurry to hasten the demise of these buildings before their time, but many are old and nearing the end of a practical life.

      And if replacement results in more people being able to live car free or car lite then it has further environmental and social benefits. I get the “if”, but it need not be a big if. Council should be held to ensuring policies that help with affordability.

      1. Here I list contradictions associated with your magical thinking:
        *If a new building becomes net zero in time……..then all buildings become net zero! Correct?
        *old buildings are heavy emitters of ????????? something we know not what!
        * “until it needs to be replaced anyway” (old building). The presumption that old ultimately means replace is the curse of our consumer age, we ought to be aware of this cultural bias and work to expose its destructive effect on the environment.
        * “I’m not suggesting we should be in a hurry to hasten the demise of these buildings before their time,” Before their time. Sound so epic. Exactly what is that time of demise?
        * “but many are old and nearing the end of a practical life.” Let’s try to establish some linguistic meaning here. The indiscriminate use of the word ‘old’ has no meaning as a descriptor in a discussion of buildings. Meaningful words and terms such as: regular maintenance, thermal upgrades, conversions to renewable energy supplies, these terms are more useful for describing buildings. “…….the end of a practical life. We are talking about buildings here, not pets.
        * “if replacement results in more people being able to live car free or car lite then it has further environmental and social benefits.” What are the environmental and social benefits in the first instance? There doesn’t seem to be any. There are no benefits. If the goal is to live in a car free world, then the obvious solution is for you to move to the countryside. One should not allow rhetoric to disturb sound reasoning.

        1. *No
          *Depends on how well or poorly it was built.
          *Depends on how well or poorly it was built.
          *Less CO2, more social interaction.
          One can easily live without personal transportation in a city. Not at all practical in the country.

          1. Missing: an understanding that the affordable ubiquitous three story walk-up is home to generations of neighbourhood families. Home to people with names like Ron.
            Let’s say that one day a guy named Tom knocks on your door and says, “Hi, Ron, it’s time for you to go, it’s been twenty years the mortgage is paid (thanks to you), it’s time to re-develop.”
            “Gee, Tom, that just doesn’t seem fair!”
            “Never mind Ron, a deal is a deal, and besides the City has this new policy that allows re-development of thousands of these buildings because they look old, can you imagine that Ron, ‘they look old’? win-fall profits for me, a new rental unit for you if you have the cash.”
            “Gee, Tom, I don’t have the cash.”
            “Well, Ron, it’s the burbs for you then. I guess you will have to get one of those e-cars.”

          2. How did they ever fit generations of neighbourhood families into a twenty year time span? Now that would be pretty magical indeed. Exaggeration can be a useful emotional tool in an argument but if you’re not careful it can point out the absurd in the same argument.

            Most of these buildings were built in the 60s and 70s. They are pretty substandard in a lot of ways, but I get that affordability is probably priority #1 for most of the people living in them. That makes a good argument for keeping them as long as they are safe and functional.

            But just how long are they still going to last? They weren’t built particularly well. They are terrible for thermal management and lose a lot of energy through their paper-thin (exaggeration) walls and (often) single pane windows with aluminum frames. They are terrible for noise transmission between suites. Many have no elevators so are not suitable for the elderly or disabled. Many do not have sprinkler systems and they are prone to catastrophic fires if one begins to take hold.

            You could choose to do major retrofits to bring them up to modern standards but they’ll be hard-pressed to meet the performance of a new building – particularly on the energy efficiency side. You could easily be looking at $100k and up per suite and the tenants would have to move out during construction. Can the returning tenant reasonably be expected to pay the same rent?

            The other option for the building owner is to just do the bare-minimum required to keep the tenants safe and the basic functions operational and let the building deteriorate. If you think the owners should be held to a higher standard and keep these buildings up to modern standards there are two avenues: regulation and competition. Neither lead to immediate affordability but the latter might dampen prices over time.

        2. Jolson – you appear to be missing the caveat that was in the post that tenants shouldn’t be forced into higher cost alternatives. There are ways that can be avoided, and relatively low density three storey, old and energy inefficient buildings can be redeveloped to something higher density, and better.

          How are older building energy challenged? If they’re over 50 years old they often have single pane windows, four inch frames, poor insulation and inefficient heating systems, that are sometimes limited in the tenants ability to reduce heat when it isn’t needed. You could fix all those problems, but not with the tenants still living there, so they would be displaced for a time anyway.

          Here’s how it could work – this is a an actual current proposal. On East 6th, Brightside Housing Association, Wall Financial and BC Housing have bought an old, leaky condo building completed in 1975, with 22 units on 3 floors. (Presumably Wall’s funds help made the project possible). They’re proposing to redevelop it with a non-market rental building. The new building will have 82 units of affordable housing built to higher energy and sustainability standards.

          Right next door Brightside have an older (1969) 2-storey non-market rental building with 36 tenants. The idea is for all of them to be given the option of moving into the new building next door, at the same rent calculation they currently pay in the old building. That site would then become available for redevelopment as a higher density, more energy efficient project.

          Nobody is displaced, nobody moves to the country, and 58 tired apartments are replaced with at least three times the number of newer, better built homes. There are other examples of similar arrangements in the city.

          1. What happened to the original 22 condo owners? Why did the strata council allow the building to deteriorate? How many of the owners were forced to sell out? etc. somebody was displaced in all likelihood.

            We don’t know how many will go for the new 36-unit deal, do we? We don’t know how many will be forced out by the majority, do we? How would you like to be given an option to move out of your home? That is, move out or be thrown out if you end up in the minority.

            I didn’t miss the ‘if’ caveat or the ‘could be’ caveat, I understand it as magical thinking based on economic opportunism. It is an approach that is purely numerical: tons of carbon, numbers of units, numbers of cars, numbers of humans, FSR, FAR, mortgage rates, age of buildings, etc.

            There is no sociological understanding what so ever of the community of people that live in three story walk-ups. Do the people living in those buildings care about energy efficiency? Yes, they do if they pay for heat, and for these people the answer is simple: turn off the heat put on warm clothes, retreat to one room if necessary. Plug in a tiny BC Hydro 87 % renewable energy heater. Very effective and very sustainable because it is not cold all the time anyway. We do not need to demolish these buildings because ‘they are old’, replace them with a cloud of green house gases and try to bravely call the whole act sustainable. It is not. Nobody wins, least of all the environment. We have to ask ourselves is this the best way to house ourselves, or are there better ways?

          2. The cost of running that tiny heater would add up in a hurry for somebody who’s so tight for money they would choose to live in a building where cost matters more than comfort.

  4. With all the discussions on Vancouver’s housing and affordability crisis, it’s astounding that voter turnout rates still hover around 40%. In the last election, when housing was arguably all that was talked about, the rate actually decreased – from 43% to 39%.

    The great majority of voters who do show up are likely home owners, and they are understandably inclined to vote more according to their own interests. And why shouldn’t they. But where are the other 61%?

    Those who don’t vote in effect give away all their power to those who do. A Vancouver where election turnout rates were 80% might be a very different place.

    1. The biggest building boom with most tenant displacement, skyrocketing rents and vastly rising property values happened under (left leaning) “Vision” Vancouver. and the former good looking mayor Gregor Robertson, a protege of a billionaire. No wonder voters are a little cynical.

      Nice bike lanes after 10 years in power .. affordable housing: no so much !!

      1. The biggest building boom with the most tenant displacement, skyrocketing rents and vastly rising property values happened when the same thing was occurring in major cities all around the world, largely as a result of prolonged low interest rates, global capital looking for a safe repository and local speculators taking advantage of the rising values, pumping them up even more.

        Cities all over the world were trying to find solutions because, by and large, they had little to no control over the factors causing the problem. Besides great bike lanes, Vision also introduced the empty homes tax. Along with provincial taxes from both right and left they have been fairly effective at dampening rising prices and have even lead to some significant declines, raising the ire of those who don’t vote left. (Not that Vision was particularly left.)

        So… nice try Beyer.

  5. I live in a sixty year old thrr storey wakup rental in downtow kamloops. It is not enery efficient, and is blazing hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter, so my hydro bills are sometimes big. Also, i can hear my neighbours sometimes though the walls and ceilings.

    But the rooms are huge and the rent is low and controlled to stay low.

    If i had the choice to move into a new apartment with smaller rooms, lower heating and cooling costs, at twice the rent, i would not do it.

  6. Andy, you outline very well where all the coming development is planned. It is not the pace of development or the volume that is a problem. It is the cost of development and the lack of affordability.

    Writing now from the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, i see that the only solution is to mandate that in all new development, a much larger proportion of units be truly controlled affordable. Not the 20 % required today, with weak controls.

    I am talking 60 or 80 %.

    The development industry will howl, Of course. What else could we expect?

    But what is development for? Short term construction jobs and profits for developers, or ciy and community building?

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