Housing
December 18, 2019

Twinning Tweets: Why the housing crisis won’t be solved in Vancouver

At Vancouver City Hall, December 18:

Vancouver council approved a contentious rezoning application to build a five-storey rental building at Larch and West Second Avenue in an 8-3 vote Dec. 18. after a public hearing that attracted dozens of speakers, for and against. …   The Larch street building will produce 63 rental units — 13 for moderate income households.

Some neighbouring residents, who formed Kits Neighbourhood Group, campaigned against the Larch Street project, arguing it didn’t fit neighbourhood character, the building is too high, dense and bulky, and not enough affordable units are being provided to justify the incentives being offered to the developer.

Imagine trying to approve hundreds of these ‘missing-middle’ developments one by one – or even through a mass rezoning to allow them anywhere.  Imagine a ‘Kits Neighbourhood Group’ city-wide (as Colleen Hardwick undoubtedly will).

 

Meanwhile, at Surrey City Hall, December 16:

Alison Brooks Architects has won approval for a residential-led scheme in Vancouver, Canada, featuring a series of towers, the tallest a 38-storey skyscraper …

The project for Rize Alliance Properties will create 1,126 homes on the site in the burgeoning City of Surrey (City Centre) …

It was waved through at a City of Surrey Public Hearing …

 

Do the math: 63 versus 1,126.  Do the political calculation: one project tries to nibble away at The Grand Bargain, the other reinforces its expediency.

What are the odds that the City of Vancouver will provide enough housing of any kind, incentivized or not, to make a substantial difference in the housing crisis?

 

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A big shout-out to author Jesse Donaldson:

“Land of Destiny: A History of Vancouver Real Estate” is a fun, fascinating book … that more than delivers on its title. His publisher Anvil Press will host a Vancouver launch Dec. 19 at 6 p.m at Resurrection Spirits, free to the public.

Here’s an excerpt from The Tyee: 

Larry Cudney hated architects. In fact, he hated the entire architectural profession. For a time, years earlier, while still a young intern with a local firm, he had harboured dreams of becoming one himself, until a falling-out with the company prevented him from obtaining the certification he needed. …

Working as a draftsman from his cramped office on Main Street and 33rd Avenue, he designed single-family homes (the only buildings a draftsman could legally design), and his work was known for being simple and practical …

… sometime in the mid/late-1960s, Cudney sat down and drafted the plans that would become his legacy. It came to be known as the “Vancouver Special,” and for the next 20 years, it would be the most widely-discussed — and hated — type of housing in town. …

“Those brash new houses with slightly pitched roofs and aluminum balconies (known in the trade as Vancouver Specials), which are now squeezed into lots where once a single house stood in a magnificent garden are here not just to stay, but to increase,” complained the Sun, in 1978.  …Between 1965 and 1985, an estimated 10,000 Vancouver Specials were built, and by 1980, according to a Young Canada Works survey, eleven per cent of Hastings-Sunrise, and five per cent of Marpole were made up of Vancouver Specials. And as more and more were built, the backlash only grew. …

“Right now, to buy a house in the city’s east side, you have to have $20,000 in assets and a $20,000 income,” wrote the Sun’s Mary McAlpine in 1978. “Most young people with children don’t have that sort of money. The people who do are developers who tear down the house and put up Vancouver Specials …

But in the years that followed, attitudes — including city council, and the Sun’s McMartin — began to change. For many lower-income and immigrant families, council later recognized, the Vancouver Special was their only chance for home ownership. In 1987, City Councillor Gordon Price even praised the architectural style as “a tradition of our cultural diversity,” and “worthy of heritage preservation.* …

In 2005, a renovated Vancouver Special was awarded the Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for Innovation in Architecture. …

Privately, Larry Cudney was said to have been proud of the disgust his brainchild had engendered. “Creating a completely tasteless form of housing,” stepdaughter Elizabeth Murphy later opined, “was his revenge on the architect profession with which he was in conflict.”

 

*It’s true!  I remember saying that.  Still do.  But with respect to heritage preservation, I meant only that we should designate an intact original and perhaps try to save a complete block like the one above.  Let the rest evolve or eventually be replaced by higher density ‘missing-middle’ alternatives.  

Vancouver has always been in need of some kind of Vancouver Special.  The two-storey carpenter-built single-family houses along streetcar lines in the 1890s and 1900s were the originals.  Even West End one-bedroom apartments in West End highrises in the 1960s were a form of simple, affordable, mass-produced housing.  So in a different way was the illegal basement suite.  Now it’s the modular house for the otherwise homeless.  But with the high land costs, design controls, heritage preservation, and inflexible zoning, we aren’t likely to see another version anytime soon.

 

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December 3, 2019

Goodman, Vancouver’s pre-eminent seller of small (and some large) apartment blocks, has raised the alert about a Council motion that emerged from the Rental Incentives Review. The gate-worthy motion instructs staff “to prepare a report for consideration for referral to public hearing” that would extend rental replacement requirements.

…. older commercial properties with three or more rental apartments will be bound by rate-of-change regulations and will have to replace those rental apartments upon redevelopment, including redevelopment to four-storey condos.

A few observations.

If you’re in the hysteria business, don’t -gate your issue.  Overuse, like inflated currency, lessens value.

Goodman maintains that this move, if enacted, would “reduce the residual land value of these commercial properties.  (This) amounts to a downzoning.”  Leaving aside whether that is technically a downzoning, the conclusion is nonetheless “that if you own a C-2 zoned site in Vancouver, your property is on its way to devaluation.”

That, however, doesn’t necessarily mean the price will drop commensurately.  It may mean that owners over time won’t get as much a return as they might have otherwise.

It may also mean that these regulations kill off re-development and new rental housing along arterials and in some commercial zones.  But it’s hard to get as excited about something that may not happen as it is to protest the loss of existing rental stock.

It’s also hard for those who have seen a spectacular rise in their asset value to receive sympathy if the rise in the worth of their property is consequently less spectacular.  Sympathy tends to go to those downstream who pay the increased rents from the spectacular rise.

It’s surprising that the rental replacement policy isn’t already in place for apartments along commercial strips.  If Burnaby had had that requirement for its rental stock south of Metrotown, Derek Corrigan might still be mayor. In the current political climate (elections have consequences), it will be hard to persuade the Vancouver council that they shouldn’t take action to protect the rental housing stock.

However, Goodman does possibly raise something gate-worthy at the end of the missive:

“The 5th bullet says to direct staff to report back on:

“The possibility of using zoning similar to the DEOD (Downtown East Side-Oppenheimer) zoning (60% social housing and 40% rental for anything above 1 FSR) to depress land prices so it will be cheaper to buy for non-market housing.”

Gee, I wonder which councillor moved that motion.  Announcing that the intent of your policy is to sterilize land values so you can pick it up cheap won’t go down well in in the business community, or in the courts.

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When Councillors consider this report on November 26 – Rental Incentives Review Phase II – “to create new zoning districts for residential rental tenure, for use in ‘off-the-shelf’ rezonings for RS and RT zoned sites in low density transition areas that are on and near arterial roads and close to parks, schools and shopping areas”, they will:

(1) Instruct staff “to prepare the amending by-law.”

(2) Refer it to the City-wide Planning process.

(3) Other.

 

Sun reporter Dan Fumano reports:

Another change would allow four-storey rental apartment or townhouse buildings in “low-density transition areas” — defined as residential blocks within 150 metres from an arterial street. Some Vancouver neighbourhoods, such as Kitsilano and Mount Pleasant, already include many such buildings off of arterial streets. But the proposed change would open up many more parts of Vancouver to these buildings, including much of the less-dense southern half of the city, on both the east and west sides.

Asked if he expects some homeowners and neighbourhood associations might object to apartment buildings on side streets, Stewart said: “I think it’s something to digest. But all of us on council say we’re in the middle of a housing crisis, and if you’re in a crisis, you have to do something new.”

 

 

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If you’ve been following the plans by the Squamish nation to build 6000 units of housing near the Burrard Bridge, you’ll appreciate the sheer bravado of the local Tsleil-Waututh Nation.

Instead of waiting years for a District of North Vancouver council to finally approve a significant housing development, they’ve applied to the federal government to add the 45 hectares of the target property to their reserve lands. This would mean they could proceed without council approval.

Or, as one grouch on Twitter described it:

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You won’t likely find “The Grand Bargain” in a planning text, even though it explains in a phrase the de facto understanding that has shaped many of the places where Canadians live.

The bargain looks like this:

This is North York* between the Sheppard and Finch subway stations – a one-block-deep corridor of high-density mixed-use development on either side of Yonge Street.

Go another block further and there is a cliff-face drop in scale, where single-family suburbia begins under a canopy of street trees.

Post-war Toronto and its suburban cities decided to accommodate density (those concrete towers especially) where there was primarily commercial and industrial zoning.  With the opening of the Yonge Street subway in 1954, the station areas made ideal locations, especially where there was already a streetcar village.

To deal with community blowback at the sudden change in scale and alienating architecture, especially if the bulldozing of existing residential neighbourhoods might be required, planners and councils struck a compact: we won’t touch a blade of grass in your single-family zones.  Your status will be maintained.

Hence the Grand Bargain: high-rise density, low-scale suburbia, little in between.  Massive change for one, almost none for the other, and spot rezonings thereafter.

On the other side of the country, something similar was going in Burnaby.  In the fifties, the Lower Mainland Regional Planning Board produced a vision – ‘cities in a sea of green‘ – and provided the guidelines to go with it, notably where to consider apartment zoning.  David Pereira details the evolution of Burnaby’s commitment to the regional vision and its apartment zones, renamed town centres, in the 1960s.

That bargain when built out looks like this:

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From Daily Scot:

Walking through Victoria’s Harris Green neighbourhood located just east of downtown, you witness first hand the city’s density boom as construction cranes and development-proposal boards proliferate. I noticed an intense cluster of projects around the Cook and Johnson Street corridors.

A new Bosa development on Pandora has condos built above an urban Save-On-Foods location, a new precedent for mix use in Victoria:

There is also preservation of heritage for two developments (Wellburns Market and The Wade)  which incorporate existing landmark structures with new apartment living.

 

Keep your eye on this area as Victoria pushes for more options to address the housing crisis.

 

 

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Shaping Vancouver 2019: What’s the Use of Heritage?

Conversation #2: What do we do about neighbourhoods?

Some argue that “neighbourhood character” must be maintained to preserve the diversity of the city. Others note however that “neighbourhood character” frequently serves as an instrument of exclusion, making people feel unwelcome and marginalizing them.

Neighbourhoods that do not evolve risk stagnation, while neighbourhoods that change too rapidly erase the attributes that make them unique.

Are there then qualities of neighbourhoods that should be cultivated or protected? As Vancouver faces a housing crisis, how do we go about discussing neighbourhood change?

Four panelists share their insights about their local places:

Richard Evans – Chair of RePlan, a committee of the False Creek South Neighbourhood Association

Scot Hein – adjunct professor in the Master of Urban Design program at UBC, previously the senior urban designer with the City of Vancouver

Jada-Gabrielle Pape – facilitator and consultant with Courage Consulting

Jennifer Maiko Bradshaw – renter, pro-housing activist and director of Abundant Housing Vancouver

 

Wednesday, October 9

7-9 PM

SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts (SFU Woodwards) – 149 West Hastings Street

Free, donations appreciated.

Tickets here.

 

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The latest from Michael Anderson at the Sightline Institute:

For three years, Portland’s proposal to re-legalize fourplexes citywide has been overshadowing another, related reform. …  This proposed mid-density reform, dubbed “Better Housing by Design,” includes various good ideas  … like regulating buildings by size rather than unit count; and giving nonprofit developers of below-market housing a leg up with size bonuses.

But one detail in this proposal is almost shocking in its clarity. It turns out that there is one simple factor that determines whether these lots are likely to eventually redevelop as:

  1. high-cost townhomes, or as
  2. mixed-income condo buildings for the middle and working class.

The difference between these options is whether they need to provide storage for cars—i.e. parking.

According to calculations from the city’s own contracted analysts, if off-street parking spaces are required in the city’s new “RM2” zone, then the most profitable thing for a landowner to build on one of these properties in inner Portland is 10 townhomes, each valued at $733,000, with an on-site garage.

But if off-street parking isn’t required, then the most profitable thing to build is a 32-unit mixed-income building, including 28 market-rate condos selling for an average of $280,000 and four below-market condos—potentially created in partnership with a community land trust like Portland’s Proud Ground—sold to households making no more than 60 percent of the area’s median income.

This is worth repeating: As long as parking isn’t necessary, the most profitable homes a developer can build on a lot like this in inner Portland would already be within the reach of most Portland households on day one.

But if we require parking on these lots, we block this scenario. If every unit has to come with an on-site garage, the most profitable thing to build becomes, instead, a much more expensive townhome.

When people say cities can choose either housing people or housing cars, this is what they’re talking about. 

I’ve never seen a more clear-cut example.

Lots more detail here.

 

 

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Josh Kepkay is a realtor, and now a podcaster – an opportunity, of course, to increase his profile while having conversations with “thought leaders, personalities and interesting people in the Vancouver Real Estate world with a story to share.”

As someone who always enjoys a little thought leading, I took him up on his invitation.  And here’s the result:

Click on the second podcast on the list: “What the future holds with Gordon Price”.

And yes, we go well outside the topic of the local real-estate market.  Of special interest to those interested in the strategies of city council in the ’80s and ’90s (as well as backstories on the West End) for lessons that might apply to the city’s future.

 

 

 

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