Architecture
February 10, 2020

The Coupland Primer 4: Random Acts of Density

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.

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We asked stats-and-numbers guy Andy Coupland to do a backgrounder on The Grand Bargain and what Vancouverites (City and Metro) should know about this town, especially if they are going to weigh in on the housing crisis and to participate in the City-Wide Plan. 

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

 

CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS

Demographic change is also driving development, and explains why there are as many new homes as new residents in Vancouver in the most recent data from the 2016 Census.

In the 284,000 households in the City of Vancouver, the average household size has been falling. That’s not a new phenomenon, and it’s not only happening in Vancouver. The average household size is falling across the region, and has for 20 years.  In part it’s because my generation, known as ‘The Boomers*,’ are starting to die off. Average family size** is falling too, both in the city, and the region. It’s not because there are proportionally more one-person households; those have been surprisingly stable over the same period.

There were fewer Boomers in Metro Vancouver in 2016 than in 2011 – but only slightly fewer. The 2011 Census saw the greatest number of people born between 1946 and 1965 living in the region – almost 670,000 people. But there were 18,000 fewer in 2016, as they started retiring to other locations or dying off.

Things were different in the City of Vancouver. Boomers saw their numbers in the city drop for every census period since 1996, when the city saw ‘Peak Boomer’. There were 182,000 born in the 20 years after the war living in the city in 1996, and only 159,000 in 2016. Overall, both in the city and the wider region they’ve declined from over a third of the total population to around a quarter.

[Click headline above for charts.]

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(Click on headline above for illustrations.)


We asked stats-and-numbers guy Andy Coupland to do a background on The Grand Bargain and what Vancouverites (City and Metro) should know about this town, especially if they are going to weigh in on the housing crisis and to participate in the City-Wide Plan. 

Here’s the first post in the Andy Coupland Primer.  And now the second:

 

WHO GROWS WHERE

If you lived your life only shuttling up and down the rapid-transit system, you’d be convinced that all the growth is happening in the suburbs – or at least some of the suburbs – far more than in the City of Vancouver. Just look at the apparent density, and certainly the height, bulk and prominence of some of the transit-oriented clusters in Burnaby at Brentwood and Metrotown, and in Surrey at King George. Even in Richmond (where the height limitation means less density), the number of projects stretches to the skyline. Each of these would seem far greater than the few towers here and there in Vancouver.

So appearances can be deceptive.  A lot of lower density developments and a series of Random Acts of Density can generate more new homes than a few clusters of very obvious towers.

In fact, Vancouver is developing clusters of new towers as well. Nearly 1,000 of those 33,300 housing starts over five years in the City of Vancouver are on Davie Street, near Denman, (right) where there are five new rental buildings under construction.  Because they’re being developed in the context of other older towers, and because they are (by today’s standards) being built to modest heights, they don’t really stand out.

There’s a similar set of towers coming on Robson Street. They’re almost invisible when compared to the very prominent Vancouver House by Granville Bridge, but overall the three towers under construction add over 400 units, half of them rentals – nearly as many as Vancouver House in total, and more of them rental.

Many of Vancouver’s new homes are even more invisible. To the annoyance of some commentators, the Cambie Corridor Plan initial phase was cautious. The plan allowed six-storey buildings along Cambie and four storeys on adjacent parts of King Edward, for example. The heights were limited because the sites all held single-family homes – often 1950s ranchers. There was a recognition that, one, not every house would sell, and secondly, across the lane the zoning wasn’t going to necessarily change, so ‘fitting in’ was important.

The Grand Bargain was still in play – but in this case it was houses that were going to be torn down up and down Cambie and replaced with apartments. Without taking into account the higher numbers and densities on the big sites like Oakridge, Pearson and Langara Gardens, there have already been over 6,000 units associated with the Cambie Plan. There are 16 tower cranes along Cambie today.

Those who lament that the densities are far too low for a transit corridor forget the huge backlash against the plan, and the parade of residents who objected to the earliest projects when they came to Council for rezoning.

Even less visible are the suites and laneway houses. Over 500 laneway homes get added every year, all rental, and all modestly sized. More rebuilt homes these days have a suite than don’t, but it’s not that far back in time that there was no way of adding a suite – or legalizing one that had mysteriously appeared underneath a home. Now, providing there’s a lane, almost every plot in RS zoning can have three homes – two of which can’t be sold off, only offered for rent. It has been argued that one unintended consequence is that house prices have been maintained higher thanks to the presence of two ‘mortgage helpers’.

This situation doesn’t apply in most of the rest of Metro Vancouver, and it might explain why the numbers of new units in Vancouver is so much higher. Of the 33,000 starts over five years in Vancouver, less than 7,000 are single detached or semi detached, (many one-for-one replacements) and that includes over 2,500 laneway homes.

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Andy Coupland was the go-to guy for stats and data at Vancouver City Hall – and who periodically visits Price Tags with comments and corrections.  With John Atkin, he’s been giving us great insights on our past in Changing Vancouver, and on our present in Changing City Updates.

We asked Andy to do a background to The Grand Bargain and what Vancouverites (City and Metro) should know about this town, especially if they are going to weigh in on the housing crisis and to participate in the City-Wide Plan. 

So here’s the first post in an Andy Coupland Primer:

 

THE NUMBERS

Metro Vancouver isn’t growing any bigger geographically.  But every year its population grows by an average of over 30,000.  So in the past 30 years, over a million extra people have been added, to reach the current population of around 2.5 million.

The City of Vancouver has grown too – 200,000 more people in the same 30-year period.

Some ask: does the City of Vancouver need to add any more people? Others are outraged that the City limits development anywhere.

A reasonable approach fits into the middle somewhere: we can’t or shouldn’t pull up the drawbridge, but there has to be a managed growth that doesn’t encourage Random Acts of Density in locations where services are inadequate.

 

Within the 2,870 square kilometers of the region, two thirds is effectively off-limits for development.*

That means that effectively there are only 837 square kilometers of land where development can occur (29% of the total Metro area). Within this relatively limited area, less than 10% is ‘green field’ land.

The result: in all the region, only 78 square kilometres have never been developed – an area somewhat smaller than the City of Vancouver.

The City of Vancouver has only has five percent of the region’s total land area – just 116 sq. km. Because very little of the city is off-limits for development, it has just under 12 percent of the region’s developable area.

By the 1990s almost everywhere in the City of Vancouver had already been built on.  In a few spots in downtown, the buildings being constructed today are the fifth on the site, despite the city’s relatively short history.

Nonetheless, the City of Vancouver added on average around 5,600 people a year between 2011 and 2016** despite having almost all the developable land already built out and the highest population density of all the region’s municipalities.

Yet in the same time period, the city also saw an average of 5,500 new homes added every year. At first, that just sounds wrong – almost a new home for every new resident? There are several reasons.

The 5,500 is not net growth – about a thousand homes a year are demolished and almost always replaced by other ones. So only 4,500 additional homes are added each year. But not all of those were occupied with new residents – at least, not in 2016. Some had ‘non-permanent’ residents – students studying here; temporary foreign workers. Some were used as pied-a-terre; some were second homes, some business-owned.  Some are occupied by suburban parents to use a couple of times a week when commuting home was inconvenient. A few were owned by wealthy foreigners with multiple homes around the globe. Some were on AirBnB. Some were vacant, awaiting sale or recently completed.  A few were bought purely as an inflating investment, with rising value offsetting taxes and strata fees.

Conclusion: in five years there were just over 3,000 more dwellings in the city not occupied by usual residents.

It’s not a huge number, but in a city with very low vacant rental rate and a serious affordability problem, it was considered to be a problem worth trying to tackle. So the City of Vancouver, and then the Province (and soon the Federal Government) are taxing homes that aren’t occupied either by the owner or a tenant. Non-residents pay higher taxes. AirBnB (and similar platforms) are being pursued; the rules about how much of a home can be offered as a vacation rental, and for how long, have been tightened up and are being applied.

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