Wednesday, May 13, 2015

From REW.ca Opinion: Basement Suites in Duplexes and Townhouses, and For Sale? by Michael Geller

I grew up in a modest three-bedroom post-war bungalow in North Toronto in the 1960’s. Many of my classmates lived in similar homes, although some were quite reticent about sharing this fact. That is because they did not live in the house. They lived in an illegal basement suite and constantly worried their family might one day be evicted.
 
Years later, after joining CMHC in the Architecture and Planning Division, my colleagues and I often discussed how basement suites could be better designed and legalized, noting they were an effective way of providing affordable housing.

It is therefore with considerable pleasure that over the past decade, I have watched municipalities across Canada legalizing basement suites. In Vancouver, the City Council has relaxed a number of building code regulations to make the approval of basement suites easier. The city now allows a reduced ceiling height and relaxed sprinkler system requirements. Other municipalities from Abbotsford to West Vancouver have also revised regulations to permit legal basement suites.

Vancouver now permits suites in every detached single-family home in Vancouver within the RS, RM and RT zones, noting they are an excellent way to reduce our carbon footprint and expand affordable housing choices. While I applaud Vancouver and other Metro municipalities for these changes, I would urge them to go a few steps further.
 
Firstly, I would like them to permit more basement suites in new duplex and townhouse developments. While lower-level suites are sometimes permitted in heritage conservation projects, especially around Kitsilano, I see no reason why they should not be allowed in most new duplex and townhouse projects as long as fire-safety provisions are taken into account, along with parking requirements.
 
In some cases, where housing is not close to transit, additional off-street parking should be required. However, where there is good transit and car-sharing programs available, parking standards should be relaxed.

While some might wonder how you can have basement suites in townhouses, I would invite you to think about the many terraced housing developments you have walked by in London where lower level suites, often accessed directly from the street, are quite common. These were once the servants’ quarters. However, today, they provide well located and oftentimes surprisingly high-priced accommodation.
 
Basement or “lock-off” suites are starting to be permitted in some new Vancouver townhouse developments such as those along Oak Street. These suites generally have their own separate entrance from the street, and a second locked entrance from within the unit. The resulting design is very flexible.

Similar units can also found in Toronto, Calgary and at SFU’s UniverCity where some apartments even feature secondary lock-off suites. A newspaper journalist once referred to them as “mortgage helpers in the sky.”

To date, most basement suites are rental only. However, in some instances it would be both desirable and feasible for new suites to be offered for sale. Examples of basement suites for sale can be found in new developments in Kitsilano and other Vancouver neighbourhoods. While some might question why anyone would purchase a basement suite, these are not sold as basement suites; they are sold as “garden-level” suites.

In most cases, they feature large windows and a walk-0ut to a private outdoor space, making them a very attractive and more affordable housing option. Fire and sound separation can be achieved in the same way as in conventional apartment buildings. These units are a far cry from the damp basements many of us have experienced in older single-family houses.
 
At a time when we are seeking more affordable forms of housing, I can envision basement suites contributing to the “gentle densification” of existing single-family properties. By combining a new duplex with garden suites on each side and a laneway house, it would be possible to replace a single house on a 50-foot lot with five new dwellings; some for sale, some for rent, or all for sale.
The overall density and site coverage need not be significantly greater than what is currently permitted. Moreover, the result would be smaller, more affordable homes appealing to both first-time and move-up buyers, as well as empty-nesters ready to downsize.
- See more at: http://www.rew.ca/news/opinion-basement-suites-in-duplexes-and-townhouses-and-for-sale-1.1931404#sthash.YpSrJIcC.dpuf
I grew up in a modest three-bedroom post-war bungalow in North Toronto in the 1960’s. Many of my classmates lived in similar homes, although some were quite reticent about sharing this fact.
That is because they did not live in the house. They lived in an illegal basement suite and constantly worried their family might one day be evicted.
Years later, after joining CMHC in the Architecture and Planning Division, my colleagues and I often discussed how basement suites could be better designed and legalized, noting they were an effective way of providing affordable housing.
It is therefore with considerable pleasure that over the past decade, I have watched municipalities across Canada legalizing basement suites.
In Vancouver, the City Council has relaxed a number of building code regulations to make the approval of basement suites easier. The city now allows a reduced ceiling height and relaxed sprinkler system requirements. Other municipalities from Abbotsford to West Vancouver have also revised regulations to permit legal basement suites.
Vancouver now permits suites in every detached single-family home in Vancouver within the RS, RM and RT zones, noting they are an excellent way to reduce our carbon footprint and expand affordable housing choices.
While I applaud Vancouver and other Metro municipalities for these changes, I would urge them to go a few steps further.
Firstly, I would like them to permit more basement suites in new duplex and townhouse developments.
While lower-level suites are sometimes permitted in heritage conservation projects, especially around Kitsilano, I see no reason why they should not be allowed in most new duplex and townhouse projects as long as fire-safety provisions are taken into account, along with parking requirements.
In some cases, where housing is not close to transit, additional off-street parking should be required. However, where there is good transit and car-sharing programs available, parking standards should be relaxed.
While some might wonder how you can have basement suites in townhouses, I would invite you to think about the many terraced housing developments you have walked by in London where lower level suites, often accessed directly from the street, are quite common.
These were once the servants’ quarters. However, today, they provide well located and oftentimes surprisingly high-priced accommodation.
Basement or “lock-off” suites are starting to be permitted in some new Vancouver townhouse developments such as those along Oak Street. These suites generally have their own separate entrance from the street, and a second locked entrance from within the unit. The resulting design is very flexible.
Similar units can also found in Toronto, Calgary and at SFU’s UniverCity where some apartments even feature secondary lock-off suites. A newspaper journalist once referred to them as “mortgage helpers in the sky.”
To date, most basement suites are rental only. However, in some instances it would be both desirable and feasible for new suites to be offered for sale.
Examples of basement suites for sale can be found in new developments in Kitsilano and other Vancouver neighbourhoods.
While some might question why anyone would purchase a basement suite, these are not sold as basement suites; they are sold as “garden-level” suites.
In most cases, they feature large windows and a walk-0ut to a private outdoor space, making them a very attractive and more affordable housing option. Fire and sound separation can be achieved in the same way as in conventional apartment buildings.
These units are a far cry from the damp basements many of us have experienced in older single-family houses.
At a time when we are seeking more affordable forms of housing, I can envision basement suites contributing to the “gentle densification” of existing single-family properties. By combining a new duplex with garden suites on each side and a laneway house, it would be possible to replace a single house on a 50-foot lot with five new dwellings; some for sale, some for rent, or all for sale.
The overall density and site coverage need not be significantly greater than what is currently permitted. Moreover, the result would be smaller, more affordable homes appealing to both first-time and move-up buyers, as well as empty-nesters ready to downsize.
- See more at: http://www.rew.ca/news/opinion-basement-suites-in-duplexes-and-townhouses-and-for-sale-1.1931404#sthash.YpSrJIcC.dpuf
I grew up in a modest three-bedroom post-war bungalow in North Toronto in the 1960’s. Many of my classmates lived in similar homes, although some were quite reticent about sharing this fact.
That is because they did not live in the house. They lived in an illegal basement suite and constantly worried their family might one day be evicted.
Years later, after joining CMHC in the Architecture and Planning Division, my colleagues and I often discussed how basement suites could be better designed and legalized, noting they were an effective way of providing affordable housing.
It is therefore with considerable pleasure that over the past decade, I have watched municipalities across Canada legalizing basement suites.
In Vancouver, the City Council has relaxed a number of building code regulations to make the approval of basement suites easier. The city now allows a reduced ceiling height and relaxed sprinkler system requirements. Other municipalities from Abbotsford to West Vancouver have also revised regulations to permit legal basement suites.
Vancouver now permits suites in every detached single-family home in Vancouver within the RS, RM and RT zones, noting they are an excellent way to reduce our carbon footprint and expand affordable housing choices.
While I applaud Vancouver and other Metro municipalities for these changes, I would urge them to go a few steps further.
Firstly, I would like them to permit more basement suites in new duplex and townhouse developments.
While lower-level suites are sometimes permitted in heritage conservation projects, especially around Kitsilano, I see no reason why they should not be allowed in most new duplex and townhouse projects as long as fire-safety provisions are taken into account, along with parking requirements.
In some cases, where housing is not close to transit, additional off-street parking should be required. However, where there is good transit and car-sharing programs available, parking standards should be relaxed.
While some might wonder how you can have basement suites in townhouses, I would invite you to think about the many terraced housing developments you have walked by in London where lower level suites, often accessed directly from the street, are quite common.
These were once the servants’ quarters. However, today, they provide well located and oftentimes surprisingly high-priced accommodation.
Basement or “lock-off” suites are starting to be permitted in some new Vancouver townhouse developments such as those along Oak Street. These suites generally have their own separate entrance from the street, and a second locked entrance from within the unit. The resulting design is very flexible.
Similar units can also found in Toronto, Calgary and at SFU’s UniverCity where some apartments even feature secondary lock-off suites. A newspaper journalist once referred to them as “mortgage helpers in the sky.”
To date, most basement suites are rental only. However, in some instances it would be both desirable and feasible for new suites to be offered for sale.
Examples of basement suites for sale can be found in new developments in Kitsilano and other Vancouver neighbourhoods.
While some might question why anyone would purchase a basement suite, these are not sold as basement suites; they are sold as “garden-level” suites.
In most cases, they feature large windows and a walk-0ut to a private outdoor space, making them a very attractive and more affordable housing option. Fire and sound separation can be achieved in the same way as in conventional apartment buildings.
These units are a far cry from the damp basements many of us have experienced in older single-family houses.
At a time when we are seeking more affordable forms of housing, I can envision basement suites contributing to the “gentle densification” of existing single-family properties. By combining a new duplex with garden suites on each side and a laneway house, it would be possible to replace a single house on a 50-foot lot with five new dwellings; some for sale, some for rent, or all for sale.
The overall density and site coverage need not be significantly greater than what is currently permitted. Moreover, the result would be smaller, more affordable homes appealing to both first-time and move-up buyers, as well as empty-nesters ready to downsize.
- See more at: http://www.rew.ca/news/opinion-basement-suites-in-duplexes-and-townhouses-and-for-sale-1.1931404#sthash.YpSrJIcC.dpuf

From REW.ca It's Time to Increase Supply of Fee-Simple Row Houses by Michael Geller

I was born in England where the terraced row house is one of the most generic forms of housing. There are row houses, or townhouses, throughout Metro Vancouver but there is a significant difference between UK row houses and what you find here.

In Vancouver, unless they are rental, row houses are generally owned as part of a larger development. They are strata-titled, and purchasers are members of a condominium association. While they own their unit outright, the exterior walls, landscaping, parking and driveways are generally owned in common.

In UK, the row houses are usually “fee-simple” ownership. In other words, they are owned outright, just like a single-family house, with a party wall agreement in place.

There are a few reasons why we have not seen more fee-simple row house developments in and around Vancouver. Firstly, they can cost more than a conventional row housing complex. Instead of one sewer and water hook-up for the entire development, there may be individual connections to every unit. I say there “may be” since it is legally possible to reduce the number of connections with cross-easement agreements.

There may also additional costs associated with the party wall construction. For many years, the Vancouver Law Department questioned whether the legal agreements covering the party walls between individual units were binding in perpetuity.
 
An early fee-simple development on Cambie Street at West 33 Avenue, undertaken by the late planner and politician Art Cowie, a longstanding proponent of fee-simple row houses, had to have two walls separated by an air space.
A few years ago, the province changed legislation so that the city lawyers could sleep at night and not have to worry about this legal complexity. However, changes often come slowly in the development community.
Forty years ago, a number of fee-simple row house developments were built in Burnaby and Coquitlam, which are still around.

More recently, Parklane Homes built a fee-simple row house development in Langley as part of Bedford Landing. A party wall agreement is in place and a services easement agreement allows water supply and sewer pipes to cross over different properties.

To prevent someone from painting their row house bright yellow, design guidelines are registered on title.
Aragon Homes, another innovative development company, built a fee-simple row house development as part of its Port Royal development in Queensborough, New Westminster.

As noted, there are pros and cons of a fee-simple row house compared to a condominium unit.
The first pro is there are no common area assessments. You are not paying someone to cut the grass or maintain your home. You pay the maintenance costs as if you were living in a single-family house.

Another advantage is that you decide when to undertake maintenance or carry out major repairs. Unfortunately, as evidenced by the depreciation reports that condominiums now have to prepare, many strata councils put off necessary repairs in order to keep monthly fees low.

There is also a sense of independence that may be lost in a condominium. Fee-simple owners can paint their front door red if they want without having to seek approval from the strata council. They can also landscape their patio or garden as they see fit. This is generally not possible in a condominium development.

The cons are the other side of the same coin. Firstly, there is no strata council to arrange for maintenance or repairs. You have to do it yourself, and the costs could be higher. You may not have the same degree of control over your immediate neighbours. Unless there are design guidelines in place, if your next-door neighbour decides to paint their house black with orange accents, there may not be anything you can do. Similarly, if they decide to dig up their bit of grass and replace it with a play area for their kids, you will have little say.

However, as more and more baby-boomers chose to move out of single-family houses, I expect there will be an increased demand for individually owned fee-simple row houses. Furthermore, many young couples who cannot afford a house but are prepared to undertake their own maintenance may prefer this housing form and tenure.
I therefore expect forward-looking developers and homebuilders to build more of this type of housing, especially if municipalities increase the amount of land zoned for townhouses.




But that is another story for another day.

Opinion: Vancouver needs a good spring cleaning Vancouver Courier May 13, 2015



Driving along the 100 Block East Hastings last Tuesday, I was so disgusted with what I saw I had to park my car and take a photo. Outside a graffiti covered, boarded up storefront, a pile of garbage was strewn along the curb lane of the road.

Just as I was taking the photo, a man yelling and swearing came towards me, threatening to break my camera. Somewhat frightened, I ran back to my car and drove away without looking back.
Why did I take the picture? Why should I care what the street looks like?
I took the photo to post on Twitter and Facebook so others could see what is happening to a part of our beautiful city.

After tweeting the photo to the City of Vancouver I was promised someone would follow up. The next day I received a telephone call from a very polite person in sanitation. He advised that since city crews found it too dangerous to clean up that portion of Hasting Street during the daytime, the city had contracted with the Strathcona BIA who in turn was hiring local people to carry out the work.
I was shocked to be told there is now an area in our city which the sanitation department deems too dangerous to keep clean during the daytime.

I decided to seek a comment from city councillors Geoff Meggs and Andrea Reimer via Twitter. Neither replied, which surprised me since in the past, Coun. Reimer has often responded to my tweets. I also requested a comment from the Strathcona BIA. No response.

I realize many will question whether this is really something I should get too worked up about. After all, given the rising cost of housing, gang violence in Surrey, and Vancouver kids going to school hungry, is it really that important to worry about our city’s cleanliness?

I think it is, since a city’s cleanliness says something about its sense of pride. Furthermore, it is an aspect of urban life that we can easily do something about.
 
By international standards, Vancouver is a relatively clean city. We particularly excel in the management of unwanted graffiti that is plaguing so many cities around the world. However, I think we are failing when it comes to smaller things like controlling weeds and litter, chewing gum, and cigarette butts, and streetscapes in the Downtown Eastside.
We also need to do a better job of weeding along streets and once-prized public walkways. Just take a look at the False Creek walkway at the foot of Howe Street, or the now barren, but recently weed-covered median at the south end of the Burrard Bridge.

We might take a lead from Galway, Ireland which imposes fines for those throwing chewing gum on the sidewalk and dissuades people from throwing cigarette butts on the ground since they not only make a mess, they are bad for the environment. They are not biodegradable; they harm marine and animal life.

Other world cities have come up with creative solutions to deal with uncleanliness. In Dublin, the city administration placed provocative posters on buses and around town proclaiming: “If you behave like a piece of filth, that’s how the world sees you. Litter is disgusting. So are those responsible. Elsewhere throughout the country, towns and cities compete to win a “Tidy Town” award. Participating shopkeepers carry out litter patrol duties at the end of each day as they close up their businesses.

In Singapore, public housing residents compete annually to maintain the cleanest project. The cost of prize monies is more than offset by savings in maintenance, not to mention enhanced civic pride.

Over the next month, I would like to see businesses and residents throughout our city, and especially the Downtown Eastside, embark on a community “Spring Cleaning.” To maintain neighbourhood cleanliness over the longer term, we might set up an Adopt a Block program, similar to Seattle and other American cities.

As the “broken windows theory” has demonstrated, maintaining the physical environment helps to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes from happening. A good spring cleaning throughout our city might be a good way to get started.
- See more at: http://www.vancourier.com/opinion/vancouver-needs-a-good-spring-cleaning-1.1931039#sthash.OSwYp583.dpuf

Opinion: It’s time to help the ‘last-time buyer’ Vancouver Courier May 6, 2015



Last week, it was reported that Vancouver plans to create a database of empty houses and condos in an effort to determine to what extent vacant properties contribute to the city’s affordability crisis.
The news comes from a memo sent by Mukhtar Latif, the city’s chief housing officer to mayor and council. In his memo, Latif acknowledged it is difficult to determine how many homes are empty, and why. Therefore, the city plans to retain a consultant who will use B.C. Hydro consumption data, national census information, and other statistics to assess the situation.
 
The city will also set up a website where people can report houses they believe to be empty.
As I have noted in previous columns, other jurisdictions have imposed special taxes on foreign real estate buyers, and also attempted to discourage empty properties through regulations, with limited success. While I question how much the city can do on its own, if it can collect substantive data to demonstrate empty properties are exacerbating housing affordability, the federal and provincial governments may take some action.

I recently came across another interesting newspaper story on the topic of vacant housing. To quote the article:

“Middle-aged couples in large homes should be encouraged to sell and downsize to a smaller property to benefit society,” said the Minister. “More than half the people over 55 years old had spare rooms and he suggested the Government should help them move.”
In case you are wondering why you missed this story, it might be because it is not from a Vancouver newspaper; it is from England’s Daily Telegraph.

I find it ironic that while the U.K. government is exploring how best to encourage older people to move out of their larger homes, the B.C. government is doing the exact opposite.
Why I write this, you ask.

The British Columbia Property Tax Deferment Program allows those 55 and older to defer property taxes on their principal residence. If you are not aware of this program, you can find details on the BC Government website. While there is no doubt the program benefits some low income elderly people who simply do not want to move, I have long questioned the broader societal cost-benefits. There is no means test; anyone 55 or older can sign up. Indeed, I take advantage of the program and encourage my contemporaries to do the same.

One reason is the interest rate, which is currently just 1 per cent. It is not even compounded. On a $7,000 tax bill, that’s only $70 in interest. There are so many better things I can do with that extra money, including travel and investment. Just as importantly, whether intentional or not, the program encourages many of us to remain in larger homes with empty rooms when both we and society might benefit from a more efficient use of our housing stock.

Lord Newby, the deputy government chief whip in the U.K. House of Lords who proposed government assistance to seniors with empty rooms pointed out that for many older people the major constraint is often the lack of appropriate alternative accommodation.

Ross Altmann, the U.K. government business champion for older workers agreed.
“We have not been building new homes that older people might want to downsize to; the new houses are typically small flats that might suit ‘first time buyers’, not ‘last time buyers’.”

A similar problem exists in Vancouver. While thousands of new apartments are being built, often they are too small and not in the neighbourhoods where longstanding Vancouver residents want to live. They are also located along busy arterials, not on the quiet leafy streets many prefer. Furthermore, many of us are not yet ready for an apartment. We want a smaller house or townhouse.

While I endorse Mr. Latif’s initiative to study empty houses and condos, I would also encourage him to examine what to do about all the empty bedrooms throughout the city. While few us are prepared to take in boarders, (even though doing so would solve the rental housing crisis overnight), by shining a light on the situation we might encourage city planners and Council to push for more suitable neighbourhood housing accommodating last-time buyers.
- See more at: http://www.vancourier.com/opinion/it-s-time-to-help-the-last-time-buyer-1.1873811#sthash.hyRKfKut.dpuf