Friday, November 21, 2014

Lessons from London: Vancouver Sun November 22, 2014

This Regent’s Park terraced housing is typical of that built around London during the Georgian period.
Geller: Take some lessons from London: Foreign investment: Insights to be gained when comparing housing challenges in U.K. to those of our own

By Michael Geller, Special to The Sun November 21, 2014 3:49 PM

As Vancouver debates measures to deal with the negative impacts of foreign real estate investment and vacant accommodation, it is instructive to see how London has been dealing with similar issues.
The price of housing in London has always been high relative to the rest of England and the world. However, during a recent trip, I learned that over the past decade, costs have increased dramatically as buyers from Asia, the Middle East, Russia and other European countries have priced many Britons out of the market.
One of the most extreme examples is One Hyde Park, which began marketing in 2007 as the most exclusive address in the world. At the time, it was priced at the Canadian equivalent of about $4,500 a square foot. However, over the past seven years, the price has risen to about $12,400 a square foot.
While some buyers are the end users, other properties are being bought purely as investments and not used at all.
Another example is The Shard, Europe’s tallest building. Three two-storey duplexes and seven single-storey apartments on floors 53 to 65 have been priced between $53 million and $88 million each. They are currently on the market and expected to be purchased almost exclusively by offshore buyers.

To address what many consider the negative impacts of foreign buyers, earlier this year a leading right-wing think-tank called on government officials to adopt a scheme similar to one operating in Australia, which restricts sales to overseas buyers unless they add to the existing housing stock.
Such a system would mean that no existing home could be sold to a foreign buyer. Furthermore, new units could only be bought by non-residents if their investment would result in one or more additional properties being built.

It is interesting to compare foreign-owned vacant properties in London and Vancouver.
A U.K. property firm estimated that in 2013, 70 per cent of “new-build” properties in Central London went to foreign investors, while 30 per cent of London’s luxury homes worth more than $1.8 million were bought by non-U.K. residents.

Last year, the U.K. chancellor announced he was closing a loophole that allowed foreign investors to make huge profits on sales of U.K. homes by avoiding any capital gains tax. A 28-per-cent capital gains tax will begin in April 2015. In Canada, foreign investors pay tax on any real estate gains.
The U.K. has also imposed a 15-per-cent “stamp duty rate” or purchase tax for foreign investors who buy through corporate shell companies.

During my recent trip, the newspapers were full of stories about a proposed ‘mansion tax’ being put forward by the opposition Labour Party. It would apply to homes costing $3.6 million or more and add an additional tax payment of $442 per month. However, those earning less than about $74,000 would be allowed to defer payment until they sold or died.

Echoing the position of Vancouver COPE mayoral candidate Meena Wong, the U.K. government and others are advocating that local councils impose higher property taxes on foreign investors who leave homes empty. Last June, London Mayor Boris Johnson added his voice by urging local authorities to “whack up the council tax” on houses that remain empty for more than a year.

However, local authorities can already impose a 50-per-cent tax increase if a property remains vacant after two years, but are not doing so because of the administrative difficulties in determining which properties should be penalized. Some absentee owners are avoiding the council tax surcharge by moving in a table and chair.
As Liam Bailey, global head of research at Knight Frank, eloquently put it: “The problem with measures to tackle empty homes or under-occupied homes, whether sensible or not, fundamentally comes down to practicalities. Namely, how government can actually define and then identify empty homes. The practical implications of the policy are likely to be limited.”

In the U.K., the federal government is very much a part of the conversation. In Vancouver, the federal government has been silent.

Another discussion taking place in Vancouver is how best to increase density in and around single-family neighbourhoods without resorting to highrises.Again, it may be instructive to look at London.
Throughout the city, one finds medium-density ‘zero lot-line’ terraced housing. By ‘zero lot-line,’ I mean each unit extends from one side property line to the other, not unlike most commercial buildings along arterial roads in Vancouver.

Terraced housing was built from the 1600s to the early 20th century throughout London. While some units were very modest, especially during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, others were quite the opposite. A glamorous Georgian end-terrace house in Cornwall Terrace Mews overlooking London’s Regent’s Park sold in 2013 for $145 million, probably the most expensive terrace home sale in history.

One of the defining features of terraced housing is the repetitive, uniform front facade and uniform height. This height can vary from two to five floors. In addition, many properties, especially during the Georgian era, had a lower level accessed from a gated front courtyard.

Today, many of the terraced units continue as single-family properties. However, others, especially larger properties, have become hotels or offices, or been divided into flats providing more modestly priced accommodation. In many instances, elevators have been added. However, other terraced housing still requires residents to climb the stairs.
As Vancouver and surrounding municipalities redevelop, I believe there are many opportunities for terraced housing, especially as a transition between higher density, mixed use arterial development and single-family neighbourhoods behind. It might also be built around parks and community centres.
Depending on the location, the front and rear yard setbacks could vary to fit in with the surrounding neighbourhood character. A lower level might be included as a separate suite for sale, or as a rental unit, not unlike the basement suite in a single-family house.

Vancouver can learn from London’s experience when it comes to both regulating foreign buyers and new forms of housing.

Michael Geller is a Vancouver architect, planner, real estate consultant and developer — and a frequent contributor to Westcoast Homes. He can be reached at

Vancouver Courier Opinion: 10 predictions for the next 4 years Nov 19, 2014

So what did you think of the election?

While I and no doubt many of you were pleased with some of the results and disappointed with others, there is no doubt Vancouver residents were far more engaged in this election compared to previous years.

Furthermore, although the council makeup has not changed significantly, the election campaign may well change how Vision Vancouver governs over the coming four years.

On election night, I was pleased to join fellow columnist Allen Garr and Courier editor Barry Link in 20-minute-long live streaming video as we analyzed the results and discussed what might be in store for the coming term.

During the course of our election night coverage I made a number of predictions. While this can often be as dangerous as making promises, let me share 10 predictions for the coming four years.
  1. While there will be increased calls to adopt a ward system with elected representatives from different neighbourhoods around the city, this will not happen. However, some election reforms will occur. The province will approve much-needed limits on donations from individuals, corporations, unions and other organizations prior to the next election.
  2. Others will join me in speaking out for a need to redesign ballots to neutralize the unfair advantage granted to those whose names begin at the top of the alphabet. Consideration will be given to multiple ballots with each candidate’s name at the top, and an arbitrary scrambling of the names. However, both will be rejected, along with a proposal to have a round ballot.
  3. Considerable effort will be devoted to seeking public support for the referendum on transit funding. The Courier will do special features on alternative funding mechanisms and the experiences of other jurisdictions. The referendum will pass, although many residents will claim they did not really understand the question.
  4. Council will deliberate on whether to remove the viaducts. Despite opposition from NPA councillors and Adriane Carr, council will approve their demolition. However, four years from now they will still be standing as a result of numerous unforeseen cost considerations.
  5. There will be a lot of discussion about the design and funding requirements for the Broadway subway. However, construction will not begin during the four-year term as a result of numerous unforeseen cost considerations.
  6. Concern about foreign ownership of vacant properties will continue. Council will approve a study on what measures should be put in place to address the problem. However, the study will conclude this is beyond the control of municipal government and nothing will be done.
  7. The Vancouver Affordable Housing Authority will get underway with much fanfare. There will be much criticism from the public on the composition of the board of directors. While a few sites will be offered for lease, the VAHA will not have much impact on housing affordability in the city over the next four years.
  8. Senior city staff will agree with Kirk LaPointe’s campaign claim that it is time to dust off the Mayor’s Task Force on Affordable Housing report. The city will implement the proposal for a transition zone between arterials and single family zo

    nes where row houses and other forms of more compact housing will be allowed. A demonstration program allowing laneway and infill housing to be sold under certain conditions will also be successful.
  9. More rental housing will be built on parking lots and through regeneration of older rental properties. A few older non-profit projects will also be redeveloped to provide additional housing and generate revenues to upgrade the balance of the units. However, rental housing will remain expensive four years from now.
  10. There will be repeated calls for city manager Penny Ballem to leave city hall. However, she will still be with us four years from now, albeit with a more consensus-driven management style. At least one senior park board official will be gone, and despite praise for his governance, the mayor will decide not to complete his term. Four years from now, Vancouver will have its first Chinese-Canadian mayor.
Next week I’ll offer 10 more predictions.

© Vancouver Courier
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Friday, November 14, 2014

West Vancouver: Some observations on the forthcoming election

A number of years ago then Mayor Pamela Goldsmith-Jones invited me to participate on a panel looking at alternative housing choices for West Vancouver residents. Through a series of events, I ended up redeveloping three single family lots next to the Rec Centre, West Van United Church and other amenities into a 9 unit infill development, known as Hollyburn Mews

At the time it was very controversial, with over 150 speakers and letters in opposition. However, it was approved by a 4-3 vote with Shannon Walker, Michael Evison, Trish Panz and Pam Goldsmith-Jones in favour. Today, I think everyone, including the councillors who voted against it and most of the people who spoke against it agree it has been a positive addition to the community.

Sadly, in the 2011 election, Michael Evison was not reelected. However, the new Council, including  newcomers Craig Cameron, Mary-Ann Booth and Nora Gambioli went on to support a number of much-needed new housing initiatives including guidelines for coach houses throughout the District

Unfortunately, a number of councillors in the forthcoming election appear to want to take a step backwards in order to preserve West Vancouver just the way it is. I worry that if they are elected projects like Hollyburn Mews and new rental and ownership apartments will not be approved.

You can read about the list of candidates here

West Vancouver is finally heading in the right direction when it comes to new housing choices. For this reason, I am hoping Craig Cameron, Mary-Ann Booth, Nora Gambioli, and Michael Lewis will be returned to Council.

I also hope that Michael Evison will be elected back on Council.

Three other candidates warrant consideration. Peter Lambur is an architect and planner who could offer a much needed voice when it comes to the need for new community plans.

While I do not know her, I am told Joanne Baxter would be a good addition to Council.  I also do not know Jim Finkbeiner, However, I know of him as a former successful business executive who could bring important skills to Council.

While I appreciate my support for West Vancouver candidates may be the kiss of death, (none of them have asked for it!)  I do hope that these observations may be of interest and helpful to those trying to decide who to vote for tomorrow. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Vancouver Courier Opinion: Don’t settle for ice cream in politics: (Who I'm voting for!)

                                                              Photo by Dan Toulgoet Vancouver Courier

Michael Geller / Vancouver Courier
November 10, 2014 04:02 PM

As I reflect on the 2014 Vancouver election campaign, I am reminded of a short story I received during the final days of the 2008 municipal election:

The most eye-opening civics lesson I ever had was while teaching third grade this year. The U.S. presidential election was heating up and some of the children showed an interest.
I decided we would have an election for a class president. We would choose our nominees. They would make a campaign speech and the class would vote.

To simplify the process, candidates were nominated by other class members. We discussed what kinds of characteristics these students should have. We got many nominations and from those, Jamie and Olivia were picked to run for the top spot.

The class had done a great job in their selections. Both candidates were good kids.
I thought Jamie might have an advantage because he got lots of parental support.
I had never seen Olivia’s mother.

The day arrived when they were to make their speeches Jamie went first. He had specific ideas about how to make our class a better place. He ended by promising to do his very best. Everyone applauded. He sat down and Olivia came to the podium.

Her speech was concise. She said, “If you will vote for me, I will give you ice cream.”She sat down.
The class went wild. “Yes! Yes! We want ice cream.”  

She surely would say more. She did not have to. A discussion followed.

How did she plan to pay for the ice cream? She wasn’t sure. Would her parents buy it or would the class pay for it. She didn’t know.

The class really didn’t care. All they were thinking about was ice cream.
Jamie was forgotten. Olivia won by a land slide.

All candidates running for office offer ice cream. Fifty per cent of the people react like nine-year-olds. They want ice cream. The other fifty per cent know they’re going to have to feed the cow and clean up the mess.

During this past campaign, while no one promised ice cream, all parties made a lot of other promises.
We were promised a subway along West Broadway even though the Mayors’ Council says Vancouver will have to pay for under grounding, if required for aesthetic reasons.

We were promised the most open city hall in Canada.

We were promised free swimming lessons and more swimming pools.

We were promised a $30/month transit-pass and a tax on vacant foreign-owned properties.

We were promised a reduction in harbour oil tanker traffic and no more pipelines.

We were promised counter-flow traffic lanes and more free parking times.

We were promised 4,000 plus units of rental housing and 1,000 plus childcare spaces.

While many voters may be influenced by these promises, others will wisely question which are realistic given the city’s limited powers and funding constraints.

Wise voters will also question which candidates are most likely to deliver on their promises.
In last week’s column, I urged Courier readers to learn about the candidates running for council, park and school board. I suggested we choose the best candidates, regardless of party affiliation, and the letter with which their name begins.

With this in mind, and given a desire for both experience and new ideas, I will be giving serious consideration to the following candidates.

Vision’s Geoff Meggs is a very intelligent, experienced politician with much to offer; as does Heather Deal.

NPA’s George Affleck and Ian Robertson are two experienced politicians who could again bring a practical perspective to council debates.

The Green Party’s Adriane Carr has proven herself to be a dedicated politician. I would expect the same from thoughtful newcomer Cleta Brown, who cares very much about social justice.

At park board, the Green Party’s Stuart Mackinnon along with NPA’s John Coupar, and newcomer Stephane Mouttet could all bring greater balance to deliberations.

For school board, the Green’s Janet Fraser has a most impressive resume. Fraser Ballantyne, Penny Noble and Chris Richardson could also be good additions.

For mayor, I believe Kirk LaPointe is the best person to manage what could be a very diverse council and hopefully fulfill his promise to create a more open and transparent city hall.

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