Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Speaking notes to Millennials: what I will tell those attending Board of Trade events today

Speaking notes for Michael Geller

Development Industry perspective on housing affordability in Vancouver.

1.   Vancouver has always been an expensive place to live, but the current situation is unprecedented and now a crisis situation.
2.   Most of us know that Asian money is a very significant factor. But we also know that additional taxation is not THE answer, and could result in unintended consequences.
3.   Taxing empty houses and apartments sounds like a good idea; but will be complex and ineffective, and not likely to happen. But we’re watching what’s happening in Israel and other places.
4.   Nearly all of us think that increasing supply is a key to the solution. We know that where there is a lot of supply, prices have not risen as much. I own a condo in Burnaby that is not worth much more than I paid in 2006. It is not an isolated example.
5.   Supply solutions? Check out my SFU presentations. But they include new forms of housing: smaller houses on smaller lots; more duplexes and semi-detached; more townhouses including fee-simple; stacked townhouses; zero-lot line development; building on parking lots, along laneways, above institutional properties, above and beside industry; new forms of tenure; new attitudes
6.   Prices will not always keep going up.
I would like to conclude with some practical advice to those in attendance:

1. WHEN TO BUY? My first bit of advice was something told to me when I was still at university.

While hitchhiking to school, I was offered a ride by someone who warned that he had to make a few stops. I soon realized he was picking up rent cheques. He asked me where I lived and if I owned my property. I was 21 and told him of course not. He told me to buy as soon as possible, and not to worry about paying too much because in the long term, the price wouldn't matter.

2. If I couldn't afford a place of my own, buy one with one or more friends. Foolishly, I didn't take his advice until 11 years later.

3. WHERE TO BUY? In terms of where to buy, I suggested that the best investments are often in the worse part of town, OR where others are not buying.

I reflected on how many years ago I used to tell people to buy in the Downtown Eastside, other parts of East Vancouver, Maillardville (Coquitlam), New Westminster, and Squamish, I still regard these places as good investment areas in terms of potential upside.

4. WHAT TO BUY? NEW or USED In terms of buying new or used, I recommend buying older condominiums, rather than presale units.  While we don't talk about it a lot, in some parts of Metro, new units are like new cars; they depreciate when driven off the lot.

5. HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF BUYING OLD? However, if you are buying an older unit, do not buy into a project that has not completed a depreciation report.  While some are being prepared by firms that are not qualified, and too lax, others may be overly conservative. I think this is fair comment; however, I stand by my advice. If buying into an older building, it is important to see if it has been 'rain-screened'.

6. WOOD OR CONCRETE? On whether to buy wood frame or concrete, as a rule I prefer concrete, noting the premium is often not as high as it should be. If buying into a wood frame building, it is best if it has roof overhangs. If not, it is likely to leak again

7. LITTLE THINGS TO LOOK FOR? . When looking at a unit, examine it carefully. Too often people buy, especially in this market, without checking to see if there are enough electrical outlets, closets, or furnishability.

Also check to see if there is a lazy-susan in kitchen corner cupboards. If not, don't buy. If the developer is trying to save a few dollars here, where else has he tried to save money?

7.RENTING? If you can't afford to buy, you may need to rent. As a general rule, while rents may seem high, they are often a good deal compared to buying. I have found that many new laneway houses rent for much less than I think they should, given all they have to offer. 

Worry about things like RENTBERRY.COM


8. CAR?  Finally, I told anyone who still hasn't bought real estate who has a car to sell it. When one compares the cost of operating a car over 10 years, with what the same money will do if invested in real estate, you're much better off without the car. Join a car-share instead.

9. ALTERNATIVE TENURE?  ‘Rent to Own’  Shared equity: Shared Appreciation Mortgages Co-housing, COOPS

10. Write a letter with your offer!

Don’t put off having a family because you can’t afford a home; it’s better to have an family and move!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Vinson House Cottages Approved by West Vancouver Council May 16, 2016

I am pleased to report that West Vancouver Council has voted in favour of the proposal from Trasolini Chetner and Michael Geller to conserve the historic Vinson House at 1425 Gordon Avenue, Ambleside in return for approval to add three new homes on the property: a Garden Suite below; a Laneway Cottage and a Garden Cottage.
All being well, construction will begin this summer, and be completed in fall 2017. At this time we do not know if we'll pre-sell the homes, or wait until they are finished.

Thanks to everyone involved, but especially to Stephen Mikicich and Lisa Berg in the planning department at the District of West Vancouver; Formwerks Architectural, Donald Luxton & Associates Heritage Consultants, Damon Oriente, Landscape Architect, and others working on the plans; and neighbours and community representatives who supported the project at Council, and wrote letters of support, and others who privately offered advice and support.

Thanks also to the Mayor and Council who have shown an act of faith in approving the project. We will do our best not to disappoint you!

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Good news: City of Vancouver pursues relocatable modular housing concept to provide affordable housing

Some of the media coverage from my earlier presentation of this idea
This past Thursday morning I was pleased to find an email from the Vancouver Communications Office advising of a press conference at 9:30 to announce that the city was moving forward with the idea of creating to 'temporary' communities using modular housing. Five firms had been shortlisted for two sites: one at 1500 Main Street and the other above a parking structure on Howe Street. Readers of this blog will know that this is an idea I have been promoting since the 2008 election campaign. Indeed, I have been promoting the idea for 45 years since this was my University of Toronto thesis.

Here is the city's press announcement.

City of Vancouver News Release
May 12, 2016
City takes next steps on modular housing pilot project

The City of Vancouver is taking the next steps on a new solution for providing temporary housing for low-income residents. The Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency (VAHA) has proposed two initial sites to launch a modular housing pilot program: 1500 Main St. and 1060 Howe St.

"We've made gains creating housing for modest income households, but our housing market is very difficult for people on fixed incomes," says Mayor Gregor Robertson. "We need to tackle the housing affordability crisis head-on with creative approaches like modular housing. We have a huge task ahead of us, but we're not backing down, and we'll keep pursuing all options to build more affordable housing."

After shortlisting twelve companies to build modular housing on these sites, the City is now issuing a Request for Proposals (RFP) to five of the companies with the most experience to submit site specific designs.

VAHA anticipates that 1500 Main St. will be able to accommodate approximately 40 - 80 micro suites (with bathrooms and kitchens) and amenity space. The site at 1060 Howe St. will be able to accommodate roughly 40 suites (with bathrooms and shared kitchen facilities) on a raised parkade at the rear of the building. Each pilot site will be operated by a non-profit society to be selected by the City.

Scheduled to be up and running by late fall, proponents are encouraged to submit designs which complement the look and feel of the neighbourhoods into their concepts.

Once the RFP process concludes, the successful proponent(s) will submit an application for a temporary development permit for each site. As part of that process, a formal community notification process will take place, seeking input from neighbouring residents and businesses.

VAHA has been mandated to create new affordable housing to address Vancouver's housing affordability challenges as quickly as possible. These facilities are a concrete step in providing below market temporary housing to individuals on income assistance or fixed incomes. To provide permanent, affordable housing, the City has offered up 20 sites of city-owned land worth $250 million to the provincial and federal governments, to partner on creating more than 3,500 new homes.

For more information on the modular housing pilot project and the shortlisted proponents, visit<>

When:          Thursday, May 12, 2016 9:30 am - 10:00 am

Where:         1500 Main St. Vancouver (corner of Western St. and Northern St.)
Who:            Mayor Gregor Robertson, Mukhtar Latif, Chief Housing Officer

This is the second announcement this year. The following are excerpts from a February 2016 blogpost:
A panel I prepared as part of an exhibit that was on display in City Hall outside the Mayor's office a few years ago.

I woke up this morning to hear Vancouver Councillor Kerry Jang on CBC talking about the city's request for proposals to create relocatable housing projects for the homeless. While I know that sometimes you are supposed to glow on the inside, I could not help but think "Hey, they have finally followed up on my idea!" It's an idea that I developed as my architectural thesis at the University of Toronto in 1970 and subsequently pitched during and after the 2008 Vancouver Municipal Election. Here's a bit more on the origin of this idea as set out in a 2013 blogpost. I do hope that this time the idea may actually proceed.
A 2013 Christmas Present for Vancouver's Homeless
In 2009 I made a proposal to the Province and the City of Vancouver following a study I undertook in conjunction with architects NSDA with funding from BC Housing. Our proposal was to create a stock of affordable modular units that could be set up for a period of time on a site, and subsequently relocated. Just like school portables are often used.

At the time, the proposal received a lot of media coverage but didn't go anywhere, in part I'm told, because neither Gordon Campbell nor Rich Coleman liked the idea of housing people in 'containers'.

The fact is, these weren't containers...they were purpose built prefabricated modular units that could be set up on a private property and relocated after say three years or more once the property was approved for redevelopment.

Others objected to the proposal because on a cost per square foot they claimed they were not much cheaper than permanent housing. Well, that might be true...except the units were planned to be much smaller and permanent housing solutions in Vancouver often cost significantly more than they the order of $300,000 a unit. or up to $1000 a foot for projects like the Pennsylvania Hotel.

Relocatable modular units would cost less than one sixth of this amount, and take significantly...let me repeat significantly less time to construct.

Others pointed out that there's nothing more permanent than a temporary solution. I agree. But by placing these units on private property, they would ultimately be relocated...just like the community garden at Davie and Burrard. It won't be there five years from now!

Below is an abbreviated version of a presentation I made to the DTES community at the Carnegie Centre in which I suggested that we use the parking lots of the Drake Hotel for this type of housing.  Sadly, it did not proceed...meanwhile the facilities at the Drake have remained unused...and I don't believe we're much further ahead on a permanent redevelopment of that site.

So here's my proposed Christmas present to Vancouver's homeless. Let's try a demonstration project in 2013 to test out this idea. I am confident that while it is not THE answer to housing the is another solution that could dramatically help many people by moving into something that's much better than a shelter, at a relatively modest cost.

Finally, here's a description of the proposal that was published on the ThinkCity website and a Vancouver Sun commentary by my colleague Bob Ransford whose judgement is regarded highly by many of us in the Vancouver housing and development community.

And a CTV story:

As we approach a new year, with a 2015 goal of ending street homelessness, I hope that the City and Province will take another look at this idea so that we might create a demonstration program by next Christmas Eve. What a wonderful Christmas present that might be for many Vancouver residents currently in shelters or on the street.  Merry Christmas

Friday, May 13, 2016

Hollyburn Mews: 5 years after

It was 5 years ago that Hollyburn Mews went to Public Hearing and was narrowly approved by a 4-3 vote. Since then, it's been a happy place for the 9 households that live there.

In preparing for a presentation to Council on Vinson House Cottages, I've been reviewing some photos of the completed units. This is how they look when people actually live in them! I think they look quite good, but would welcome suggestions on what we should do differently this time around!
The coach house is about 1200 sf plus basement. It's small, but because there are lots of windows it works

The desk on the stair landing was designed out of necessity; there was no where else to put it, but it too works
Some people feel this is too much marble...the floor is marble too. What do you think?
We wanted the powder rooms to feel like they were built 100 years ago
This is the interior of the largest unit. About 1550 sf plus basement
While I know that many developers prefer not to look back at their projects, I must say I never tire of looking at most of mine....not all of them, there is one that's a bit of an embarrassment....but most of the others have turned out even better than expected!

West Vancouver Public Hearing: Vinson House HRA Proposal Monday May 16, 2016 6pm

As a colleague recently remarked, I always prefer to take on the difficult, but worthwhile projects.

This Monday a small, but significant proposal goes to Public Hearing at West Van Council. It is the District's first Heritage Revitalization Agreement proposal involving an older house and infill. While the resulting FAR is less than 0.6, it represents an increase over the District's 0.35 FAR. A number of neighbours will be appearing in opposition. They would prefer to see the older house go, and no zoning changes.

Below is my Council presentation. If you live in West Van, or would like to see more heritage conservation or new housing choices in the District I hope you will consider attending the meeting or send an email indicating your support to Thanks