Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Missing Middle, Gentle Density, 15-minute city Vancouver Sun March 14, 2023

I first wrote about the 15-minute City last year for Senior Line, the Jewish Seniors' Alliance's quarterly magazine. http://gellersworldtravel.blogspot.com/2023/01/the-15-minute-city.html  At the time, it never occurred to me that one day citizens would be organizing protests to oppose this widely accepted planning concept. But that's what has been happening in cities around the world. When someone sent me this poster from Edmonton, I just had to write about it again. And while I was at it, I thought I would offer the true meaning of 'missing middle' and 'gentle density' before these terms generated citizens' revolts. Here's my column from today's Vancouver Sun, with thanks to you Mary Beth Roberts for helping to find space for it. I just hope it will encourage a more thoughtful discussion about planning concepts, and encourage colleagues in the development community to consider advertising in West Coast Homes now that the housing market is improving!

 When my daughter and her cousin get together to discuss their work at the dinner table, I often have no idea what they are talking about. Both are doctors, and their conversations are invariably peppered with technical terms, acronyms and abbreviations that are meaningless to me.

The same is no doubt true when community planners discuss whether to ‘relax the site coverage’ or request ‘improved CPTED measures.’ CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) refers to building and landscape design features intended to reduce the fear of crime and opportunities to commit crimes.

Several new terms have been added to the planner’s lexicon in recent years. Each is attracting considerable public attention, and one even sparked a widely publicized community protest in Edmonton. Before they cause more confusion and unrest, it might be useful to examine what they mean.

‘Missing middle housing’ is one glossary addition that is often misunderstood, even by planners and politicians. For some, it is housing targeted to a socio-economic group that is too wealthy to qualify for government-subsidized ‘social housing’ but too poor to afford conventional market developments.

However, for most planners, this term refers to housing forms between conventional single-family detached housing and apartments. Examples can include duplexes, triplexes, townhouses and ‘stacked townhouses.’

These housing forms are also referred to as ‘gentle density,’ especially when proposed within established single-family neighbourhoods. The recent proposals in Vancouver and other cities in British Columbia to allow up to six homes on a single-family lot are examples of gentle density.

Allowing laneway or coach houses or the subdivision of larger houses into multiple suites are other ways to achieve this gentle density.

Another expression attracting considerable attention is ‘the 15-minute city.’

First proposed in 2016 by Carlos Moreno, an associate professor at Sorbonne University Business School in Paris, France, it refers to an urban planning concept in which most daily activities can be accomplished by either walking or cycling from one’s home within 15 minutes. For some, it may include accessing these services and activities by public transit within a similar timeframe.

The 15-minute city concept gained prominence when it was used during Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s successful re-election in Paris in 2020. Since then, politicians and planners worldwide have been using it to describe the types of neighbourhoods they want to promote in their cities or municipalities.
The key consideration is that the 15-minute city or neighbourhood is quite different than the auto-oriented car-dependent neighbourhoods that planners have been creating since the 1950s, where there are no corner stores, and you often must drive children to school. It may even be necessary to drive to a neighbourhood park or playground.

If you live in downtown Vancouver, Kitsilano or Kerrisdale; along Number 3 Road in Richmond or Lonsdale Avenue in North Vancouver; or in West Vancouver’s Dundarave Village, you already enjoy the attributes of a 15-minute neighbourhood. Indeed, most urban areas built before the overwhelming proliferation of cars have the qualities of a 15-minute city.

For most of us, this is a very desirable type of neighbourhood. This is why planners were astonished to learn of a protest in Edmonton organized by a group opposed to 15-minute cities.

Posters headlined “PROTEST AGAINST 15 MINUTE CITIES IN EDMONTON” warned residents that “Edmonton wants to start something called 15 minute cities where you can’t go to any area that is more than 15 minutes from you, limiting your movement between DISTRICTS as they called it. You will spend 90% of your life in this 15 minute area as they are monitoring your ‘carbon footprint’ aka your actual footprint. When are we protesting: Friday February 10th at 3 pm. Bring your signs and flags.”

While conspiracy theorists asserting clandestine government plans are becoming increasingly common, this had to be the most remarkable or foolish claim to arrive on my Twitter feed.

To be clear, Edmonton and other cities are not proposing that residents be confined to a certain geographic area like Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner, the 1967 British television series about an unnamed British intelligence agent imprisoned in a mysterious coastal village.

While many of us enjoy living in 15-minute cities or neighbourhoods, the challenge for planners and politicians is how best to transform sprawling car-oriented suburbs into more walkable and accessible ’15-minute cities’ or neighbourhoods.

Redesigned neighbourhoods will allow residents to access amenities without having to always get in their cars with the attendant negative impacts on their health and environment, not to mention pocketbooks.

One way is to revise zoning bylaws to allow more widespread mixing of shops and housing. This might include building corner stores within established single-family neighbourhoods as part of new townhouses or apartment developments.

It could also include transforming arterial streets by replacing single-family houses with mixed-use buildings offering grocery stores, pharmacies and offices with housing above.

Another approach is to add housing, libraries and even schools on the expansive parking lots surrounding older suburban shopping centres since, for many of us, the shopping centre is also our community centre.

Finally, we need to rethink our public transit system. Instead of having to walk 20 minutes to a bus stop, why not bring the bus stop to outside our homes? This is already happening with HandiDart and community shuttle routes operated by minibuses. This will no doubt become more feasible when autonomous vehicles become more commonplace.

As the expression goes, “everything old is new again.” This is particularly true when you compare how cities were designed in the past and how we want them to be designed in the future. With missing middle housing, gentle density and 15-minute cities, we may all be able to enjoy healthier lives and healthier cities. Now, this is something worthy of a community protest.

Michael Geller is a Vancouver-based planner, real estate consultant and retired architect. He serves on the Adjunct Faculty of SFU’s Centre for Sustainable Development and School of Resource and Environmental Management. He writes a regular blog at gellersworldtravel.blogspot.ca and can be found on Twitter@michaelgeller

Friday, March 3, 2023

A ChatGPT stereotypical NIMBY letter & why I won't use it at a Public Hearing in West Van this Monday

An artist's illustration of a proposed rental development comprising small studio suites

Brandon Donnelly is a Toronto-based architectural graduate now active in the development industry. Every morning, yes, every morning around 6 am, he writes a blogpost about various matters, but usually related to real estate or design. He's an excellent writer and based on his posts, he strikes me as a very charming and intelligent guy. https://brandondonnelly.com/

Today he posted something truly fascinating. It's a ChatGPT AI computer generated generic letter opposing a new housing development in a neighbourhood. 

It particularly struck home (if you'll pardon the pun) since this Monday evening March 6, provided I don't have to attend to an important family matter, I intend to speak at a Public Hearing in West Vancouver in support of a new rental housing project near Taylor Way and Marine Drive...yes, one of the most congested intersections in the Lower Mainland. You can read about the development proposal in this North Shore News article. https://www.nsnews.com/local-news/all-rental-apartment-proposal-in-west-vancouver-going-to-public-hearing-6442793.

A slide from a presentation to architects and others on the appropriateness of well-designed smaller suites. The illustration is from a UK publication on housing.

At the Public Hearing, I will be sharing with the mayor and councillors my opinion about smaller suites, and the history of 600 Drake Street inVancouver. https://www.concertproperties.com/rentals/600-drake. I vividly recall the Council discussion about this VLC proposal thirty years ago. Many of the units were so small the project necessitated a reconsideration of minimum unit sizes for market housing in Vancouver, and other municipalities. 

Slides from a presentation given to Metro politicians on the need to be open-minded
when it comes to minimum housing sizes.

Following the Public Hearing, Alderman Jonathan Baker eloquently told the audience and fellow aldermen that he would be opposing the project since "Living in these units will be like living in a coffin".

Well, he was wrong, as this post-occupancy UBC thesis evaluation revealed: https://open.library.ubc.ca/soa/cIRcle/collections/ubctheses/831/items/1.0086752

But back to Mr. Donnelly's post. Having demonstrated another example of ChatGPT to his readers in an earlier blogpost, he wrote: 

Okay, I really don’t want to make this — using ChatGPT to write my blog posts for me — a habit. But I was genuinely curious what would happen if I asked it to: “write a stereotypical NIMBY letter opposing a new housing development.” Here’s what it generated.

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing to express my strong opposition to the proposed housing development in our neighborhood. While I understand the need for affordable housing in our city, I believe that this project would have a detrimental impact on our community.

First and foremost, the proposed development is simply too large for our area. The increase in population density would put a strain on our already overburdened infrastructure, leading to increased traffic congestion, noise pollution, and strain on our public services. Additionally, the construction of this project would result in significant environmental damage, destroying natural habitats and putting wildlife at risk.

Furthermore, the type of housing being proposed is simply not in keeping with the character of our neighborhood. This development would bring in a large number of low-income residents, which could lead to increased crime rates and other negative social effects. It would also drastically alter the aesthetic of our area, replacing the existing greenery and open spaces with a monolithic, high-density housing complex.

Finally, I am deeply concerned about the impact this development would have on property values in the surrounding area. The influx of low-income residents could result in a decline in property values, making it difficult for current residents to sell their homes and move elsewhere.

In conclusion, I strongly urge you to reconsider this proposed housing development. While I recognize the need for affordable housing, I believe that this project is simply not the right fit for our neighborhood. Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely, [Your Name]

I must say that I’m impressed. It is a solid 5-paragraph letter that follows a tried and true formula. First, the entire letter is sandwiched between thinly veiled statements around the importance of housing. Both the introduction and conclusion speak to “the need for affordable housing.”

And then in the middle of the letter, it hits on the holy trinity of opposition arguments: (1) overburdened/inadequate infrastructure, (2) neighborhood character, and (3) property values. I’m not sure there’s much to improve on here. These computers are good.

So, if you happen to need one of these, you may want to try ChatGPT.

My hope is that at Monday's Public Hearing, someone will recite this letter, or something similar, and councillors will gently smile. And Council will approve the project. 

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Thursday, March 2, 2023

March 2, 1981- 42 years ago today.

Forty-two years ago today, on Monday March 2, 1981, after spending 10 years with CMHC, I walked into Narod's office on the 22nd floor of 650 West Georgia and started working in the private real estate sector. I remember the day quite vividly since by 5 o'clock, Roger Moors had sold me a MURB unit in Mariner Point, even though Sally and I couldn't afford to buy a place to live.

I enjoyed two wonderful adventurous years at Narod. !981 was a good year for the real estate industry. We had lunch most days in the Garden Lounge or Pavillon in the Four Seasons. David Mooney usually ordered a bottle of Corton Charlemagne when we were having lobster and it was not unusual to finish a meal with a bottle of Chateau Yquem. It had been a condition of employment that I take up golf and I got to stay at some fine resorts where our 'management sessions' were held and play some of the better courses in the Pacific Northwest and California. But it didn't last long.

Two years later, on March 9th, 1983, the Queen arrived in Vancouver, and the receivers arrived at Narod's office. I was the only officer there to greet them since David Mooney, Craig Waddell and the others were in Hawaii playing golf. However, whatever happens is often for the best. 

Two of the receivers retained me to help finish Mariner Point and continue with the rezoning of 92 acres of BC Packers' Lands on the Steveston Waterfront. 

Thanks to these receivers, and BC Packers who also asked me to continue with the rezoning of its property, Michael Geller & Associates Limited (MGAL) was incorporated and has been active for the past forty years.

It has been a most enjoyable time. There were a couple of disappointments. I was unable to rezone the Spetifore Lands in Delta, after 26 nights of public hearings. Yes, 26 nights. I also failed in a bid to rezone Langara Gardens for three more highrises, after obtaining approval for a fourth tower on West 57th, over George Puil's vigorous objection. But some of the company's successes included rezoning of three blocks in Point Grey next to the Jericho Lands; Furry Creek,, Bayshore, Deering Island, and more recently Park West and the Travelodge site in North Vancouver.

Over the four decades, the company undertook eight development projects in Vancouver and West Vancouver, on its own, or in partnership with others.

Later this year, some events are planned to mark the 40th anniversary of the company. I look forward to getting together with the many clients, architects, contractors, and others with whom I have worked over the four decades. But for now, I'll simply reflect on all the changes that have taken place in the city since I started with Narod, 42 years ago today. Thanks to all who have made it such an enjoyable ride! 


Thursday, February 23, 2023

Creating rental housing through Inclusionary Zoning - Journal of Commerce February 22, 2023

I always enjoy taking a telephone call from journalist Peter Caulfield. He's genuinely interested in the topics he writes about and eager to learn more. I discussed 'inclusionary zoning' with Peter for approximately 45 minutes while driving across Vancouver Island to attend an affordable housing conference in Tofino, which I reported on in a previous blog. we would have spoken longer, but I eventually was out of cellular range!  

While I have been severely criticized by many for my recent column arguing against 'vacancy controls', https://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2023/02/21/Case-Against-Vacancy-Controls-Vancouver/ hopefully few will disagree with me that inclusionary zoning is one way to create affordable housing, integrated with market housing, without reliance on government subsidies. One thing that didn't make it into this article is that someone must pay for the below market units and if it isn't government, it is often those buying the adjacent condominium homes.

138 new affordable homes officially open in west side Vancouver - Peter Caulfield

S.U.C.C.E.S.S. and the Tikva Rental Housing Society recently celebrated the official opening of Dogwood Gardens, a new affordable housing project that is part of the City of Vancouver’s Cambie Gardens development at West 59th Avenue and Cambie Street.

The event was attended by Queenie Choo, CEO of S.U.C.C.E.S.S.  (United Chinese Community Enrichment Services Society), Anat Gogo, executive director of Tikva (“hope” in Hebrew) and local dignitaries, including Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim.

“We applaud the work of S.U.C.C.E.S.S. and Tikva, who have helped expand options for culturally appropriate housing across our city,” said Sim.

Dogwood Gardens, which contains 138 affordable homes, is part of a partnership with the City of Vancouver. 

S.U.C.C.E.S.S., which is the leaseholder of Dogwood Gardens, and Tikva are co-managing the project.

Of the 138 new homes, 34 are studio, 35 are one-bedroom, 41 are two-bedroom and 28 are three-bedroom units.

Dogwood Gardens will have a mix of rents, including 14 shelter-rate units.

Ten units are reserved for people in the province’s Supporting Tenants, Enabling Pathways (STEP) program, which helps them transition out of supportive housing. 

Dogwood Gardens will have amenity space, a children’s play area, parking and storage. 

Tikva has been allocated 30 units and has filled them all since it began moving in tenants in October 2022.

S.U.C.C.E.S.S. is in the process of interviewing prospective tenants for its 108 units.

Dogwood Gardens, which contains 138 affordable homes, is part of a partnership with the City of Vancouver. Of the 138 new homes, 34 are studio units, 35 are one-bedroom units, 41 are two-bedroom units and 28 are three-bedroom units.
COURTESY S.U.C.C.E.S.S. — Dogwood Gardens, which contains 138 affordable homes, is part of a partnership with the City of Vancouver. Of the 138 new homes, 34 are studio units, 35 are one-bedroom units, 41 are two-bedroom units and 28 are three-bedroom units.

 It has been operating and managing affordable housing projects across Metro Vancouver since 2008, in collaboration with BC Housing and local municipalities.

Tikva has been providing access to “innovative and affordable housing solutions,” primarily for Jewish individuals and families, since 2007.

Tikva operates 128 units in five housing developments in Vancouver and Richmond and a rent subsidy program that provides temporary financial assistance to private market renters.

Dogwood Gardens is the first of four affordable housing buildings being developed at Cambie Gardens, which will ultimately provide 540 new affordable homes. 

Dogwood Gardens was developed through Vancouver’s inclusionary zoning policy, which provides social housing to the City as a Community Amenity Contribution (CAC) by the developer.

CACs are in-kind or cash contributions by property developers when Vancouver City Council grants development rights through rezoning.

The rationale for CACs is that the demand on city facilities increases with rezonings because new residents and new employees enter the area.

To lessen the impact on the community, CACs add and expand city facilities.

Ryan Bigelow, managing director of Vancouver’s non-market housing development and operations, says there have been several projects where the city has obtained social housing units as in-kind CACs.

“Over the last 10 years, the city has secured over 3,000 social housing units as in-kind CACs,” said Bigelow. “Approximately 600 of these units are now in operation.”

Dogwood Gardens is the first completed affordable housing project at Cambie Gardens.

“There is an additional turnkey social housing building that was secured with an agreement, as a condition of the rezoning,” said Bigelow. “There are also two ‘dirt sites’ (land) which will be transferred to the city to build an additional 179 social housing units.”

Michael Geller, Vancouver planner and real estate developer, says inclusionary zoning started in the U.S. but since then has become widespread.

“One of the benefits of this approach is socioeconomic mixing,” said Geller. “That can be good for everyone, especially for those in social housing.”

Another benefit is that it doesn’t rely on senior government funding.

“It’s a wonderful way to produce affordable housing,” said Geller. “But the non-market housing depends on the market housing in order to go ahead.”

Experience has shown, Geller says, the successful use of inclusionary zoning to create social housing is tied to overall market conditions.

“In a rising market it works well,” he said. “But if demand falls off, it can become very difficult to make the market-oriented projects work financially, and developers might decide not to proceed with their projects. In that case the non-market housing doesn’t get built, either.”

Geller says there are other ways to create affordable housing.

“One of the best is to give rent subsidies to people who are most in need and let them choose where they want to live,” he said. “There’s a debate among housing planners on the relative merits of subsidizing housing supply versus subsidizing housing demand. Should money be given to developers or to consumers?”

Geller says the best solution is to go back to the 1970s when the federal government made money available to non-profit organizations to build rental and co-op housing projects.

OPINION - The case against vacancy controls - The Tyee February 22, 2023

I have known Jean Swanson since 1974 when as CMHC's Assistant Architect/Planner I was involved with the construction of new and renovated social housing buildings in Vancouver' Downtown Eastside

Introduction. On February 13, I read an opinion column by Jean Swanson urging the provincial government to impose vacancy controls on BC landlords so that they couldn't raise the rent after a tenant moves out. While I am not actively involved in the ownership or development of rental housing, based on my 5 decades of experience in the public and private housing sectors, I strongly believe this would do more harm than good. I therefore cheekily posted a tweet to the effect that someone needs to explain the economics of rental housing to Ms. Swanson.

The Tyee saw my tweet and invited me to write a response to Ms. Swanson's proposal. It is reprinted below. My key points are rents are increasing when a tenant moves out because for political reasons, allowable rent increases set by the provincial government are unrealistically low. Yes, they protect in-situ renters and that's a good thing. But they discourage new rental housing construction. That's a bad thing. Especially for those looking for rental housing.

There are many better solutions other than imposition of a vacancy control. One way is to subsidize tenants, rather than developers of rental housing. Yes, this puts more money in landlords' pockets but if we don't, over time the shortage of rental housing will further increase. Other ways include encouraging more private sector investment in both non-market and rental housing.

Unfortunately, if you review the comments posted following my column online at the Tyee, most readers don't want to see more money go to landlords. While I understand this sentiment, this attitude is partially responsible for the crisis we're in. I welcome your comments.

The Case Against Vacancy Controls for Vancouver

Better to increase payments for rent costs to people with low incomes. Latest in a series on housing advice to leaders.

Michael Geller YesterdayTheTyee.ca

Michael Geller is a Vancouver-based planner, real estate consultant, retired architect and adjunct professor at SFU’s school of resource and environmental management. Read his blog or find him on Twitter @michaelgeller.

Planner and real estate consultant Michael Geller responds to a Tyee piece urging vacancy controls by former city councillor Jean Swanson. Photo submitted.

Recently, the Tyee published a column by long-time community activist and former city councillor Jean Swanson on why Vancouver needs vacancy controls.

While I have known and respected Jean Swanson’s community activism for five decades, I fear vacancy controls will not result in more affordable rental housing. On the contrary, they could do much harm. Before explaining why, I would like to share some background.

I first met Jean Swanson in 1974. At the time she was a Downtown Eastside community activist. I had recently moved from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.’s head office in Ottawa to become CMHC’s assistant architect/planner for British Columbia.

Thirty-five years later, Jean Swanson and I met up again when the late Milton Wong invited me to join Building Community Society, a non-profit organization hoping to improve living conditions in the DTES community.

I was surprised to discover that despite repeated requests to the provincial government, the shelter component of welfare had not increased in 14 years. I proposed that Swanson and I jointly write a Vancouver Sun opinion piece urging the government to increase the allowance.

Unfortunately, others in the community opposed this initiative, arguing increasing the welfare shelter component would simply put more money in landlords’ pockets.

This was precisely what I wanted to do, to encourage and assist them to fix up their buildings.

Which brings me to Jean Swanson’s vacancy control proposal that would prevent landlords from raising an apartment’s rent after a tenant moves out. To understand my concerns, I would offer this additional background.

Between 1958 and 1972, the federal government provided tax incentives to developers and investors to build “purpose-built” rental buildings. At the time, there was no rent control and no capital gains tax.

These incentives allowed doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professionals to write off capital cost allowance, or CCA, against other income.

These buildings were not always financially viable when finished. As the late Morris Wosk once told me, who along with his brother Ben built many Vancouver apartment buildings, the coins from the washing machines and dryers were often the difference between positive and negative cash flow.

During this period, approximately 35,000 rental units were built throughout the city, including most of the low-rise walk-ups found in the West End, Kitsilano, Kerrisdale and Marpole.

In 1973, the NDP provincial government introduced rent controls. The allowable annual increase varied, but in 1975 it was 10.6 per cent and new construction was exempt for five years.

Unfortunately, once rent controls were introduced, developers stopped building rental buildings since condominium development was more attractive. Purpose-built rental construction plummeted.

In 1977, to encourage new rental supply, new buildings were totally exempt from rent control.

During this period, the federal government implemented a succession of rental housing programs. They included the Limited Dividend program, which offered high-ratio mortgages in return for reduced profits. The additional Assisted Rental program and Canada Rental Supply program both offered preferential financing to developers.

And then came MURBs. Between 1974 and 1981, the Multiple Unit Residential Building program resulted in thousands of additional rental housing units in Vancouver.

Like the Capital Cost Appreciation program, it offered investors attractive tax incentives which provided “write-offs” against other income. However, unlike previous programs, MURB units could be strata-titled and sold later, provided they were rented for a prescribed period. Four decades later, many MURB apartments continue as rentals.

Notwithstanding all these programs, rental supply did not keep up with demand. Then, something unexpected happened.

In the 1980s, financial institutions increasingly required condominium developers to presell a percentage of the units in a building before approving financing. Since it was easier to presell to investors, buildings were designed with a high percentage of small suites appealing to investors. Over time, approximately 45 per cent of Vancouver’s new condominiums were purchased by investors and rented out.

While rents did not always cover costs in the initial years, over time investors earned a profit and tenants helped pay off their mortgages. In 2022 42.5 per cent of all new rental units built in Vancouver were condominiums.

Now back to Jean Swanson’s proposal for vacancy controls. In her Tyee article, she writes:

“Over half of Vancouver’s population rents. With more than 60,000 purpose-built apartment units in the city and a turnover rate of 10.8 per cent last year, 6,000 rental units could be kept affordable each year after the current tenant leaves.

“Instead of rents rising on average 43 per cent, these units would rise the allowable annual increase — two per cent this year, for example — even if their tenant dies or leaves. This would free up more apartments at lower rates for folks who need them.

“Instead of billions of dollars flowing into the hands of landlords — which are, increasingly, multinational investment vehicles — vacancy controls would keep that money in renter hands, reducing inflation, and letting tenants spend their savings at local businesses and on things that they need.”

This seems like a convincing argument. However, some of the information is incorrect and misleading.

According to the CMHC report referenced by Swanson, the average rent increase in Vancouver after tenants vacated a unit was 23.9 per cent not 43 per cent (see page 9 of the report). CMHC also reported:

“This reflects the fact that… landlords can also take the opportunity to renovate between tenants. In doing so, they raise unit quality and can then ask for higher rents from new tenants.”

Also, while “multinational investment vehicles” own rental buildings in Vancouver, most rental suites are owned by families, small companies and individuals renting out condominium apartments and basements.

The key reason why landlords raise rents when tenants move out is because under rent controls, the annual allowable increase is no longer 10.6 per cent as it was in 1975. It was 2.6 per cent in 2020, 0 per cent in 2021, and 1.5 per cent in 2022. However, property taxes, mortgage rates, energy, building maintenance and operation costs increased significantly more. (The allowable increase in 2023 is 2.6 per cent, well below the rate of inflation.)

If a vacancy tax was imposed, several things would happen.

Landlords would likely think twice about upgrading a suite after a tenant moves out.

Tens of thousands of condominium owners would sell their suites, most likely to owner-occupiers, significantly reducing the rental housing stock.

Developers would be further deterred from building new rental apartment buildings. As it is, many buildings with development approvals are not proceeding because of higher interest rates and construction costs. A vacancy tax would be the final nail in the coffin.

As an alternative to vacancy controls there are several actions that governments could take to prevent substantial rental increases whenever a tenant moves out while also increasing the supply of rental housing.

The first is to impose more realistic annual rental increases that reflect the rate of inflation. As noted, in 1975 the allowable rental increase was 10.5 per cent. This corresponded with the inflation rate that year of 10.7 per cent.

While it may be politically attractive for governments to restrict rent increases below the rate of inflation, this short-term gain becomes long term pain.

Governments should again exclude new apartments from rent controls. This has worked in the past and if introduced would most certainly spur more rental housing construction.

While federal, provincial and municipal governments have implemented programs to encourage new rental construction, consideration should also be given to bringing back programs like MURBs that encourage more private investment in rental housing. This time, they could help fund both private and non-profit projects.

Finally, governments should recognize that sometimes it is better to subsidize the tenant rather than developers and landlords. Rent supplement programs such as Shelter Assistance for Elderly Renters, or SAFER, should be expanded and the shelter component of welfare should most definitely be increased.

Sadly, the rental housing crisis is going to be with us for some time. But there is much that can be done. There just must be the political will.

Note: you can find comments from Tyee readers here: https://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2023/02/21/Case-Against-Vacancy-Controls-Vancouver/

Read the full CMHC Rental Market Report[Tyee]


Saturday, February 18, 2023

Converting offices into Housing -Jas Johal Show CKNW

While I most often listen to CBC radio, over the years, I have enjoyed my association with radio station CKNW. (I would listen to CKNW more often, but I tire of the same commercials, especially "you're approved!")

Prior to the 2008 election, I enjoyed being a guest on the Christy Clark show. The highlights were often our conversations during commercial breaks, and I sometimes regret not taking her advice to go door knocking as a candidate during the election. She also rightly advised me to get better known in the South Asian community. (When Kennedy Stewart did a postmortem on the election, he told me that while I did well on both the eastside and westside of the city, I did very poorly in those ridings with a larger South Asian population.)

For three years following the 2008 municipal election, I participated on CKNW's Civic Affairs Panel, a weekly feature on the Bill Good Show. The more time I spent with Bill Good, the more I respected him. I enjoyed discussing issues with fellow panelists Frances Bula and the late Jim Green, although Jim and I did not always agree completely on many issues. But then again, we came from quite different worlds, and had vastly different perspectives on most matters. I never tired of Frances' perspective on issues.

I also enjoyed being an occasional guest with Jill Bennett, Linda Steele, and Jody Vance. However, over the past few months, I have especially enjoyed chatting with Jas Johal. Although I have never actually met him in person, since our interviews are over the phone, I admire his calm disposition and thoughtful questions. He strikes me as a very caring sort of person.

Over the past few weeks, we have discussed several topics including David Eby's housing proposals, the financial difficulties of the developer Coromandel, and most recently the growing interest in converting office buildings into housing. One of the advantages of having to appear on the show is that it forces me to do a bit of research on a topic before our conversation.

The Qube was formally the Westcoast Transmission Building
Conversion of the BC Hydro Building into the Electra was one of the first high profile conversions in Vancouver.

This was particularly true on the matter of converting offices into housing. While I have never undertaken such a project, I have had a longstanding interest in the concept. I remember well when the BC Hydro building became The Electra in 1995 https://theelectra.ca/ and the Westcoast Transmission building (the building suspended by cables on Georgia Street) was converted into the Qube condominiums in 2005 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Qube_(Vancouver)  Both clever names!

Here are a few more observations based on the limited research I undertook.

This has become a hot topic in the US, especially Washington https://www.washingtonian.com/2022/07/28/should-dcs-empty-office-buildings-get-turned-into-apartments/ and some Canadian cities where the office vacancy rate is high and there is a desire to enliven the downtown. Calgary certainly comes to mind. The Urban Land Institute has included it in several recent publications and a forthcoming workshop is being held. 

ULI publication-fall 2022 special feature – can be complicated and tricky but daring developers and ingenious architects are showing the way to address housing shortages

Sustainability proponents often argue that the most sustainable building is one that already exists. For this reason, conversions can be highly desirable. However, they are not always feasible. Factors influencing the likelihood of success include the size of the floorplate, and whether the windows may be too far away from the core; and whether there are 'post-tensioning' cables in the floor. This is common in some office buildings since it reduces the number of columns. However, it makes it difficult to drill holes for plumbing.

One of the advantages of conversions is that although they are not always less expensive, they are usually faster to complete since most of the structure can be reused.

One challenge of conversions is the fact that office buildings rarely have balconies or other outdoor space. This can be addressed by creating 'Juliette balconies' which are essentially a railing in front of a sliding door. However, another potential solution is to add a bank of balconies to the outside, with access doors. Several companies, including Lumon, the Finnish company to whom I consult on retractable balcony glass panel systems, are exploring the feasibility of adding balconies to existing buildings. This could be a game changer, especially since Covid has increased the desire for some private outdoor spaces associated with dwelling units.

Monday, February 13, 2023

The West Coast Affordable Housing Conference in Tofino

Last weekend, I attended a housing affordability conference in Tofino organized by the Planning Institute's North Vancouver Island Chapter. I signed up for several reasons: I hadn't been to Tofino for 25 years. The last time was when my wife Sally chartered a bus and organized a surprise 50th Birthday Party for me and fifty friends at the Wickaninnish Inn shortly after it opened. A memorable event, despite the rain.

I was also keen to hear about recent affordable housing initiatives on the Island and meet younger planners interested in affordable housing. It's now 51 years since I joined CMHC at a time when there was a lot of money available to build public housing and innovative non-profit and coop projects (and I never tire of talking about 'the old days'. I look forward to the return of some of these programs including Section 15.1 and 34.18 of the National Housing Act which funded many of the projects built around the province. 

I also like to promote the opportunities for modular construction in smaller communities around BC. like the modular housing I helped design and develop in Chase and Keremeos. 

The conference program included a presentation by Ian Scott - Interim Executive Director, Tofino Housing on Tofino's severe shortage of affordable housing and the role of the Tofino Housing Corporation. Many property owners are adding RVs and trailers on their properties to help meet this demand. Planners and municipal officials are inclined to take a relaxed attitude to this, given the severe need. (I could not help but compare this to the situation in Vancouver where tent cities are appearing along Hastings and surrounding streets.)

Sadly, I suspect it takes a few fires and deaths before administrations take more affirmative action to address the problem.

On a positive note, we heard about the housing corporation's success creating affordable housing projects. I was interested to hear that rather than develop and build the housing itself, the corporation has been partnering with Catalyst Community Developments Society https://catalystcommdev.org/, a non-profit entity with considerable housing development experience. This is an idea that could work well in other smaller communities. And larger communities for that matter.

This was followed by a Local Housing Panel including Vancouver architect Bruce Haden - Principal, Human Studio, Chris Bozman - a local builder, and Ian Scott. It was moderated by Bruce Greig- Director of Community Planning for the nearby District of Ucluelet. I was disappointed to hear how the success of projects was so often tied to which local politicians were in power. Many politicians put the unfounded fears of residents ahead of the need for affordable housing.

Another session looked at legal aspects related to affordable housing including Housing Agreements. The presenter was Guy Patterson - Partner, Young Anderson, a law firm that specializes in providing legal services to local governments. His talk examined how legal agreements can be written to ensure that affordable housing remains affordable over time. 

He also discussed the implications of the new provincial Housing Supply Act requiring municipalities to approve new projects or else. His best line: "Build it or they will come".

As someone who often negotiates such agreements on behalf of a developer, it was interesting to be one of only four or five real estate consultants/developers in a room of public sector planners discussing housing agreements.

The afternoon session included presentations by Vancouver Island University master planning students Courtenay Miller, Alisha Feser, and Alicia McLean. Each was quite inspiring, especially Ms. McLean's impressive development approvals toolkit. I urged her to present it to UDI and UBCM officials so that she could compare the attitudes of planners, developers, and government officials in terms of what needs to be done to improve municipal approval procedures.

The Final Session - featured two speakers from CMHC-Cleo Corbett - Senior Specialist, Government Relations, and Elizabeth Tang -Specialist, Outreach and Project Development. It was gratifying to see CMHC getting back into the funding of affordable housing. Sadly, no one from the province was in attendance.

On the Saturday morning, there was a housing tour that featured some colourful staff housing which was developed along with a new hotel development. We also visited informal 'temporary' RV and mobile home communities. 

There's nothing like seeing a burned-out mobile home to appreciate why some fire safety regulations should be enforced, especially since there's oftentimes nothing more permanent than a temporary solution.

No trip to Tofino would be complete without some good seafood. Unfortunately, the restaurant was closed at the Tofino Resort and Marina https://tofinoresortandmarina.com/ where the conference was held. But we did enjoy some good meals at The Shed https://www.shedtofino.com/ and Wolf in the Fog.

Vancouver Island oysters

The Cedar Sour - Cedar infused rye, lemon, thyme and egg white

A lot of tuna and seaweed is served in Tofino

Potato crusted smoked oysters with apple puree and truffle oil, and seaweed salad with mushroom, puffed rice, daikon, sesame mayo, miso chili oil and added tuna sashimi. 

The bar in the Wolf in Fog is most impressive

If you haven't recently been to Tofino, or nearby Ucluelet I can highly recommend a trip. If you have an electric car there are charging facilities, but don't expect your Tesla cruise control or full self-driving features to work for part of the trip when there is no Wi-Fi or cellular service. Hopefully, improved service can be provided in the not-too-distant future since it is a bit unnerving for some of us who like to be connected to be out of communication for such a long time. After all, the road is still a bit rough in places and many of today's cars do not have a spare tire!

This photo does not do justice the magnificent views along the west coast of Vancouver Island