Much has been written about the ongoing residential challenges facing a growing Metro Vancouver. Today, as we say goodbye to one year and prepare to welcome another, guest columnist Michael Geller ponders some solutions
By Michael Geller, Vancouver Sun December 31, 2011
'Our house is getting too big, but we're not yet ready for an apartment."
"My girlfriend and I both have good jobs, but can't afford to buy in Vancouver."
"I'm ready to downsize. I'm just not ready to downgrade!"
As we look to 2012, we can expect to hear more of these comments from baby boomers and seniors ready to sell the family home, and younger singles and couples struggling to purchase their first home. Most analysts do not foresee housing prices coming down over the next 12 months, but governments and the homebuilding industry can help both first-time buyers and "last-time" buyers satisfy their housing needs and aspirations in a number of ways.
These include creating new forms of housing, new types of financing and new approaches to zoning.
Many long-standing Vancouver residents are ready to move out of larger single-family homes - if only they could find what they want. For some, this might be a smaller house and lot near transit or where they currently live. They no longer need separate living and dining rooms; instead, a large open kitchen, dining and living space will suffice. Instead of a larger master bedroom and smaller second bedroom, many seek two good-sized ensuite bedrooms, knowing that the day may not be far off when one of the bedrooms is "his bedroom".
Across the U.S., an increasing number of smaller homes are located in what architect Ross Chapin calls "pocket neighbourhoods'. They comprise a collection of cottage-style homes designed around a common green and communal building. Cars are kept to the perimeter and neighbours socialize, while still enjoying the privacy of their homes. I foresee a significant demand for this type of housing in the Lower Mainland, especially since the Vancouver Foundation recently identified neighbourhood isolation and loneliness as major community issues.
Of course, not everyone wants a single-family house, even a small one. Many seek a low-maintenance townhouse. While some are prepared to try condominium living, they often prefer not to be part of a strata association with the attendant problems that can sometimes arise. Instead, they are attracted to the idea of individually owned "feesimple" townhouses.
This is one of the most generic forms of housing in the world; however, few are being built in Metro. This is partly due to restrictive zoning and subdivision bylaws, and other municipal regulations. I hope this will change in the coming year as consumers begin to appreciate the benefits offered by this type of housing.
However, given the high cost of land in Vancouver, these townhouses will not be inexpensive. As a result, it will be necessary to create higherdensity forms of "ground-oriented" housing, especially for younger households seeking an alternative to apartment living. One popular option in Metro Toronto these days is known as "stacked towns".
Stacked townhouses have been around for many years. Many of the low-rise buildings along the south shore of False Creek and nearby Fairview Slopes comprise townhouses stacked above the other. There are also new stacked townhouse developments in Burnaby and North Vancouver. However, in recent years, most developers have chosen to build lowrise apartments instead.
Many of Toronto's stacked townhouses are quite affordable since they are often "back-to-back" with shared side and rear walls. This results in an efficient, cost-effective building form, with every suite having its own grade access. While there are many stairs, there are no interior corridors to build or maintain.
One of the barriers to home ownership is the substantial down payment often required. In the U.K. and the U.S., a "hybrid" form of ownership known as "shared equity" or "shared ownership" has become popular for those who cannot afford a large down payment. It essentially allows someone to purchase a percentage of a property, and increase their ownership as their financial situation improves.
Another interesting option, especially for older singles and couples, is a "life lease". It provides a lifetime right to occupy an apartment with a single upfront payment, and small ongoing maintenance payments. The amount of the upfront payment depends on various factors, including age and life expectancy, and the redemption value of the unit at the end of the lease. The Performing Arts Lodge at Bayshore in Coal Harbour is a successful example that combines life leases and subsidized rentals for retired performing artists.
To meet the demand for small-lot detached housing, townhouses and stacked townhouses, municipalities are going to have to increase the availability of suitably zoned land. To accomplish this, I would like to see governments plan and "pre-zone" land, rather than require developers to come forward with often contentious "spot rezoning" applications. Municipalities should also establish fair development charges to fund new community amenities, rather than negotiate payments on a caseby-case basis. While this may take considerable political will, the result will be greater planning certainty and a broader array of more affordable housing choices.
Will this all happen in the coming year? Of course not. But given the housing demands from a growing and aging population, I am hopeful that governments and the homebuilding industry will pursue many of these alternative housing choices, financing, and zoning arrangements in 2012. We could all be the beneficiaries.
Happy New Year.
Michael Geller is a Vancouver architect, planner and property developer. He also serves on the adjunct faculty of SFU's Centre for Sustainable Community Development. He can be reached at email@example.com
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