In the search for more affordable housing choices for those who want to buy, rather than rent, last year I proposed that the City of Vancouver consider allowing the sale of laneway houses on a bare-land strata basis. Now I would like to go one step further and suggest that in new developments, it should be possible to purchase a 'basement suite'.
I put basement in quotes since by altering grades, it is possible to design lower level suites, even on a flat site, with a walk out to front and back patios and large windows/window wells. I am currently working on a pilot project that could fit on a typical 50' wide lot anywhere in the region.
Coincidentally, I had a call last week from the Vancouver Sun's Don Cayo who was preparing a story on this very topic. He was following up on an initiative by Dave Watt, a highly respected North Shore realtor who in the past has developed small innovative infill projects. Dave recently wrote to the North Shore municipalities suggesting that allowing home owners to essentially sub-divide off a basement suite could be a good way to achieve a stock of more affordable housing. He urged them to consider zoning changes to allow this to happen.
In fact, I am aware that some lower level suites are already being sold through creative 'tenants in common' legal agreements. A similar approach is being used to sell laneway houses. Essentially, the units are sold like a coop, with each unit having a proportionate share value.
While there will be challenges converting existing suites from rental to ownership, it would be relatively straightforward to build new lower level suites for sale, along with laneway or carriage houses, as part of the redevelopment. However, zoning changes would be required to facilitate this approach.
Here is Don Cayo's article:
Don Cayo: The case for strata ownership of secondary suites
Move would increase the supply of affordable homes, advocates say
By Don Cayo, Vancouver Sun January 30, 2013
Basement space can often be converted into a suite but building-regulation issues may arise when considering strata ownership.
Photograph by: Larry Wong , Larry Wong/Edmonton Journal
Metro Vancouver’s myriad secondary suites — often built illegally in the early days, but increasingly inclined to have the blessing of their city or district council — have long been a major source of affordable rental units in the region.
Could they soon play as big a role in providing affordable homes for people to buy?
Yes, say some smart folks who think about these things. I talked to a couple of them — North Shore realtor Dave Watt and Vancouver developer and consultant Michael Geller, who are independently and in different ways starting to push for changes to happen.
Watt has written to the three North Shore councils noting that, although secondary suites are well accepted, “these are the only form housing where our governing bodies mandate that the residents must remain tenants forever.
Geller, an architect, planner, consultant and developer who’s attempting to get City of Vancouver approval to practice what he preaches with a small new housing project, says the problem tends to be zoning law, not strata law.
He hopes to replace an existing single-family home just off West 4th in Point Grey with a duplex-plus project. Each half of his new duplex would have a high-end, 800-square-foot secondary suite, and the property would also have a coach house — a total of five homes in all. And each would be sold as a separate strata unit.
“It’s a way to gently increase density,” he told me. “And it would work especially well in what I call transition zones, just off major arteries in the buffer areas between them and single-family residential areas.”
Watt thinks this kind of approach could work not just close to arterials, but also throughout typical suburbs that already have a lot of rental units. And it could work for many kinds of people.
Adding a quality suite to an existing house and selling it could provide baby boomers with the extra cash they need for a comfortable retirement, he said, and with an option to selling the family home and moving to a cheaper property in another neighbourhood.
Not only would having relatively low-cost suites on the market offer a more affordable option to first time buyers, he said, it would lower the cost for anyone buying the main part of the house, as well. This could be particularly attractive to couples who want a yard, or part of a yard, for their children.
It could also suit multi-generational families, perhaps allowing the older and younger generations to swap living quarters as family needs change, and making it easier to sort out inheritance issues with an elderly couple’s other children who live in different parts of the city, the country or the world.
Nor does a secondary suite have to be second-best, he said.
“When most people think of secondary suites they think of basements,” he said. “But they can be side-by-side, or in-front and in-back, or stacked above ground.”
Geller, who incorporated his views on these issues in the work he did last year for the mayor’s task force on affordable housing, enthusiastically agrees.
He doubts, however, that any municipality will see a lot of conversions of existing rental units to strata lots even if the regulations are changed to allow or encourage this. The reason, he said, is that standards for such things as fire separation are higher for strata units, and it would be difficult to retrofit many existing suites.
But over a few years, he said, individually owned secondary suites could become a significant source of affordable homes.
I am guessing the main argument against moving in this direction will be that it will reduce the number of rental apartments on the market. And it may. But if it also reduces the number of renters by allowing some of them to buy, what’s the problem?
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