Tweaking zoning and building regulations would help decrease housing costs
Is it possible to make housing in Vancouver more affordable? This is a question I am increasingly asked by politicians, students, colleagues, and relatives. The answer is yes, but the ways to achieve greater affordability may surprise you.
Anyone who has recently been reading newspapers, listening to the radio or watching TV, could be forgiven for believing the answer to greater affordability is to deter foreign buyers, tax empty apartments, and put an end to unsavory real estate agent practices like ‘shadow flipping and assignments’.
While these seem like good ideas, and could have some marginal benefits, they are not the answer. Instead, what we need to do is significantly increase the supply of a variety of housing choices to match the growing demand, and consider new forms of tenure.
Last year, I gave a talk at Simon Fraser University titled 12 Affordable Housing Ideas. Some were simple; others were more complex. Some could be found by looking to the past; others could be found in other places around the world.
One of the simplest ideas was to make homes smaller. While many of us grew up in post-war detached bungalows of less than 1000 square feet, with one bathroom and a gravel driveway, similar homes are no longer built today. There are many reasons for this, including municipal fees and standards, and buyers’ expectations. But there is no reason why these cannot, and should not, be changed.
Another idea was to build more semi-detached and duplex homes, rather than single family houses. The reason we do not do this is improper zoning. This too could easily be changed.
In my presentation I showed a variety of townhouse and stacked townhouse developments common in many parts of the world, but not in Vancouver. Again, the absence of suitably zoned land is part of the problem. But sadly, we do not have the European tradition of building these housing forms. It is time to start.
Another idea is what planners call ‘zero lot-line’ housing. This form of development extends from one property line to the other, without narrow strips of wasted land between structures. We build shops and offices along commercial streets like this, but rarely build housing this way. Why not?
One of the ideas I looked at was laneway housing. This is one of Vancouver’s success stories, and is being closely watched by many cities around the world.
But it is not a new idea. Anyone who has lived in England knows about carriage homes and mews houses built along back lanes. What distinguishes this housing is that it can be owned, as well as rented. We should allow Metro Vancouver’s laneway houses to be purchased too.
However, not all of us can afford to buy, so we need to rent. What I find particularly disturbing is that while many of us rent apartments in small, three story walk-up apartment buildings, they are no longer allowed to be built.
Why? Because today’s building codes require elevators and ‘a double means of egress’. We should include elevators, but let’s change our building codes to allow small apartment buildings with a single staircase like Calgary or Sydney Australia. After all, we now install sprinklers.
In addition to looking at different housing forms, I looked at alternative forms of tenure.
Shared-equity ownership is a creative way for younger people in UK to get into homeownership. We should offer it here. Instead of purchasing a home, you purchase a portion, and rent the balance. Over time you ‘staircase’ into owning the entire property.
We should also create more ‘life-lease’ developments, similar to the Performing Arts Lodge at Bayshore. It allows over one hundred lower-income retired performance artists to live in a wonderful building, in a magnificent setting. They even have their own theatre on the roof. Other affordable housing ideas included different forms of construction, flexible designs, and partnerships.
There are other ways to decrease housing costs. On April 6th, 2016 I will present another lecture at SFU Harbour Centre setting out 12 New Affordable Housing Ideas. While I hope you will be able to attend, for those who cannot, here is a preview.
We are often told that we are running out of land. I disagree. I just do not think we are making very good use of the land we already have. Anyone flying over Vancouver will see a lot of green and a lot of blue. But there is also a considerable amount of grey. This is the streets, parking lots and rooftops. There is no reason why we cannot be building housing in many of these locations.
I did my architectural thesis on factory-built modular housing; and it is easy to envision how we might hoist modular homes onto parking lots and rooftops. In some cases, we might even build over roads, or railway rights-of-way. We might even float housing modules on surrounding waters.
Vancouver has a lot of back lanes. In addition to laneway houses, we should build laneway apartments. This was an idea set out in a report to the Vancouver Mayor’s Affordable Housing Task Force and I am pleased laneway apartments are permitted in the most recent West End Plan. There are many other places around Metro where this would be feasible.
While the recent federal budget makes provision for new social housing funding, there is not enough money to house everyone in need. However, through ‘inclusionary zoning’ whereby additional density rights are offered to developers in return for affordable housing, we can create thousands of homes.
We can also create new affordable housing by regenerating older public and social housing projects. This will also allow a better allocation of existing homes since today, too many widows are being subsidized to live in two and three bedroom apartments.
These are just a few of the ideas I will be presenting on April 6th. I hope you will join me to hear the rest.
Michael Geller is a Vancouver based architect, planner, real estate consultant and property developer. He also serves on the Adjunct Faculty of SFU’s Centre for Sustainable Development and School of Resource and Environmental Management.
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