Saturday, December 29, 2018

Opinion: Vancouver Sun year-end outlook Looking Back, Moving Forward December 29, 2018

Since 2006, I have been flattered to be asked to write a year-end forecast for the Vancouver Sun. While I may have missed a couple of years, I do find it interesting to look back at past columns and see where I was right, and where I was wrong, and where I was very wrong!

I will do a follow up column on some past predictions, but for now, here's this year's piece. Happy New Year. (I was pleased to read that one commentator on Twitter suggested it was delightfully provocative!)  I welcome your comments.

     I must begin this year-end forecast with a confession. Many of the predictions set out in previous year-end columns were aspirational, rather than true expectations.
     For example, over the past two decades, I have consistently predicted developers would build individually owned, non-condominium, fee-simple rowhouses in the year ahead.
     Sadly, very few have been built due to restrictive zoning and subdivision bylaws, but also because most developers prefer the ‘tried and true’ to the innovative.
     Another failed prediction was the development of friendly ‘pocket-neighbourhoods’ clustering smaller detached houses around a communal garden. While popular in the US, sadly few have yet to be developed in B.C.
     Fortunately, some aspirational forecasts have come true. These included relocatable modular housing for the homeless, European-style mid-rise apartment buildings, and more interesting, creative highrise designs.
     Before we examine what might happen in 2019, let’s review last year’s predictions.
     Among other things, I expected that car-sharing would become more widespread; perfectly good housing would be razed to make way for higher-density homes, especially near transit; and new developments along arterials would include duplexes, triplexes, and row and stacked row homes.
I also anticipated that ‘inclusionary zoning’ policies would require condo developers to include affordable housing within projects around Metro.
    These came true.
    Sadly, my prediction about increased flooding due to climate change and global warming also came true. Hopefully, some readers heeded my advice to inspect and repair the drainage systems around their homes.
     In terms of housing prices, I predicted housing affordability would be no better at the end of 2018 than at the end of 2017.
     While single-family and condominium prices have dropped over the past year, Vancouver still has a housing affordability crisis.
     So, what can we expect in 2019?
     Firstly, we can expect a great deal of uncertainty in terms of sales and prices, but also housing policies and supply.
     Just look at the forecasts from the Real Estate Associations. While the provincial organization reports the downward trend in B.C. home sales is “largely behind us” and starting to trend upwards, the national body contradicts this by predicting a further decline in sales.
     Other expert forecasts also vary widely.
     While I do not even pretend to have a crystal ball, I tend to agree with those who predict new home prices will not collapse next year, nor will they surge again.
     Expect housing markets in 2019 to be influenced by two important factors: increased concern about climate change, and income inequality.
     As often reported in this newspaper, many low-income households, especially seniors, are rightly concerned about unaffordable rent increases and renovictions.
     However, there could be serious problems if the City of Vancouver and other municipalities follow through on proposed rent-control measures requiring landlords to offer renovated suites to displaced tenants at the same rent as before renovation.
     The situation will be exacerbated if the provincial government limits annual rent increases not only for tenants, but also vacant suites, as many are predicting.
     While these measures would seem like good news for tenants, they will not be. Based on my observations over the past five decades, they will inhibit the maintenance and renovation of older buildings and curtail supply of new rental housing and condominiums for rent.
     New, more stringent energy codes will significantly impact the design of all new buildings in 2019. Expect to see much less glass and more energy efficient walls and heating systems, especially electric heat pumps and electric baseboards. Hardly a day will go by without some mention of ‘passive design’.
     The need for improved energy performance, combined with a desire for greater affordability, will give new impetus to the burgeoning ‘small house movement’. Expect more municipalities to allow laneway and coach houses to be built in rear yards, both for rent, but also for sale.
     These smaller homes will respond to increased demand for intergenerational living as many seniors seek alternatives to traditional care facilities, and many millennials choose to live much longer ‘at home’ with their parents.
     Also expect some municipalities to agree to revise their minimum suite size regulations to permit smaller, well designed apartments, and approve European-styled retractable balcony facades to make balcony spaces more usable and weatherproof.
     In last year’s forecast, I noted that while many individuals were desperately seeking affordable homes, hundreds of thousands of bedrooms remained empty.  We should therefore expect innovative home-sharing concepts to match seniors with other seniors, or students who might help around the house.
     During 2018, one social services agency did begin to investigate this concept on the North Shore and a HomeShare Pilot program got underway in Toronto. Other home-sharing arrangements, including ‘Golden Girls’ type living, increasingly attracted media attention.
     Expect the concepts of home sharing and co-living to gain further momentum in the coming year. We may even see proposals for residential versions of the ‘WeWork’ model offering small private living spaces in a communal setting.
     Think of them as modern-day equivalents of a boarding house, offering not only shelter, but also services and companionship.
     This could appeal to an increasing number of people who will start commuting to Metro weekly, rather than daily, like they do in London and other international cities.
     Finally, expect more Metro Vancouver municipal councils to respond to concerns about traffic congestion and changing neighbourhood character by rejecting projects and implementing go-slow approaches to new development.
     This is already happening in District of North Vancouver where a most worthwhile non-profit, rental housing and senior’s respite centre was recently rejected, and White Rock where the new council at its first meeting voted to reduce the height of two previously approved residential towers from twelve to six storeys.
     While these decisions may seem appropriate to many, especially those stuck in traffic, until there is greater certainty regarding project approvals, developers will sit on the sidelines or go elsewhere.
The result will be an ongoing imbalance between supply and demand, and continued unaffordability, especially at the lower end of the market.
     But don’t despair. As the review of my previous year-end columns revealed, real estate forecasts are at best hit and miss. However, one thing is certain. In two days, we will say goodbye to 2018 and welcome a new year.
     On that note, my best wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2019.

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