Monday, June 15, 2009

10 ways of creating affordable housing

My 10 solutions would create government challenges

Michael Geller, Special to The Vancouver Sun

Published: Saturday, June 13, 2009

The need for more affordable housing choices in our communities is growing. For many years, housing in Canada was subsidized by the federal and provincial governments. However, since the mid-1990s, federal support has dwindled significantly, and provincial subsidy dollars have generally been targeted to those in greatest need. As a result, an increasing number of people are either poorly housed, or paying too much for accommodation.

A meeting 14 months ago outside an empty lot on Vancouver's Hastings Street illustrates the multi-dimensional quality of the affordability challenge. On the left is Wendy Pederson. On the right is Michael Geller. She's a Downtown Eastside community leader, an advocate of low-cost housing and opponent of 'gentrification,' symbolized by the lot, still empty today, behind them.

Photograph by : Bill Keay, Vancouver Sun

While we wait for the federal government to put in place a national housing strategy, below are 10 creative ways for municipalities, developers and community organizations to increase affordable housing choices, especially for seniors and families with children. However, they will require changes in government policies and regulations, new forms of housing and tenure and interesting new partnerships.


While new developments require resident and visitor parking, many parking bylaws are outdated and result in more spaces than necessary. By reducing parking requirements, we can significantly lower the cost of housing, while at the same time reduce greenhouse gases and congestion. Reduced parking standards could also facilitate new affordable housing developments on under-utilized parking lots.


Small laneway cottages at the rear of single family houses could offer new affordable housing options without significantly altering the character of a neighbourhood. In the U.K. and other countries, laneway homes are sometimes known as ''mews housing'' or ''granny flats.'' Vancouver is attracting international attention for its proposed zoning bylaw changes that if approved, would permit small rental units ranging in size from 500 to 750 square feet along rear lanes in designated single family neighbourhoods.


Basement suites in single family houses provide a significant amount of affordable housing. However, by allowing basement suites in new townhouse developments, we can create another affordable housing choice. Units could be accessed both from the street and within the unit. Similarly, apartments could have second or third bedrooms designed as ''lock-off suites'' offering affordable housing and ''mortgage helpers.'' Think of them as basement suites in the sky!


All over the world, people own townhouses which are not part of a condominium. However, this form of housing has not been offered in Metro Vancouver due to a myriad of municipal regulations. Many people would prefer to own a row house without having to pay monthly strata fees. After all, why should someone who least can afford it pay someone else to cut his grass?


By dividing a 50-foot lot into two lots with smaller homes, we could increase the housing choices in our neighbourhoods. We should also build semi-detached houses, triplexes and even small six-plex apartments.

We should also start building smaller homes. Many of us grew up in three bedroom homes with less than 900 square feet. We should start building them again


One way of reducing the cost of housing is to build it in the factory. There are many potential applications for modular housing, including laneway cottages, infill apartments or housing that can be relocated like school portables. B.C. has some of North America''s most successful modular factories. We should be making better use of them in our province.


While most people either rent or own a home, other forms of tenure can reduce the cost of housing. These include ''shared equity,'' a hybrid form of ownership; ''rent to own'' programs; and ''life tenancies or estates.'' The latter offer the right to use or occupy real property for one's life, at a lower cost than conventional ownership.


By leasing public lands to community developers, municipalities can provide ''workforce housing'' for police officers, firefighters, emergency personnel and others who want to live in the community in which they work. Resale controls can ensure that the housing is kept affordable over time while serving those for whom it was originally intended.


An effective way to create more affordable housing is through partnerships amongst the public, private, and third or non-profit sectors. There is also an emerging "fourth sector:" private companies prepared to build community housing for reasons other than profit. Examples include faith-based groups wanting to build on a religious facility parking lots, and companies prepared to build employee housing.


To encourage more rental and other forms of affordable housing, municipalities can offer incentives such as density bonuses, reduced or deferred fees and development levies or simply ''fast-track'' reviews.

Municipalities should also begin to pre-zone land to increase the supply of multi-family sites, and simplify the approval process.

There is also a need for all of us to address neighbourhood opposition to ''affordable housing.''

One way might be to revisit controversial projects after a number of years and document community attitudes. Recently, I visited a seniors' apartment building I developed 15 years ago in Vancouver's Oakridge neighbourhood. I wanted to take some new photos, but it was difficult since the building was almost completely hidden by trees. When I spoke to people in the neighbourhood, most were quite positive and unaware of the earlier controversy.

No doubt similar stories can be told about other affordable housing developments around the region. Even group homes and ''half-way houses'' that once generated considerable opposition are today well established and accepted in their communities.

In conclusion, by being open minded and working together, we can significantly increase the supply of affordable housing without reliance on senior government subsidies. I like to think that when the going gets tough, the tough get creative! Let's all start now.

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Michael Geller, architect, developer, university administrator and occasional Vancouver Sun contributor, prepared this commentary from an address he gave to a community forum examining ways to increase affordable housing choices on the North Shore.