Friday, October 5, 2012

Further observations on the Affordable Housing Task Force recommendations

The following Letter to the Editor appeared in today's Vancouver Sun:

Increasing supply of housing won’t help affordability
Re: ‘ Thin streets’ could boost affordability, Sept. 27
Why would the addition a few houses in an expensive city make housing more affordable? It hasn’t happened in other cities.
How can the city take away someone’s corner lot and plunk another house beside it, or a row of townhouses, completely out of step with the existing neighbourhood?
The resulting “thin” street would be dangerously narrow, making it difficult for emergency vehicles and local traffic to get through. And, of course, one lane of parking will disappear, another assault on the automobile.
Open street spaces are very welcome and much needed, what with the continued encroachment of larger homes and laneway houses.
We’ve just been subjected to a task force led by developers and we know what their goals are. B. K. GOODSON Vancouver

I completely disagree with the headline, and the writer's final statement, but do share his concerns regarding the likely benefits of the 'Thin Streets' idea.

I mentioned to some Task Force members and City staff, that the Thin Street proposition, (that came from the ReThink Housing Competition organized by the City rather than from either the Task Force  or the Roundtable on Form and Design) has unfortunately hijacked many of the very good recommendations of the Task Force. 

While the Thin Streets idea is intriguing, I do not forsee widespread application of it for various reasons. It has negative impacts on corner lot owners, takes away greenery and in some case important north-south views, and could be more expensive than the proponents anticipate to relocate roads, street lights, sidewalks, other services, etc.

In some instances I could see how it might result in additional lots that might be developed with more than one unit, or combined with the corner lot to allow a small townhouse or stacked development as illustrated above.

That being said, I strongly disagree with the suggestion that more housing supply will not impact affordability. It will.

Currently, there are very few undeveloped sites zoned for townhouse or stacked townhouse developments. However, these forms of housing would provide more affordable housing choices in the city.  Now some might ask, why will they be more affordable when the recent townhouse developments along Oak Street and Cambie street are quite expensive. That's because the developers had little competition, and in some cases had to pay significant Community Amenity Contributions to the City, tied to the increase in land value resulting from the rezoning.

If there were hundreds of sites available for alternate forms of housing, as contemplated by our suggestion of creating 'transition zones' behind arterials, and multi family housing along arterials away from the commercial cores, and if Community Amenity Contributions were fixed at pre-determined and reasonable levels, I am confident that more supply will result in more affordable housing.

Now as for the suggestion that the Task Force was "led by developers" and that's why we're seeing ideas like the Thin Streets, this is simply wrong. Yes, Co-chair Olga Illich is a developer, and there were  developers on the Task Force, and I am involved in development as well as architecture and planning, the developers were at a minority in this process. Moreover I can say that none of the developers I know advocated for the Thin Streets idea. This idea came from two former City and Metro Planners, and was promoted by City staff and Council...not builders or developers.

In summary, I do believe that the decisions made by Council this week will ultimately lead to increased housing supply and increased affordability.  It will take time, but five years from now, young couples and empty nesters will be able to buy and rent forms of housing that are not often being built today.

However, I won't be surprised if only a very small number of these homes will be on newly created corner lots.  If any!


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