Saturday, October 6, 2012

Townhouses: maybe not a solution to housing woes, but a much needed option

A couple of years ago, I woke up on my birthday to find a mean spirited op-ed in the Vancouver Sun criticizing my attitude towards socially mixed communities. I was not happy.

I was therefore much happier, on this my 65th birthday, to come across another newspaper article, this time by Gary Mason in the Globe and Mail, mentioning me and addressing a topic near and dear to my heart; building more affordable housing choices in Vancouver.

Elsewhere in the newspapers, Shelley Fralic has written a Vancouver Sun op-ed and there's a Letter to the Editor suggesting that rather than potentially ruin Vancouver by trying to build affordable housing, why not simply let people move elsewhere.  I am not unsympathetic to the argument that those seeking affordable housing move elsewhere, noting that New Westminster and the Tri-Cities and Surrey, etc are beginning to create very attractive communities.  Similarly, smaller towns like Trail and Nelson offer attractive choices for those who can't afford Vancouver.

However, I still maintain that Vancouver needs to create additional housing choices, both for those seeking more affordable housing, and the many longstanding residents like me who may soon wish to downsize while remaining in their neighbourhoods, and want to see their children living in the City as well.

For these reasons I participated in the Mayor's Task Force on Affordable Housing, chairing a Roundtable that looked at Building Form and Design, and am a defender of many of the ideas now being put forward by the Task Force and City Council. I look forward to the coming years as more townhouses and stacked townhouses are built in the City, for those of us who are not yet ready for an apartment, but either unable to afford, or not wanting to live in a single family house.

Here's Gary Mason's article on the topic:

Opinion: Townhouses not the solution to Vancouver’s housing woes

Of all the recommendations in the report from the city of Vancouver’s housing affordability task force, the one that received the most attention is the least likely to drive down costs – thin streets.
Thin streets is the concept whereby the city splits a standard, 66-foot-wide road in two
to allow the construction of new homes along one half. An example of what this would look like received wide distribution around the release of the task force’s review.
And what it looked like was this: the extra 33 feet being used to build homes that appeared,
in size and structure, very much like the older ones that would exist beside them. Homes that are worth (sometimes well) in excess of $1-million.  So what is the likelihood that the new homes – thanks to the city splitting a street in half –are going to be any cheaper than homes already in the neighbourhood?
If anything, Given the fact that they new homes would be, well, newer with all the modern amenities, they are likely to be even more expensive.

An affordability game changer thin streets is not. Which is why it’s unfortunate that the idea became such a talking point and, for a while, commandeered the discussion of the task force’s work. Still, Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver government deserve credit for attempting to address the affordability crisis in this city, as futile as that effort may ultimately be.

There is also a lot of talk in the report, for instance, of the need for more options like townhouses, which take up less space and are generally considered to be a cheaper alternative for home buyers. But, of course, when you are talking about real estate in Vancouver, the term “cheaper” is always relative.

In the past couple of years, a few townhouse projects have sprouted up along Oak Street. Many of the units were being sold for prices that reached into the high $900,000s and, often, north of $1-million. So I’m not sure how anyone thinks more townhouses are going to be the answer to affordability.

Even if you build stacked townhouses, effectively townhouses on top of townhouses, it’s still going to cost well over $700,000 per unit just about anywhere in the city. Yes, that’s less expensive than those townhouses along Oak Street, but I’m not sure you could ascribe the term “affordable” to them. Are these the places that are supposed to open the doors to first-time home buyers? The government considers housing as affordable if it consumes less than 30 per cent of household income. Given that in 2010, the median household income in Vancouver was just over $67,000, I don’t see how more townhouses are going to reduce the financial stress on families trying to get into the market.

Architect and developer Michael Geller, the mind behind some of the more imaginative and successful multiunit real estate projects in Metro Vancouver and who was a consultant on the task force report, agrees that townhouses in the city of Vancouver aren’t affordable by most measures at the moment. But he believes prices will come down as more of that type of housing is built.

“When they’re the only buildings of that type around, a developer can pretty much set his own price,” Mr. Geller told me. “But once you build more of it and there is a competition in the market place, then you generally see prices start to come down. I think that’s what we’ll see here.”

I’m not sure I’m buying it, but it’s worth a try. The alternative is for the city to throw up its hands and say it can do nothing about the affordability dilemma. So in an attempt to mitigate the problem, it has decided to rezone designated areas to make way for six-storey apartment buildings. And perhaps a swack of townhomes, and row and stacked housing and carriage houses in every laneway will help, too. Any relief would be welcome.

Now, the city just has to fight off the small army of residents that is forming to oppose any change in their neighbourhoods. This, too, was expected, and some people will likely be extremely unhappy at the end of this process – but that comes with making change in the name of the greater good.
The mayor’s task force may have created a blueprint for more housing in Vancouver. Whether it will ever be considered affordable is another matter entirely.


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