Friday, November 11, 2016

Opinion Vancouver should make better use of land through zoning Vancouver Sun November 3, 2016

While Vancouverites have come to expect the weather and housing affordability to dominate conversations, this was particularly true last week. As we experienced one of the wettest Octobers, housing was top of mind as global experts gathered for Re:Address, a city-organized summit on housing and city building.

In an October 27th opinion column “Vancouver housing reset on track, but city can’t go it alone,” Mayor Gregor Robertson noted the city is half way through a 10-year housing and homelessness strategy.

While he listed numerous accomplishments, he acknowledged it is time for a dramatic re-set to ease affordability and ensure housing options are meeting residents’ needs. The conference was intended to produce actionable ideas.

Throughout the conference it became very clear that Vancouver is not alone. New York, San Francisco, Sydney, and London are just a few cities grappling with homelessness and severe housing affordability. However, rather than take comfort, we can learn useful lessons from these cities.

While more housing supply is essential, supply on its own is not the answer.

Additional senior government subsidy dollars are required. Compared to Vienna, where two thirds of the population live in government subsidized housing, our senior government funding is severely lacking.

However, we must not look at housing costs in isolation. For many, transportation and child care costs are equivalent to second and third mortgage payments. Millennials often have a fourth mortgage to deal with; outstanding student loans.

So, what are the solutions?

One solution being pursued in New York and San Francisco is ‘mandatory inclusionary zoning.’ It requires developers to include affordable housing units within new developments whenever land is rezoned.

This concept is not new to Vancouver where provision of 20 per cent affordable housing has been a requirement for major rezonings since the early 1990s. Other rezonings have required affordable housing units scattered within a building or in a portion of the building, sometimes prompting concerns about ‘poor doors’ for lower income residents.

Inclusionary zoning seems to be working in New York, where developers often fund affordable units through a ‘cross-subsidy’ using federal low-income tax credits, something not available in Canada.

However, in San Francisco, a requirement that all new development include 25% affordable housing has led to a complete halt of new building permits. Developers are now sitting on the sidelines while the city reconsiders its requirement.

Another solution is to make more land available for housing. While the Dutch can do this by filling in the ocean, Vancouver should do it through zoning. While in theory we may have enough zoned capacity to accommodate future growth, in practice we do not.

The invited experts repeatedly pointed out we should make better use of the extensive areas of our region zoned for single-family housing.

In addition to basement suites and laneway housing, there is a need to permit duplexes, townhouses, stacked townhouses and small infill apartments in many of these neighbourhoods.  While these new homes may not always be affordable for lower income households, they will offer new housing choices and help balance supply and demand.

To assess the likely impacts of future rezonings, we should undertake post-mortems on past controversial rezonings to see if fears expressed by neighbourhood residents at public hearings materialized.

Some single-family dwellings could provide affordable housing if municipalities updated their zoning bylaws to permit ‘collective living’ by allowing more than 5 unrelated people to live together. While shared-living may not be for everyone, this is something that could happen right away.

Two conference sessions promoted micro-suites and modular housing as two ways to create affordable housing. A small relocatable modular home was displayed behind the Art Gallery.

As some may recall, this is an idea I promoted in the 2008 municipal election and I am pleased the city is now undertaking a demonstration program to test out the effectiveness of relocatable modular units to create speedy, cost effective homes.

During the conference, it was repeatedly noted there is no silver bullet to solve a housing crisis. While taxing foreign investment or vacant properties may play a role, we can do much more.

Learning from Australia and UK, our non-profits should expand their role in housing delivery. There should also be an increased role for regional government.

This conference was expensive to organize. While many will question whether the city got value for money, Vancouver’s new Director of Planning Gil Kelley and other new senior administrators were all in attendance. If they implement just a few of the recommended solutions, I believe it will have been money well spent.

Michael Geller is a Vancouver architect, planner, real estate consultant and developer. He also serves on the adjunct faculty at SFU. He can be reached at

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