Monday, March 12, 2018

Lock-off suites can act as handy mortgage helpers: Vancouver Sun March 3, 2018

This Vancouver Westcoast Homes column was published with two different headlines: Mortgage helpers in the sky is catchy, but really applies only to suites within suites in apartments. However, lock-off suites can also be included in townhouses, so the second headline is probably more appropriate.
     But whatever you call them, I think this is an idea worthy of replication around the region and across the country. Here's the story:

     As Lower Mainland municipalities struggle to provide more affordable housing choices, they might explore the top of a nearby mountain.
     Throughout B.C., the most affordable form of housing is often the basement suite. Sometimes it is legal; more often, it is not. While it may provide rental housing in perpetuity, it can also be taken over by homeowners as their family size increases or financial situation improves.
     In areas of a city near a university, these basement suites are particularly popular with students, and can serve as ‘mortgage helpers’ for homeowners.
     It was within this context that the idea of legalized secondary suites within multi-family housing developments was conceived 16 years ago at UniverCity, the model sustainable community next to SFU on Burnaby Mountain.
     Both the university and Burnaby wanted to provide affordable housing for students within the community. So in 2002, Burnaby’s forward-looking planners and council agreed to a request from the SFU Community Trust to approve zoning changes to allow secondary suites within suites in up to 50 per cent of the apartments in multi-storey buildings and townhouses, subject to certain conditions.
the total suite size. They could have their own entry from the corridor, as well as bathroom and cooking facilities, but could not be subdivided as a strata lot or sold separately.     Small suites may often not be affordable if they must include their own parking space, so to address this, Burnaby agreed to significantly reduce the parking requirement.
     To further improve affordability, the units were designed without in-suite washers and dryers. The bylaw therefore required a minimum of 10 suites in any one building to support common laundry facilities.
     From the onset, there was uncertainty whether developers would build such an innovative form of housing. The city therefore agreed that units could be designed with only a closet with the ‘rough-in’ for the future kitchen; the appliances and cupboards did not need to be provided at initial occupancy.
The additional cost of creating the suites — as opposed to just an additional bedroom — is difficult to estimate since it depends on the building type and location. However, the rough-in includes additional wiring, fireproofing, venting, a door to the corridor door and mailbox. (We nearly forgot the mailbox!) Kitchen fixtures and appliances can be added later.
Lock-off suites were built within Novo 1 and 2, and One University Crescent
     As is the case with any innovative idea, there were unforeseen challenges. These included how best to allocate parking. At UniverCity, some purchasers of units with a secondary suite acquired an additional space; however, the majority did not. In future, where there is adequate transit and car-sharing, I would hope municipalities would not require any parking for these units.
     This concept only works if the local government does not count the secondary suite as another unit when determining allowable density or applicable development cost charges or levies. Both the municipality and Metro Vancouver were accommodating in this regard.
     When I initially proposed this idea, it was anticipated the suites would be included in three-bedroom units, possibly separated from the other bedrooms by the living/dining area. However, many Vancouver-area developers are reluctant to build three-bedroom suites because of the increased size and sales price.
     Consequently, most of the first units were in two-bedroom-and-den apartments.
Another project at UniverCity included secondary suites in ground-floor townhouse-style units with separate entries to an outside walkway.
     In future, I believe developers would be more likely to build three-bedroom apartments with separate suites if mortgage lenders would recognize their rental income when qualifying purchasers for a mortgage. Since this happens when someone buys a single-family home with a ‘mortgage helper’, it would seem to make sense for buyers of apartments and townhouses with separate suites, provided they are permitted by zoning.
     Some developers may be reluctant to build accessory suites in apartments because they prefer not to include common laundry facilities. However, as we attempt to reduce the cost of new housing, perhaps it is time to rethink whether every apartment needs to have its own washer and dryer. (After all, many of us met our life partners in apartment building laundry rooms.)
     In 2009, the City of Vancouver agreed to amend some of its zoning bylaws to allow secondary suites in apartments and townhouses in certain neighbourhoods. At first, few were built, since most developers were not aware of this zoning provision. However, city planners are now encouraging them in locations such as the Cambie Corridor, where a number of lock-off suites have been built in townhouse units.
     The need for family-sized apartments and affordable rental housing is not restricted to Vancouver or Burnaby. For this reason, North Vancouver has recently allowed secondary lock-off suites in some new townhouse developments.
     Last year I tested the concept with some West Vancouver residents, where the need for new housing choices and rental housing is becoming critical. Based on the positive response, I will shortly be presenting staff and council with plans for a new Ambleside community that includes apartments and townhouses with lock-off suites.
     Hopefully, if Vancouver, Burnaby, the city of North Vancouver and West Vancouver can all support this concept, other municipalities will soon follow and make the necessary zoning changes.
While lock-off suites can provide more affordable rental housing and a mortgage helper for a growing family, they could also be perfect for an aging parent, caregiver or teenager.
     It’s an idea whose time should come.
Michael Geller is a Vancouver-based architect, planner, developer and educator. From 1999 to 2006, he served as president and CEO of the SFU Community Trust, overseeing development of UniverCity. He is currently an adjunct professor at SFU’s Centre for Sustainable Development. He can be reached at

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