January 10, 2012

Tackling Metro’s Housing Challenges

Creative solutions are required if residential concerns are to be adequately addressed

BY BOB RANSFORD

Housing affordability is Metro Vancouver’s biggest challenge. Facing that challenge should be our biggest community effort of 2012. The high price of housing has become a local quality-of-life challenge. It’s also becoming an economic challenge. I have been told more than a couple of times over the last year that employers have had difficulties attracting talented people to work in Vancouver because of our high housing costs. These anecdotes have been not about attracting talented lower or medium income earners.

They were about skilled people earning six-figure salaries who turned down good paying jobs in Metro Vancouver because they were not prepared to sacrifice the quality of life they currently enjoy in other cities to simply pay our high costs for housing. A short-term downturn in housing prices won’t solve the problem. Many are predicting that our robust 2011 housing market will slow this year, given the unstable global economic situation. That will likely mean a flattening of price growth. It might even mean a decline in housing prices. But those declines aren’t likely going to be of the “bubble-bursting” magnitude. They will provide some small short-term relief at best.

‘Compact growth activity zones’ should be established near every LRT station, says Bob Ransford. Shown here, housing near the Gateway Station in Surrey.

The long-term challenge requires creative solutions and real action. Here are a few suggestions on how we should tackle the problem. Let’s start by refocusing on reality and treating housing for what it is — shelter for our citizens. It’s not some commodity from which we can magically extract an economic benefit that can be used to finance other community needs. When cities ask the question: what benefit are we getting from approving the development of new housing and the more efficient use of land for housing, the answer should be: you’re getting new housing to house your citizens.

Cities need to stop extracting such huge fees from new developments. The real costs of providing additional community infrastructure that is required to service new growth should be a cost borne by all. If we want to house our people, we need to provide the infrastructure. Second, let’s commit to more compact, green and adaptable neighbourhoods. That means getting serious about density in all of its forms.

Every Metro Vancouver municipality should permit laneway housing. Getting a building permit for a laneway infill home shouldn’t be a three-week or three-month process. Property owners should be able to make their initial application online, filing drawings and other documents electronically, complying with the detailed guidelines that are in place. If they meet the guidelines, a permit should be issued within a day or two. The Certified Professional process that the City of Vancouver uses, which allows registered professionals to certify building code compliance and equivalencies, should be expanded and used by all municipalities to allow professionals to approve minor variance to laneway house designs.

Every Metro municipality should permit secondary suites in single-family homes. Vancouver has for a number of years now. Urban guru Mike Harcourt points out that Vancouver actually allows most single-family lots in Vancouver to have three homes: a principal residence, a secondary suite and a laneway home. He says the form of housing really shouldn’t matter so long as there are design guidelines in place to ensure the built form fits and doesn’t detract from neighbourhood character. Therefore, he suggests almost every single-family zoning should outright permit three dwellings, regardless of how they are configured.

Archaic rules that limit how we define the ownership of real property need to be rewritten. Freehold attached townhouses should be as easy to register as a detached single-family home. Fractional interests in land and buildings should be permitted without a lot of legal manoeuvring to permit people to pool their equity, whether in the form of land or cash. This will open the door to “ordinary” homeowners redeveloping their own properties, permitting more infill development and decreasing our reliance only on developers with financial capacity to provide our new housing.

Municipalities should allow demonstration housing projects. Small cottages in pocket neighbourhood clusters should be tried in a number of existing single-family neighbourhoods. Stacked townhouses and more loft-type designs should be permitted. If they work, they should be repeated. Building codes should be changed to allow partly finished homes to be built. There was a time in the 1950s and 60s where in the emerging suburbs a lot of new affordable housing was built with unfinished basements. Homeowners finished the space when they had the ability to afford to do so.

The provincial government should designate “compact growth activity zones” within a 400-metre radius of every LRT transit station and every intersection where more than three major bus lines cross. Within those zones, densities should be set at a minimum of 45 units per acre (low-rise apartments). Maximum densities should also be set based on context-sensitive building heights. This will, in effect, prezone these areas and relieve civic governments from having to take the heat for bringing the kind of residential density that is needed in these key transit locations. These are just a few ideas that should be embraced to make a real dent in housing prices. There are others. We need to make 2012 the year that we found a resolve to house our people affordably.

Bob Ransford is a public affairs consultant with COUNTERPOINT Communications Inc. He is a former real estate developer who specializes in urban land-use issues. Email: ransford@counterpoint.ca or Twitter @BobRansford

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