May 26, 2017

Urban development: Zoning in on rezoning


The only way Vancouver can solve its affordable housing crisis is by redefining housing

By Anne McMullin

Out of crisis comes creativity. Vancouver’s affordable housing issue has led to the development of innovative approaches that, with zoning changes, would enable more first-time homeowners to enter the market. 

Laneway or micro homes are affordable solutions, but zoning restrictions prevent the ownership, strata or otherwise, of these smaller housing options. In Vancouver, for example, a primary residence must be at least 398 square feet (337 square metres) and strata-titling is generally not permitted in single-family zoning.

Still, the adage “less is more” applies given our need to reduce our ecological footprint, make better use of our existing space and consume less. 

Consider the traditional single-family homes across the region. Municipalities could strategically rezone these to multi-family dwellings, permitting current homeowners to subdivide their lots for townhomes, duplexes and more. These housing options are the “missing middle” between the condo tower and single-family home. 

Imagine grown children of homeowners buying in the neighbourhoods they grew up in.  Seniors benefit by selling their principal dwelling, likely an older home with maintenance needs where property taxes have been deferred. Seniors could then downsize or “right-size” to a smaller laneway dwelling on the same lot. That way, they could stay in the neighbourhoods they know, even if seniors’ housing is either not available or made prohibitive by long wait lists and high monthly costs.

Portable, easy-to-assemble tiny homes are also catching on. These could be built on existing single-family lots that would then be subdivided for multiple homeowners.

“The world would be a better place if housing was more accessible and affordable,” micro-home builder Ian Kent of Nomad Homes recently told News 1130. But, he added, supply and demand has made our accustomed size of house too expensive. “If houses were smaller, more efficient and easier to build, this reality could change.”

Zoning change for multi-family dwellings, condos and townhomes must also accommodate a blend of market and non-market housing for all incomes. Vancouver’s cost of living makes employee recruitment difficult, underscored by Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes, who has said: “Vancouver risks becoming an economic ghost town as people continue to leave due to lack of affordable housing.”

Compare a new, smartly designed laneway home, which costs $250,000 to $300,000 to build, with a decrepit, multi-million-dollar detatched teardown. Or how about a new duplex, or a row home? 

Where would you choose to live? Should more of these lower-priced options be available? These discussions must start now among all stakeholders: governments, developers, home-seekers, homeowners and affordable housing agencies.

Will we see resistance to a new home ownership approach? Absolutely. After all, Vancouver is home to many BANANAs: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything (or Anyone). Applying a 15 per cent foreign buyers’ tax won’t make the affordability issue disappear. Condo and townhome housing prices haven’t magically declined.

But, as the anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” •

Anne McMullin is president and CEO of the Urban Development Institute, an association of the real estate development industry, which supports more than 220,000 B.C. jobs plus billions of dollars in economic activity. Through municipal fees and contributions, the industry funds the construction of daycare centres, social housing, parks, public art, museums, schools and community centres throughout B.C.

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