April 12, 2018
Urban Development: If it works in Paris, London and Toronto …
Why the row home might just be the solution to Metro Vancouver’s housing woes
By Anne McMullin
Looking for a new, modern, spacious home in a good community? With four bedrooms, four bathrooms and a yard that’s perfect for families, but no strata fees or restrictive bylaws? For far less than $1 million, right here in Metro Vancouver?
It may sound like a dream in the current market, but this is the reality of row homes. A simple online search will show you these new homes do exist—and you can find them in Langley for around $859,000.
Row homes are simply one- and two-storey townhomes that stand side by side, with a shared common wall and, notably, a non-strata ownership. Non-strata row homes appeal to families, downsizers and young professionals alike—in fact, anyone who doesn’t want shared decision-making.
For hundreds of years, these homes have been built in Paris, where the earliest known row houses were built in 1605 on the Place des Vosges, and in London, from about 1727 onward. In North America, New York City features many row homes dating back to the early 1800s. So do Montreal and Toronto.
Row-home housing has proven its longevity and public acceptance over hundreds of years. So why aren’t these homes more commonly built throughout Metro Vancouver to address our affordable housing crisis?
At the Urban Development Institute, we’ve been asked that question many times. We supported a July 2003 study that sought answers and solutions. The Freehold Tenure Row Housing Discussion Paper was commissioned by the GVRD (now Metro Vancouver), with participation from other housing stakeholders, municipal planners and representatives from all levels of government.
The paper’s main findings showed a public preference and a higher tolerance for multi-family housing if no strata councils are involved.
Row homes offer gentle density, particularly in largely single-family areas. They blend in well with existing streetscapes and offer ground-
level doors and yards that face the street. Equally important, they enable more efficient and sustainable use of our limited land base.
Row homes are gaining traction in areas such as Surrey and Langley with some UDI members, including Streetside Developments and Isle of Mann Construction, successfully building and selling this housing form. But that’s not enough. In a 2012 Globe and Mail article, reporter Frances Bula wrote, “Vancouver has one such row home project, created by former city councillor Art Cowie. Between 2008 and 2011, only 40 freehold row houses were built in all of Metro Vancouver. In the same period, Toronto, already a city rich with historic row houses, added another 11,277 to its stock.”
UDI spoke with local planner and lawyer Bill Buholzer, a longstanding row home advocate, to determine why we’re not seeing more of these homes in Vancouver.
He said the initial reason was anxiety at Vancouver City Hall about common-wall liabilities and a lack of enduring legal arrangements to resolve disputes between owners.
He praised the B.C. Legislature for addressing the problem in 2012 by including Section 223.2 in the B.C. Land Title Act to enable row home “party wall” agreements, tied to the land, and binding on future owners. Other concerns, such as parking, he said, can easily be addressed with proximity to transit, reducing street or lane parking needs.
All that remains now is for developers, municipal planners and communities to work together to pre-zone and build these homes. A recent meeting UDI had with the Dunbar Residents’ Association found a strong level of support for non-strata housing. UDI is pleased the City of Vancouver has recently signalled its willingness to consider row homes in its new Housing Vancouver Strategy report.
Home-seekers shouldn’t have to go to Surrey, Langley or as far as Toronto to find this affordable alternative to single-family homes.
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.