As appeared in the Vancouver Sun on April 21, 2012
By Michael Geller, Special to the Sun
Can changes to Vancouver’s zoning and design regulations improve housing affordability?
Many factors contribute to the high price of housing in Vancouver. These include the cost of land and construction, municipal fees, the complex approval process, foreign investment and the imbalance between supply and demand. Two related considerations are zoning and design regulations, and the shortage of suitably zoned land for more affordable housing choices.
Earlier this year, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson announced the creation of an Affordable Housing Task Force to examine the role the city could play in increasing the supply of affordable housing. I was invited to chair a roundtable on building form and design to identify zoning and building code requirements and related guidelines and procedures that may unnecessarily add to housing costs. The roundtable was also asked to identify any regulatory barriers restricting the supply of more affordable housing forms.
Affordable housing means different things to different people. The task force is focusing its efforts on low- to middle-income households which in Vancouver range from individual household incomes of $21,500 to combined household income of $86,500 per year.
Our focus was on lower income singles and couples desperately needing suitable rental accommodation; singles and couples struggling to buy their first home; families with children who want to live in the city rather than have to move to more suburban locations; and “empty nesters” and seniors hoping to downsize without having to leave their long-established neighbourhoods.
The roundtable met with urban planners, builders, housing experts, engineers, lawyers, and members of the Architectural Institute of British Columbia and the Urban Development Institute.
It also consulted with city officials and people looking to rent or buy a home in the city.
We concluded that while many factors affecting housing affordability are beyond the control of the city administration, there is much the city can do with its zoning bylaws and design regulations to increase both the supply and choice of housing. Our report sets out more than two dozen ideas for further consideration. However, during the course of the study, four priorities emerged.
The first is to create new “transition zones” that could facilitate the development of row houses, townhouses and stacked townhouses appealing to those not wanting to live in an apartment, but unable to afford a single-family house. Prime locations for such zones include the non-commercial portions of many arterial roads and the blocks separating commercial streets and adjacent single family housing.
Over time, zones accommodating higher-density ground-oriented housing could extend into other single family areas near parks, community centres, and transit nodes.
The second priority is to make it easier to redevelop older one- and two-storey properties along commercial streets.
These sites have potential to provide a significant amount of well-located affordable rental and ownership housing in proximity to transit.
However, there is a need to modify parking requirements and design regulations to facilitate redevelopment, especially of smaller properties.
The third priority relates to single-family-zoned neighbourhoods. In recent years, the city’s decision to permit legalized basement suites and laneway houses on most single family lots is significant. It would now seem appropriate to explore other configurations resulting in three smaller homes on one lot in some single family neighbourhoods.
In lieu of a large principal dwelling, laneway house and basement suite, it might be preferable to create a triplex designed to look like one larger house, or a duplex combined with a coach house for sale or rent. This would result in smaller homes catering both to young families and empty nesters wanting to remain in their neighbourhoods.
Vancouver’s very high design, livability, and sustainability expectations are exacerbating housing affordability. They are also leading to oftentimes conflicting demands from different city departments. This led to the suggestion that an ombudsman be appointed with a mandate to promote affordability and resolve the conflicts that invariably arise between city departments, the urban design panel, and other advisory boards.
Finally, our study identified a critical question that must be addressed. Will reducing housing costs through regulatory changes necessarily translate into reduced housing rents and prices?
While this is an issue that may more appropriately be addressed by the task force’s academic roundtable, without some of the changes suggested in our report, I believe it will be difficult to bring down housing prices and provide different housing choices. These changes will also improve affordability by leading to an increased supply and competition between housing providers.
Vancouver will never be as affordable as Winnipeg or Prince George. However, with appropriate zoning and regulatory changes, more low and middle income households should be able to find suitable and affordable housing choices in our city.
The mayor’s task force is now seeking public input on our roundtable report, and other working group studies. They can be found at http://vancouver.ca/ctyclerk/civicagencies/housing/index.htm.
Michael Geller is an architect, planner and developer. He also serves on the adjunct faculty of SFU’s Centre for Sustainable Community Development. firstname.lastname@example.org