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Monthly Archives: June 2014

How can we save more of our heritage homes?

Vancouver already has the screwiest housing market in the world.  Hyperbole?  Empty derelict houses are sitting on million-dollar lots in ordinary working-class neighbourhoods.  Huge houses and luxury apartments sit empty most of the year because of absentee investor owners.  Rental vacancy rate of less than 1%.  Housing costs beyond many salaries.

In this story on the city’s effort to save pre-1940 homes, the people who bought a Shaughnessy home for $4.6 million and who have it on the market for $7 million find it too small for their needs.

“They just think the building is not livable,” Liang said. “They are now looking for a larger property.”

Meanwhile city dwellers wring their hands and mourn the loss of heritage houses that originally made the neighbourhood so attractive; demolished so that enormous monster houses can take their place.

heritage2013

The problem affects neighbourhoods, almost exclusively on the west side, where old discretionary zoning and density rules are encouraging developers to raze smaller homes to build massive buildings.

In the first six months of 2014 there have been nearly 1,000 applications for demolition permits, an increase of 20 per cent over previous years…. Many of those involve pre-1940s buildings that don’t use all of their allowed yard setbacks or building heights.

And there are no easy fixes.

I would have to argue with the statement that the problem is almost exclusive to the west side of the city.  There are plenty of charming old homes in the Grandview and Sunrise areas that are being replaced by much larger structures.

The Vancouver Sun story lists some ways that Vancouver City government is hoping to save more heritage homes.  A planned moratorium on demolition permits for houses in Shaughnessy; a requirement that 90% of the demolished home’s materials be salvaged or recycled.

The moratorium on demolition permits may work in an area like Shaughnessy, but couldn’t be used city-wide.  Who would like to see their property value plummet because any buyer could not replace the over-70 year old structure with a new one (while your neighbour’s more recently built home could be smashed and trucked away to reveal that tender, juicy city lot just ready for redevelopment)?

But if someone were to ask me (and what is a blog for if not to answer questions no one has asked?) I would suggest a more-carrot-and-less-stick approach by the city to encourage the retention of heritage homes.

  • Right now it can take months or longer to designate a house a heritage building. That process should be sped up.
  • There are only four designated heritage areas:  Chinatown, Gastown, Shaughnessy and Yaletown. Any area where most of the buildings are over 70 years old should be designated a heritage area, including Sunrise, Strathcona, Kerrisdale and Kitsilano.
  • Tax breaks from the city would encourage developers to maintain older houses.
  • A relaxation of certain housing regulations would allow some heritage homes to be maintained.

Does anyone else have any ideas?

 

The Vancouver Heritage Foundation Heritage Homes Tour

Last Sunday found us up nice and early in preparation to hitting the road for the Vancouver Heritage Foundation Heritage Homes Tour.

It’s something I’ve been promising myself I’d do, but always put it off.  This year, though, we were able to get it together and June 1 found us up, fed, dressed (with easily removable shoes) and water bottles at hand we headed off to the first house on the tour: Casa Mia.

HeritageCasa

Casa Mia is the fabled house built by the Reifel family.  It sits on Mansion Row on South West Marine Drive and yes, everything you’ve heard about it is true.  There is a ballroom on the basement level with gold-leaf walls and ceiling and a sprung dance floor.  The walls of the playroom were hand painted with Snow White decorations by Disney artists brought in for the job.  The rooms are beautiful, opulent, luxurious.  The bathrooms are incredible. The men’s powder room by the ballroom has black fixtures! The lady’s has gold plated faucets!  As a piece of OTT decorating (and the life that demanded it) it’s a prime example.  One that will probably be changing in the future, as it’s currently being considered for a care home.  This was our only chance to see this building, and thanks to the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, we did.

By the way, kudos squared to the Foundation for the organization of the tour.  The route was good — from Casa Mia though houses 1 to 10, the guide told us what to look for and expect at each home (and where we could find public restrooms along the way), the volunteers were helpful and friendly, the homes were all lovely, and there was even a food truck mid-way through to make sure you didn’t collapse from hunger.

Still, intrepid explorers though we were, we found it almost too overwhelming and skipped one of the three storybook homes on the tour.

We saw this one -- it was terrific.

We saw this one — it was terrific.

I won’t take you on a room by room recap, there’s lots of info at the Vancouver Heritage Foundation site.  Here’s the highlights I took away:

  • It’s easy to think of the lovely west-side homes in Kerrisdale, Shaughnessy and Kitsilano as heritage homes, but there are many gorgeous heritage properties on the east side in transitional neighbourhoods like Strathcona, Grandview, Mount Pleasant and Sunrise that have not always been well maintained but should definitely be preserved and respected.
  • It’s still possible to maintain the charming design of an older home while updating it with energy efficient heating and modern bathrooms and kitchens.
  • People love built-in sound systems.  We have one in the laneway because we didn’t have room for speakers on the walls — but lots of people put them in so they won’t have to have ugly speakers out in the open.
  • Take shoes you can easily remove at each home — they didn’t mind bare feet inside so you could wear sandals — but make sure they are comfortable because you may have to walk a couple of blocks from where you can park
  • Mature gardens are so lovely — everyone had beautiful exterior spaces
  • Everyone was respectful of the age of their home — even when the furnishings were modern the interior design reflected the original finishings

How can we maintain these fine old homes?  How can we keep our city neighbourhoods from becoming homogeneous slabs of suburban architecture?  I’ll be thinking — and writing about this.

We’re getting some Apartment Therapy! We’re Small and Cool!

Do you read Apartment Therapy?  Well, then, stop reading this, go to the site, and subscribe.  We’ll wait.

Well, when I saw that they were accepting nominations for their annual “Small, Cool 2014” feature — I knew I had to enter.

And we’re in!

 

Visit us!  Click on the Favourite Button (please).

We could win….bragging rights! and fame ‘n’ stuff.

 

Let’s all co-operate, people!

When we lived in our old condo, I used to pass the Heather Place Co-op.  I’ve spoken before of housing co-ops, and what they can mean for people, like I used to be, who can hardly afford any housing in this city, let alone family housing. Heather Place offered 86 families a place to stay in the city, and I was surprised (and curious) to see that there was a new development going in on their property.

Heather

What does that mean for the people living there?

According to the City of Vancouver,

MVHC is undertaking this re-development project as it reflects the goals and objectives set out in Metro Vancouver’s Regional Growth and Affordable Housing Strategies as well as Vancouver’s Housing and Homelessness Strategy. The goal is to provide more rental accommodation in a city and region desperately in need of affordable housing.

  • Currently there are 86 rental units. The re-development project is currently planned to be a 100% rental development.
  • We plan to provide between 200 to 300 rental homes on the site that fit into the neighbourhood.
  • We are being sensitive to local neighbourhood needs such as: aesthetics, trees and green space, changing demographics, traffic/parking and changing transportation habits, and access to amenities.

Right now, of the 86 homes, 26 are rented at rent rates that are geared to income — that means subsidized.  The people who live there pay less than market rates.  But the other suites, although they are not subsidized, pay less — much less — than other suites in the area.  This story in the Vancouver Sun says that the highest rent is $1095 per month — that’s incredibly budget-priced compared to the $2000+ they could expect to pay for a two-bedroom suite in this part of the city.  It’s close to a Sky-Train station going downtown or to the airport; to City Hall; to Vancouver General Hospital; to Broadway and its transit and shopping.  Believe me, I lived there for 13 years — this is one great (and high-priced) neighbourhood. V5Z — one of the most expensive postal codes in the country.

The new development of this area means more rental suites for the city — and that’s good.  If the city can plop another 100 or 200 suites in that neighbourhood it will be great for everyone.  And as the Vancouver Sun article pointed out,

If construction is done in stages, it might be possible for subsidized tenants to stay where they are until they can be moved into completed units

But the non-subsidized suites will definitely be more expensive. About $1600 a month — still reasonable for the neighbourhood, but more than the current tenants are used to paying.

I’m torn (as usual).  I can see the city’s need to inject more rental suites in the neighbourhood — and into the city.  And I’m happy the people who are receiving subsidized housing will continue to do so.  But I do feel bad for the other 60 families who will either have to forgo other luxuries — or basics — to afford to live there or will have to move out of the neighbourhood.  And judging by the rental prices in the rest of the city, they will have to move waaaayyyyyy out of the neighbourhood.

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