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Renting trouble

Last week I attended a panel discussion on housing affordability here in Vancouver.  It’s a big complex problem, with lots of different solutions.

Jim O’Dea talked about social housing.

Yuri Artibise talked about coop housing.

And Lyndsey Poaps talked about the problems of finding rental housing in a city with a vacancy rate of about 1%.

Because the people who are having problems finding housing are not just those at the bottom (and the edges) of the economic strata — they are middle class people, too.

In this article in the Vancouver Courier about the panel, Lyndsey Poaps is quoted as saying

“If we want to change the culture so that this becomes a city where people have expectations that they’ll rent for life — bring it on,” said panelist Lyndsay Poaps, a former park board commissioner who rents part of a duplex with her family on the East Side. “But the gap between that culture and our reality is like the Grand Canyon.” 

Over and over, when talking about rentals in Vancouver, you bump up against that cultural problem — the concept that people in Metro Vancouver don’t rent their homes.  They buy.  The idea that you’ll rent one home for twenty years or more — that’s European!  Back in Montreal you’ll find that — but not here!  Vancouver isn’t a city of renters.

Except it is.

I’m not just talking about the fact that every house on our street has some form of rental housing — whether it’s a laneway, a basement suite, or a house subdivided into two or more suites.  Nope. That’s just anecdote.

Vancouver is a city of renters.

Let’s look at the percentage of people renting in the Metro Vancouver area:

RentalsVancouver

It’s not just in the west end of the city, either, where you find a high percentage of renters.  Throughout the central area (including Kitsilano and Shaughnessy) nearly 70% of the housing is rental.  (Thanks, CMHC for the info.)

How does that compare to Montreal? You know, where “everybody” rents rather than buys?

RentalsMontreal

Sure, in the inner city it’s higher — but not much — but in the central area it’s less.

In central London, England, the rental rate is about 73%.  High, as was expected, but about that of Vancouver.  Even in Vienna, the city of government-owned and subsidized housing rental, the rental rate is about 75%.

So the question is not “Will Vancouver be a city of renters?”.  The question is “How can we best serve the high proportion of people in Vancouver who rent their homes?”.

Let’s just think about how Vienna has handled their rental housing.  As Harvard professor Eva Blau puts it, in the 1920s the city decided to really get involved in the rental situation in their city

There was also an economic reason to push for the public housing expansion. By subsidizing housing costs, rent would be kept low. That, in turn, meant wages could be kept low too — without negatively impacting living standards. Low wages allowed Vienna’s industrial sector to be more competitive internationally. There was a political aspect to the effort as well: The new government expected improved living conditions would engender loyalty from citizens. The push for housing was so expansive that today, nearly 100,000 of the city’s 220,000 city-owned apartment units were built in the 1920s and 1930s.

The idea that everyday citizens should have access to not just affordable apartments but also attractive ones — and that it’s the city’s responsibility to provide them — continues to this day. There’s a mindset that housing is a way to link residents to their communities and the larger city through design. “It was never just about housing,” Blau says. “It was always about the city. It was about not just providing private living space but also public living space to people for whom they were also providing housing.”

We don’t have to re-invent the wheel.  It’s time for Civic, Provincial, and Federal governments to get together and work out how people will have access to safe, reliable rental housing in this city.

Because right now we’re just renting trouble.

Concord Pacific coughs up

I went to a very informative meeting on Affordable Housing put on by Vision the other day — and you can expect a post on that soon.

But first…this story from Metro News says mega-developer Concord Pacific looks like it “might” make good its promise to build a park in False Creek.  They promised to in 1990, but this time it looks like it may go ahead.  

“This appears to lift the last stage of the process before a direct effort to build that park,” Coun. Geoff Meggs said, advocating the city move forward with the application.

The parkland has been tied up in legal agreements between developer Concord Pacific, the city and the province. It cannot be converted into a park until Concord develops the final package of its Expo lands, although an application has yet to be made for that “trigger” site.

Obviously, the park is still years away, but in the interim Concord will contribute $500,000 to an interim seawall, $808,850 to improvements under the Cambie Bridge north of Pacific Boulevard and $4.2 million to an enhanced paddling centre, according to the city.(emphasis mine)

The Dragon Boat Festival people have been waiting for a permanent home for years.  The Festival brings in a lot of money to the city in paddlers and partiers every year, so this could definitely be good news for them.

Also (drum roll, please)

It will also transfer a property worth $11.6 million in the Downtown Eastside to the city so the city can build affordable and social housing.

Whoa!  That is good news.  I will be following this story for sure.  Fingers crossed for increased social housing in that area.

Portland, Oregon says yes to laneway houses

Vancouver is certainly not the only city facing problems of scarce, expensive housing.  Nor is it the only city responding to those problems by building laneway or infill houses.

PortlandADU

In Portland, Oregon, these homes are called ADUs — Accessory Dwelling Units.  Unlike the laneway homes we know and love in Vancouver, they also include basement suites in this category.  And unlike the process here in Vancouver for laneway homes when you build an ADU in Portland they waive the permit fees.

That’s right — the city waives the permit fees for new infill buildings.

According to this story in the Tribune, in Portland that can save you between $8,000 and $11,000. That development permit waiver started as a pilot project in 2010, and was continued in 2013.  In Vancouver a similar program would mean savings of around $20,000 per laneway house.

There seems to be little pushback in Portland from people living in the neighbourhoods — of course you can purchase a perfectly lovely home in that city for about $300K.  And people recognize that the smaller buildings are much greener than large buildings using fewer resources to build and maintain. The state has its own Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and their spokesperson said,

“Smaller homes have significant environmental benefits compared to other green building strategies. Building small is a very green thing to do,” says Palmeri.

As this story in the Tribune put it

Regardless of their size, ADUs are generally more environmentally friendly than a new home built in a traditional subdivision. They require no new land, less building materials and energy usage. They help Portland and the metro area meet population growth needs without developing farm land. Putting those residents in existing neighborhoods reduces sprawl and vehicle miles traveled, easing road congestion.

A recent survey by the DEQ found

the mean cost for an ADU is nearly $78,000, with about a quarter costing more than $120,000.

“That’s a lot of money for a lot of people,” says Palmeri.

In our neighbourhood numbers like that would have us drooling.  It would take a lot of number-crunching and cost-counting to bring in a laneway house for $120,000.

I would welcome a survey such as the DEQ conducted right here.  It would be interesting to find out how laneways are being used. In Portland, Ashland, and Eugene the survey found

 81 percent of ADUs in all three cities are used as primary residences, only 18 percent of occupants are family members and 53 percent of occupants were strangers when they moved in. And the majority of owners in all three cities — slightly more than 50 percent — built them for the additional rental income.

Lean, green, income generating machines.  It’s great to see how laneway houses can improve cities — and lives.

Getting around with an ELF

I get around most of the time by transit — I don’t like to drive (and DH does not like me to drive his vintage auto) and I don’t like to ride a bicycle. In the rain.  Uphill. And I’m not ready for a motorized wheelchair, although my Dad loved tearing around the streets of Nelson on his Rascal.

I work too far away to ride a bike to my job, and if I want to go shopping there is a strict limit on how much I could carry home.

But what if there were another way of getting around?

Meet the ELF

elf-2

It’s a trike, so it’s more stable than a bike.  It can hold a lot of cargo (up to 350 lbs, according to Life Edited). It’s got an electric motor so you don’t have to pedal all the time.  It’s solar powered.

And it’s so darned cute!

Check out the website for Organic Transit — the people who make this adorable little transport.  It’s a great idea, maybe a game-changer for traffic-congested cities.

I don’t see me driving down the main byways of Vancouver in one of these — and riding a bike or a trike on the sidewalk is not allowed.

But if they can knock down the price from five grand American, if they can get a few communities to adopt them, I think we have a fighting chance to replace cars for zipping around the immediate neighbourhood. After all, if half of all car trips in the US are three miles or less, this could revolutionize how we get around.  With our aging population (and rainy weather), bikes are not always feasible.

The ELF could be the answer.

But isn’t that what I said about the SEGWAY?

It’s Alive! Living beneath a living roof.

One of the most unique features of our home is something we’ve come to take for granted — the living roof.realroof

It was grown for us out at N.A.T.S .Nurseries in Langley, who are representatives of LiveRoof.

It’s very green and ecologically responsible and etc. etc. of us to put in the living roof, but we originally just wanted it because it looks nice.

Because our roof is visible (due to the slope of the property) the folks in the main house and the neighbours are looking at it whenever they look at the laneway house. And because we have flat roof not just on the upper storey but also on the top of the garage and some of the lower storey, we just wanted something nice for them to look at.  The roof of the garage is right outside our kitchen window, and it’s much more pleasant to look at a garden than a heli-pad black slab.

Our roof is an extensive green roof, a carpet of sedums and other low-growing plants.  An extensive green roof would support larger plants, even trees.

But it turns out there are lots of other very good reasons to install a living roof of either kind.  According to the Green Roofs for Healthy Cities site, living roofs offer benefits to more people than the home owners.

For cities:

1. Cleaner water. Living roofs clean storm water.  Here in Vancouver we can have real downpours.  The water runs off hard surfaces like roads, sidewalks, and yes, roofs, and enters the storm sewer system.  All at once.  That can overwhelm the system.  But living roofs absorb and retain the water, delaying its entry into the storm sewer and easing the pressure on the system.  Plus the roofs filter the water, and through evaporation, lessen the of water they deliver to the system.

2. Cooler cities. You may have heard about the “urban heat island effect“.  This is a problem for big cities where the structures absorb heat during the day and retain it far longer into the evenings than soft, natural surfaces.  According to the EPA,

The annual mean air temperature of a city with 1 million people or more can be 1.8–5.4°F (1–3°C) warmer than its surroundings.3 On a clear, calm night, however, the temperature difference can be as much as 22°F (12°C).3

The living roofs keep cooler during the day due to the evaporation that goes on, but they also cool off much faster than hard, black roofs once the sun is down.

3. Cleaner air. Plants clean the air of pollution and particulates.  So living roofs can reduce smog.

For individual home owners:

1. Energy efficiency. The living roof acts as an insulator during the winter, keeping the home warmer.  Plus in the summer, it keeps the home cooler because the plants provide an insulating layer PLUS the evaporation of water through the plants lowers the temperature.  You may have set a sprinkler on your roof during the super hot weather to cool it off — that works by evaporation and our roof does that all the time naturally.

2. Fire retardation.  If a building near by catches fire and the sparks land on our roof, they will just go out.  It would be like trying to light a lawn on fire.

3. Noise reduction. According to Green Roofs,

An extensive green roof can reduce sound from outside by 40 decibels, while an intensive one can reduce sound by 46-50 decibels

4. Increased durability.  The plants protect the membrane below them from the destructive rays of the sun. A living roof can last at least two times longer than a plain membrane roof. And that keeps membrane and sealant out of the landfills.

There’s some maintenance to be done on the roof — weeding!  We’ll also be putting on a little fertilizer.  Thanks to N.A.T.S. Nursery for their help.

Visit N.A.T.S. Nursery at their website for more information.`

The Co-operative solution to affordable housing

We have spoken several times about the difficulties finding affordable housing in our fair city.  One idea I haven’t written about is Co-operative Housing.  That’s ironic, because I lived in a housing co-op for 14 years.

witsend

A housing co-op, whether for-profit or non-profit, differs from other multi-unit housing in that everyone who lives in it owns a share in the whole building — not just your unit.  So you own — and have responsibility for — the whole building.  The co-op board (made up of people who live in the building) determines who can or cannot move in and how the building will be managed including how much each share in the building will cost.

Lots of people find it hard to get their mind around the idea that co-ops are affordable.  That may be because they have only heard about exclusive, expensive co-ops such as the famous Dakota in New York City, where suites could cost millions of dollars.  But they are an excellent way to get affordable housing right here in Vancouver.

Let’s say you know several people who all have the same problem you do — they can’t afford to buy or build a home in Vancouver.  You may know several hundred people in that boat.

Well, you can all get together and form a housing co-op.  That’s the way I found myself in Wits End Housing Co-op.  The apartment complex where I lived in Kerrisdale was sold and razed to make a much larger, more expensive tower.  Most of us in the original complex could not afford to live in the new building, but we could afford to pool our resources and our time and talent to form a co-op.

It took a lot of time, and much energy, but many of the families from the original complex called Wits End home for years.  It was a good place to raise your children in a nice neighbourhood convenient to transit.

If you go to the Wit’s End web page you’ll see that the charges for housing are quite reasonable, from $782 for a one-bedroom to $1,215 for a four-bedroom unit.  Plus you must purchase shares in the building, costing from $1,600 to $2,400 depending on the size of the suite you want.  That’s very affordable for Vancouver.  But there’s a way to save even more.  In some co-ops you can receive a housing subsidy through the government that will allow you to live in a suite that you might not ordinarily be able to afford.  The subsidy is given to the co-op, and it is limited.  Extremely limited. Check the Wit’s End page and you’ll see that they do not currently have any subsidy available.  Plus all their suites are full and they are accepting names for a waiting list (you don’t have to come up with the share purchase money until you are accepted into the co-op).

If you want to form your own housing co-op, the first step is to contact the CMHC, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and follow their guide to forming and running a co-op. There are also guides specific to the province where you live.

Is it cheap?  No.  There will be lawyers, architects, contractors, inspectors and many more people you will have to hire.  The CMHC can guide you through it. There are guidelines, rules and regulations you have to follow all the way.

Once you live in your co-op you will have responsibilities that condo dwellers do not.  You will have to serve on a committee, you should serve on the board at least once.  And if you choose not to hire cleaning people you will have to do your bit to keep the building clean and safe.

Co-operative housing gives you an instant neighbourhood, a safe neighbourhood for your kids, plus an affordable place to live.

I look back on my co-op years with great fondness.

Knock, knock. Who’s there? And how many?

I ran across another great article on Life Edited, this time on household size.

All along I have touted laneway homes as a good method to increase the densification of neighbourhoods without changing their character.  These houses, by nature of their small size, will only house one or two people each.  What about the housing density of the rest of the neighbourhood?

Not this kind of housing density.

Not this kind of housing density.

We tend to frame the density issue in terms of housing size, because it’s easy to understand that big homes, as a rule, reduce overall density. But there is something else, just as important as housing size, that must be factored in to understand how density works, and that is household size.

The article quotes a paper in the online journal Population and Environment.  Looking at the population/housing ratio in the past 400 years,

the number of households grew faster than population size in every country and every time period. These findings suggest accommodating housing may continue to pose one of the greatest environmental challenges of the twenty-first century because the impacts of increased housing present a threat to sustainability even when population growth slows.

There are fewer people being born per capita, true, but

Progress made in curbing population growth, however, has not translated into reducing human
consumption of natural resources and impact on the environment.

Yikes!  Why?  Of course there are lots of reasons, and it’s not just because people are building larger homes (McMansions) for their smaller families.  People are also moving out of the family home at an earlier age.  The trend during the recent economic downturn for people to move back in with their parents after college is an anomaly, and probably will not be continued after the economy picks up again.  Also elderly people stay in their own homes longer rather than moving in with their families.  Plus they remain in their old family homes longer rather than moving to smaller ones.  There are other factors as well

The rising incidence of divorce also encourages increased household numbers. In the United
States, 15 % of all households had divorced heads in 2000 …. Although remarriage is common, the relatively high percentage of divorced households persists, and divorced households are 27–41 % smaller than married households

And that means?

From a more simplistic perspective, declining household sizes, from over 5 to approximately 2.5, will mean approximately twice as many houses will be needed per capita in any areas of the world yet to undergo the shift in household size.

Assuming that each of the additional households occupies a 210 m2 house (the average US
house size in 2002) (National Association of Home Builders 2004), then an additional
185,800 km2 of housing area would be required. This estimate may be conservative because land
area for household-related infrastructure (e.g., roads, yards, and retail) can require 2–4 times as
much land as the actual land used for the home …. Each of those houses would demand more household products and have lower efficiency of resource use per person because fewer people share goods and services in smaller households.

That’s why urban sprawl — taking more land to build more houses — will not solve all the problem.

One small caveat by Life Edited shows a glimmer of light in the tunnel of doom:

As a small space design blog, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that the amount of sprawl (i.e. the 72K sq miles) they calculate is based on a house size of 2509 sq ft–McMansions for all.

So smaller houses will help the problem well into the future.  And they give us a couple of options,

  1. Let things remain the same. Encroach on undeveloped lands and deplete all natural resources until the planet’s homeostatic environmental mechanisms are irrevocably destroyed.

  2. Reverse demographic shifts away from industrialization, the desire for privacy, divorce and so forth.

  3. Rethink housing. Adjust housing style to meet demographic shifts. Have smaller, more efficient houses with shared amenities. Creatively subdivide existing housing. Mitigate sprawl by keeping density high, even outside of major metropolises, permitting walk/bike/public transportation-friendly living.

That last choice seems the best to me.

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