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A laneway neighbourhood?

Our Vancouver neighbourhood is in transition.  I may venture to say that ALL Vancouver neighbourhoods are in transition.  That is because the land beneath these 50, 60, 70-year old homes is worth more than the homes themselves.  So a developer can buy an old house for $700K, tear it down (and if you got it at that bargain price, the house must be in tear-down condition), and put up a monster home for less than $250 – $350K.  Then sell it for $1.299 million.

For instance this house:

oldnew

 

is currently available at that price.  Check it out. Of course it has two suites for rental, so we’re attaining some kind of density.  But the house to the side indicates the size of house it replaced in its East Van neighbourhood, quite a difference.

Right now the house in our neck of the woods that we affectionately dubbed “the crack house” is currently undergoing such a transformation.  Workers swarm over it every day (even Easter Sunday) as the new structure rises before our eyes.  But what interests us is the large foundation they just poured on the lane.  It could turn out to be for a garage, which would add another $50K to the value of the finished house.  Or it could very well be for a laneway home, which would add another $350K.  I’m thinking it will be a laneway.

And it will be just one of many in our area.  Most are going up behind new builds, such as the one pictured above.  But many are being tucked behind existing homes.

We’ve just got the news that our neighbours are being evicted from their rental basement suite after the sale of the house.  For a few heart-stopping moments we worried that the new owners were going to tear down the mid-century building, but it turns out they are planning a house-wide reno on the two suites therein, and hope to build a laneway on the property.  I remember chatting with the former home owners while our laneway was being built, and they were quite interested.  But one thing definitely will stand in their way.  The house has a HUGE deck off the back.  Much larger than would be allowed if it had been built with a permit.  To build the laneway and still keep the needed 16 foot distance between the two homes, the deck must come down.  That might be a step they are willing to take.  If the reno is done with permits the deck may have to come down anyway.

Whatever may come, laneway homes are no longer a novelty in this neighbourhood, or anywhere in this city.  They are a viable partial solution to the shortage that is driving up the price of housing here and elsewhere.  Laneway homes are popular in Toronto, and have recently been allowed in Saskatoon and may soon hit Regina.

Could this be the Canadian way to achieve greater density?

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?

 

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.

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.

Who gets to live here?

It’s no secret that I’m a real fan of any housing that lets people live in the city of Vancouver.  Houses, duplexes, condos, rental suites, basement suites, laneway houses.  Bring them on, in greater numbers.  I think that anyone who wants to should live where they want, in the city that has won the Best City in the World award and offers everyone the joys of living in a big, cosmopolitan, multicultural metropolis such as this.

Vancouver hasn’t always been such a “cosmopolitan” place.  We’ve always been a railway terminus and a seaport, a place of sawmills, stevedores and gandydancers, hard-working blue-collar workers.  And for many, many, many years, these people have ended up in the Downtown East Side (DTES) when they couldn’t work any more because of age or injury.  That neighbourhood has been the skid road — a term that started in this town when the corduroy log-paved roads would be greased to allow logs to slide down them to the sawmills — of Vancouver.  It’s a district of Single Room Occupancy hotels, where the sad and the broken live.  There are drugs, drug users, drug sellers (they don’t have to be pushers down there, just vendors). There are people struggling — and losing — with substance abuse of every kind.  There is prostitution.  There are the mentally ill. And there are also the agencies and organizations who help these people through their struggles. It’s a tough neighbourhood — but caring.

So in the middle of this vibrant town, full of life and activity and fun, there’s a place of shadows and sorrow.

Right next to this area is Vancouver’s Chinatown, a cultural treasurehouse. But it is also feeling the pressure of urban development. 

The property these areas sit on is becoming more and more valuable; development is pushing into it, squeezing the “have-nots” into a smaller and smaller area.

 Now maybe the city has found a solution to the squeeze.

From the Vancouver Sun comes this story of a new revitalization of the downtown east side and its centre, Hastings Street.

Today, Hastings is the heart of the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver’s most troubled neighbourhood. Hastings has become synonymous with drugs and poverty, an internationally-known eyesore.

But change may be around the corner. The city of Vancouver has spent the last couple of years going through a new Downtown Eastside local area planning process (LAPP), in tandem with many of the neighbourhood’s most vocal anti-poverty activists.

And therein lies the secret to this plan’s success.  Lots of times experts and pundits and caring folk from all around the city will try their best to solve the problems of civic blight.  But it’s only because they have pulled in people who live and work and advocate here that I think that they might have a chance to make this work.

If the Downtown Eastside plan succeeds — and that’s a big if — much of Hastings between Clark Drive in Strathcona and Abbott Street in Gastown is likely to be replaced with new developments. Taller buildings filled with single room occupancy hotel rooms, known as SROs, around Hastings and Main will probably survive, but most everything else is up for grabs, unless it is a designated heritage building or existing social housing.

There will be condos allowed in the five blocks between Clark and Heatley, as well as in the two blocks from Carrall to Cambie. Any new development will have to include 20-per-cent social housing.

The condo-free zone between Heatley and Carrall is called “Hastings Central.” Maximum heights range up to 12 storeys, although pure social housing projects can apply to go higher. All new projects in this zone have to be at least 60-per-cent social housing.

Overall, the plan calls for 4,400 social housing units to be built in the Downtown Eastside. Most people think this is the rough patch around Hastings and Main, but the city plan defines it as a much larger area that includes surrounding neighbourhoods like Victory Square, Gastown, Chinatown, Strathcona and Thornton Park.

Is it going to work?  Who knows?  It’s a noble effort, there are lots of people who are fighting it — well-meaning people with good arguments against it.

I’ve had some spirited discussions with them.   Why should developers buy into this plan?  Why should we, the lucky ones, bother with these people, drug addicts and the like?

Because, that could be us.  One or two mis-steps.  Age.  Illness.  Injury.  We could be there. According to counsellor Andrea Reimer:

She figures fewer than a hundred of the Downtown Eastside’s 18,000 residents are involved in the street disorder that goes on. Most of them just “fell through one crack, and then another.”

“How many times did I meet guys who lost their job, got divorced, had gambling addictions, were injured at work and were on pain medications they couldn’t get off of. People with brutal childhoods. It’s amazing that some of them are still walking around, right? And some of them aren’t.”

I want it to work.  I want the people who live in the DTES to have clean, safe, pleasant homes to live in.  And I think it could work if those homes were a mixture of those who have and those who have not.

I want it to work because I think the true measure of a society is how they care for those who cannot take care of themselves.

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