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A tale of two houses

Two houses recently sold in our neighbourhood.  One, the one we lovingly referred to as “the crack house”, is certainly scheduled for demolition.  There hasn’t been any maintenance to that property since mullets were in style (the first time).  It is falling to pieces, the yard filled with trash.  Soon the big machines will come and tear it down and replace it with a three-storey faux craftsman with a laneway.  It was inevitable and to a certain extent, planned-for.

We have seen the future and it is huge.

We have seen the future and it is huge.

The other house that sold is our neighbours’.  The couple who lived there spent much time and love taking care of it.  Yes, it drove us crazy to hear their tools fire up early on a week-end morning, but you could see just from looking at the exterior that these people took care of their home.  Now the big question on our minds is:  “Will the new owners leave as is? Reno? Demolish and rebuild?”

On our block we have seen it all.  Perfectly good small houses demolished for behemoths.  Aging bungalows given new life with loving renovations.  And of course, speculators buying the older, more derelict properties to hold on to for future development (while they rot and attract vermin of all species).

Rumour has it that the house next door has been bought by a family who will be moving into it as is; the tenants in the spacious two-bedroom basement suite are not looking for new accommodations yet.  But we won’t truly exhale until the moving trucks pull away, emptied of a household’s goods now placed in their new home. Then we’ll show up with a plate of cookies to welcome them to the new neighbourhood.

But if they want to make changes but don’t want to tear it down, the new owners will be stepping into a quagmire of regulations and rules that is the permit process for renovation in Vancouver.  This story in the Globe and Mail sums it up quite nicely.

Additions to the building code include a host of requirements designed to enhance accessibility for the disabled and to make houses more energy efficient. …..

Groups opposed to it are arguing that it will make renovations prohibitively expensive, adding to affordability problems and increasing the number of demolitions

Luckily the new owners wouldn’t have to do anything to bring the house up to code — the current residents have done all that.  But what if someone bought the “crack house” to preserve that old-fashioned style of house?  They would be screwed.  It would cost twice as much as the house would be worth to bring it up to current codes.  That’s one of the reasons we are losing these old houses.  It’s just too much bother and expense to try to save them.

It’s not “energy efficient” to put a house’s worth of old materials into a landfill.  And the drive to make our condo buildings air-tight contributed to the leaky condo crisis we are still trying to fix.  Personally I feel people should get some dispensation for trying to save an old house, not just one designated as a heritage home, but a place that was built in the ’60s, the ’50s, and the ’40s.  The architecture of those eras deserves to be respected and cherished as much as that of earlier years.

Meantime we will watch and see what changes our neighbourhood will experience in the next few months.

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?

 

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