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Water pressure

faucet

 

The other day the water bill came to the big house on the property.  We split it 3 ways, with the main house paying for two thirds (home and basement suite) and us paying the remaining third for the laneway house.  The bill gave us three amounts:

$XX low season rate
$XX water metered A
$XX meter charge 25mm
and while none of us are sure what those numbers mean, we ARE sure that we are paying our fair share because both houses are metered.  All NEW houses (and those with substantial renos) are metered in Vancouver.  The rest pay a flat rate. The City of Vancouver talks about putting meters on all homes, as this recent story says.  Of course this story from 2013 says the same thing.  AND this one from 2011.  The cost of putting meters in all the homes would be very expensive.  But until government is prepared to go that route they will not convince people to conserve as we should. Counting all the new homes, the businesses and institutions, only 50% of water consumption in Vancouver is metered. And that will cost us more in the long run.
Because think about it….if we are all paying a flat rate, what incentive do I have to conserve?  Not wasting water is not going to bring me any monetary advantage.  And there’s always that feeling that it’s not going to have any effect on the big picture — especially when we’re sure that our neighbours are not doing their bit. Having a meter reminds us all that higher usage means higher payments.
Vancouver has plans to be the Greenest City in the world by 2020. Maybe that means green colour, as in well-watered lawns.  The plan does not include water meters on all residences and businesses.  Instead, they are hoping a stern talking to and short-term incentives will lead to conservation
incentives and programs Low-flow toilets, rain sensors for sprinkler systems, and water meters are some of the many technologies that can improve water efficiency in homes and businesses. This strategy includes actions such as incentive and retrofit programs to install these tools in new and existing buildings.
Even though water consumption is down over the past 10 years, this story in Friday’s Vancouver Sun shows — 40% in West Vancouver which has universal metering, 16% in Vancouver;
  Vancouver uses more water per capita than communities such as Surrey and Maple Ridge
In Richmond, BC, the plan is for ALL homes to have meters by 2018. Vernon, BC also has water meters on all their homes. Most major cities around the world have universal water metering.
Right now the Vancouver area is in the middle of an unusually dry summer. We didn’t have those customary heavy rains in June to replenish our reservoirs.  Plus the unusually dry winter meant that there was no snow pack on the local mountains to fill the reservoirs in the first place.    Water restrictions are currently in place (no watering your lawn!  No power washing!) but many experts feel that it’s too little and too late to avoid a serious water shortage by the end of the season.
In the long run it doesn’t matter so much about the amount of precipitation we get (Tofino, one of the wettest places on earth, suffers from periodic water shortages) as it does the amount we can store.  Currently we have adequate storage for the city if we maintain average precipitation and everyone conserves as best we can.  The city is expecting to grow significantly over the next 20 years.  Metering water is one way we have to monitor and control the amount we use as our community grows.

Where — and how — do you want to live

When DH and I began planning our laneway we started by looking around at what was familiar to us.   We had a pretty conventionally designed condo, two beds and two baths,  and we couldn’t get around the idea that we were going to be living in less than half the space we had.  We thought about what we would lose, not what we would gain.

We looked at how other people were downsizing and building laneways, we saw what we liked and what we didn’t like.  And gradually it dawned on us that we shouldn’t just look at how other people live, or how we USED to live, we should look forward, to how we WANTED to live.  We let our imaginations go a little.  We didn’t just want an average house that had been shrunk, we wanted a new plan for us that would lead to a whole new life.  We knew there would be sacrifices (Like “space”.  And “things”.) But in the end we had exactly what we wanted.

There was no way to imagine at the beginning of the journey how it would end. And how it would change our lives.

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Among many other advantages our new life has given us is that we drive less and take transit more often. And we like it. When the car was available down a flight of stairs we used it all the time — whenever we went down town or out for dinner or over to the kids.  Even though transit was right there we didn’t even think about it, we had a car!  Why not use it?

But now we take transit all the time.  I take the 99 Express to work.  It takes a little more time than driving, but I read or knit, and there’s no problem getting a seat because I’m at the end of the line (both ends of the line).  We take transit down town, it’s less than half an hour and we don’t have to worry about parking.  We get down to Granville Island without going through the Hell that is finding parking on a sunny Saturday. If we want to take in a Night Market we can zip out to Richmond or take the Sea Bus to North Vancouver.  All in all Translink is a pretty good system.

So when Translink wanted to expand we were enthusiastically supportive.  Even when the Provincial Government said that the local governments would have to raise their share through a sales tax hike (.5%) we said yes.  But the Provincial Government wanted it put to a referendum; we said yes — but 62% of the region said no.

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I was pretty steamed. Although I could also understand it.  It’s the old problem of trying to see the end of the journey from where you are now (comfortably behind the wheel of your car).

Others were also frustrated.  Peter Ladner in Business in Vancouver pointed out it was a pretty dumb idea in the first place (or as he put it more elegantly “Determining complex funding and planning issues with a single yes-no vote is an abysmal surrender of political leadership.”) Follow the link, he points out other lessons learned through the referendum process. Hard, nasty lessons, but lessons all the same.

But it was a column by Peter McMartin that put all my inchoate rage into a coherent verbal form. Read the whole thing, please, but for me this is the key issue:

The questions pile up. But the most perceptive question was one I heard in a conversation with Gordon Price, director of Simon Fraser University’s City program. To him, the plebiscite asked a question much more philosophical than yea or nay to a transit tax.

“To me,” Price said, “it was an existential question.

“It asked Metro Vancouverites, ‘Who are we?’ ”

Read more: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Pete+McMartin+real+Vancouver+emerges+from+ruins+plebiscite/11187386/story.html#ixzz3fF1TYKXt

I have to agree with Peter McMartin that Vancouver is currently nothing special.  We’re in a lovely natural setting.  But we’re not living up to our reputation as innovative and free-thinking nature-lovers.  We just can’t imagine our lives without cars.

I want you to do it — to imagine your life with a dependable transit system that can take you all over the Lower Mainland.  Cheaply.  Easily. No congestion. Freeways with smoothly-running traffic from Horseshoe Bay to Hope.   Doing your shopping by hopping on and off the Broadway Skytrain.  Taking the family to the beach or the park on the bus.  No parking problems.  Less pollution.

Or how about this?  Using a service like ZipCar or Car 2 Go in combination with Transit.  Giving up the ownership of a vehicle that sits parked 90% of the time for greater freedom of mobility. Answering the question of Who are we? with “we’re the people with vision, we ARE the future, we embrace change for the better and accept the inevitability of the end of the automotive age. We are part of that change.”

Otherwise those of us who use transit will be forced to use a less reliable form of transportation:

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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?

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.

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.

Leaky condos part III – a problem risen from the dead

I’ve told you about our experience with leaky condos.  And how the leaky condo catastrophe came about.  But the question now is “Why is this a problem NOW?”

LeakyCondo2

It’s ba-ack!

Because until now, strata councils who run condominium buildings could avoid submitting depreciation reports.  As this story in the Vancouver Sun succinctly puts it:

Lax maintenance has been a long-standing issue for stratas, according to Tony Gioventu, executive director of the Condominium Homeowners Association of B.C., “hence the evolution of the introduction of depreciation reports.”

The province made a depreciation report a requirement of the Strata Property Act in 2011. It contains a detailed assessment of a condo building’s condition, and a schedule for when major components, including its exterior, would need repair.

“Depreciation reports are forcing strata corporations to acknowledge what they have, and forcing them into planning (for repairs),” Gioventu said in an interview.

The requirement was enacted in 2011, but wasn’t put in force until last December to give B.C.’s 30,000 strata corporations time to commission the reports.

When we left our condominium last year the strata council was preparing to create a depreciation report.  It would cost time and trouble, and of course, money, but they knew what the report would say — that the building was well-maintained and had undergone rain screening in 2000, that it had a new roof and would last for many years.

Many, many condo buildings were updated and repaired and will, with proper maintenance, provide safe and comfortable housing for decades to come. And depreciation reports are necessary for all condo buildings, regardless of whether they have had leaks or were repaired and kept up.  It provides a good background on the building, and if you are hoping to sell your condo it is a great asset to show the prospective buyers and their mortgage provider.

According to this story from Daphne Bramham in the Vancouver Sun,

By Dec. 14, 2013, strata corporations must have 30-year depreciation plans that indicate when major infrastructure will need to be replaced, what the maintenance schedules are and the expected cost of each item. The plans must be updated every three years so that owners and potential buyers will have a realistic glimpse of what lies ahead.

So it appears that the problem is solved.  Those condo building who have not kept up their regular (or emergency) repairs will quickly fix everything, and the home owners and future buyers will be sure that the building is sound.

Nope.  Not quite that easy.  There are several reasons why this is a crisis for some condominium owners.

1. Playing by the old rules

When you live in a strata building you pay maintenance fees every month.  These pay for the general upkeep of the building, the shared costs for the gardening, garbage, etc.  But a portion of those fees go into a contingency fund — money set aside for big expenses.  Repairing the garage.  Replacing the boiler.  Stuff that comes up once in a while that you really can’t budget for.  But until 2009 there was a restriction on how large a contingency fund could be.  So even if you convinced the owners to pay an extra, say, $300 a month in maintenance fees to pay for a new roof that would be needed in 20 years (and good luck with that), you simply weren’t allowed to.  So to pay for these really big repairs you need a special assessment.

2. The 3/4 rule

You need three-quarters of the owners of the suites in any strata corporation to agree to any special assessments.  In our old strata building, these special assessments passed rather easily.  A new roof costs this much.  Your share is this much.  Vote.  And we all agreed that we wanted the building to be maintained and we voted yes.  Then we coughed up our share.  I thought that was the way all stratas were run.  But it’s not.  There were 14 suites in our building.  If just four owners voted against the assessment we would not have gotten a new roof.  We were lucky that everyone was on the same side in this issue.  That there were no internal feuds that played out, that people had enough money to contribute.

But if you lived in a strata where people did not want to fix the whole building, where they tried to patch up little problems that turned into big problems, or where they just could not afford to pay those large assessments, your day of reckoning is at hand.

3. The money

At one time, leaky condo strata corporations could avail themselves of an interest-free loan run through the B.C. Homeowner Protection Office.  That program ended in 2009 after 11 years.  So if your problems didn’t show up until after then, or you couldn’t convince your neighbours that they needed to fix the entire building, you will have to find another way to finance that big, big repair bill.  Now.  Before the depreciation report.

4. The market

The insane Vancouver housing market applies to all condo owners — not just those in Coal Harbour luxury penthouses.  For what it costs to move into a two-bedroom 25-year-old condo in the area you could have a very nice detached home in Edmonton or Saskatoon.  So that often means people in those 25-year-old condos are already paying hefty mortgage payments, plus their monthly maintenance payments.  Some people are on fixed incomes, retired or on disability.   They simply cannot afford the extra costs those repairs would require.   And all these people will be quite hooped, one way or another.

They have to repair their homes, but can’t afford to repair their homes, but can’t sell their un-repaired homes and move anywhere else.

So there you have it.  A problem we thought had just gone away was hiding, like that nasty piece of mould on the inside of a wall, just waiting to spread and eat up your life savings.

 

 

Leaky condos part II – why oh why?

In my previous post, I quoted a Vancouver Sun article on leaky condos.  Years after we thought the problem was gone, it’s back.  Like a bad rash, or in this case, a pernicious mould.

Why are so many Vancouver condos prone to leaking?

Well, into the WayBack machine, to see what life was like in Vancouver in the late 80s.

Expo 86 had really moved the city along.  The nightlife was bouncy, with live-music venues downtown and in Gastown.  New bylaws were made to loosen up the liquor laws — we were a fun town!  And the Vancouver Canucks were pinning their hopes on young Jim Benning.

Jim_Benning

Deja vu

 

All this activity meant more people were moving to the city, and that put pressure on current housing stock.  So in the years 1982 through the early 1990’s, the city encouraged a new-fangled type of housing that Vancouver hadn’t seen before — condos.

Vancouver had apartments since the beginning, but they were usually built specifically for rental.  Apartment ownership in a strata corporation was a new thing.  At first it meant existing buildings “going condo” – selling their suites to the tenants.  In those halcyon days you could purchase a condo for about $40K — a nice one, too.  Then zoning changes meant that residential homes in neighbourhoods like Kitsilano and around City Hall could be replaced by condominiums.

So we had a situation where there was a high demand for this housing — plus land to build it on.  What could possibly go wrong?

1. The climate — damp – ish

Vancouver gets 1153.1 mm of rain per year, about double that of that notoriously rainy city, London. Nearly twice as much as San Francisco, California.  I put this at the top of the list because it’s really something that should determine everything else.  But it seems to have been ignored by everyone all through the process of building these leaky condos.

2. Regulations – no good deed goes unpunished

The Canadian Building Code altered their rules to increase the sealing of exterior walls.  That meant that in the dry cold of a Saskatchewan winter, the sealed walls would keep the cold out and the warm in.  Great in Saskatchewan — but the rule meant that whatever entered the exterior — heat or moisture — would be trapped inside.

The City of Vancouver changed their regulations to include eaves and overhangs in the allowable floor space.  There was therefore a penalty to having a wide roof overhang.  Much better to build right to the outside of the allowable limit, with no overhang at all! Also the floor space was measured from the outside of the exterior wall — not the inside.  So thinner walls were encouraged.

To reiterate:  the buildings would have to be air-tight, but not protected from any precipitation.

3. Design — let’s borrow from the neighbours

Vancouver needed a new type of building — a three or four storey apartment building that would incorporate modern building techniques and style.  We hadn’t seen this style of building in the area — but California had!

CaliforniaCondo

Arched windows!  Lots of parapets, changing roof lines, open walkways!  Very little roof overhang.  And all wrapped up in stucco.  It was better than modern — it was Post Modern!

We liked it!  We built it!  We bought it!

A design that was originally fashioned for a place with half our annual rainfall.

4. Construction — new materials because — progress

Lots of Vancouver buildings are covered in stucco.  Good old-fashioned cement stucco.  But now there was something new and improved — exterior insulation finishing system (or EIFS).  It seals the exterior, just like the Canadian Building Code requires.  And you can put it smack against the sheathing, for which they used that new stuff, fibreboard.   Putting the EIFS right on the fibreboard reduced the thickness of the walls, which meant that the City of Vancouver measurements from the outside of the exterior walls would not reduce the size of the floor space within the suites.

5. Builders – the more the merrier

The demand for housing was there.  The materials were there.  The design was there.  All you needed was someone to put it together.  And companies sprung up like, well, mushrooms.  Reputable builders were booked up months or even years in advance.  So less-than-reputable builders stepped into the breech.  Also, builders and developers would form a new company for each project.  When the project was finished, the company would just dissolve.  Into thin air. Inspectors were overworked and often not familiar with the new designs and the new building materials.

6. Owners — what’s that smell?

New condominiums sold just as they were supposed to — like deceptively constructed hotcakes.  They were lovely to look at.  And for some time they were fine.  It takes a few years for those interesting roof lines and arched windows to let water through that impervious exterior into the fibreboard that soaks it up. It takes a bit longer for those sodden boards to start moulding and rotting.  Then problems apppear.

Then it took a few years for strata boards to realize that the leak in 4A and the saggy balcony on 2C were related.  The building was disintegrating from the outside in.  And there was only one answer — ripping off the entire exterior and replacing it with rain screening. And that took money.  Money from the owners.

The company that had constructed it didn’t exist any more.  The New Home Warranty only covered buildings constructed after 1999.

Some strata boards faced the problem head on.  Like the board in our old building they rain screened their homes, absorbed the cost, and kept their places from deteriorating. They were the smart ones.

Many of the buildings ones that did not rain screen around 2000 did it in the subsequent years, and they had to pay much higher costs because construction costs have shot up in the past decade.

But there were others….who have not fared so well.  And they may be about to bid farewell to their life’s savings.

More on that in Part III

 

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