With the recent announcements from the province identifying ten municipalities to be focused on in terms of increasing housing supply under the umbrella of the Housing Supply Act (HSA), Vancouver was front and center, along with four other Metro area cities, Delta, Port Moody, District of West Vancouver, and District of North Vancouver. As discussed in last week’s MMB, the province will be working directly with this first group of cities to adopt a clear direction to meet housing supply targets that are going to be prescribed by the province in the coming days, with other groups of municipalities to follow.
Through the HSA, BC Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon has demonstrated a clear commitment to seeking increased density particularly in single-family zones adjacent to transit corridors by installing a blanket approval for 4-6 homes that can be developed on any single-family lot across the province. Our urban land area is typically in the range of 75-80% dedicated exclusively to single-family homes, which has led to severe shortages of supply and the resulting escalation of costs.
Increased density along transit corridors is a well-established concept that has manifested along the Cambie corridor, and in Coquitlam alongside the Evergreen Skytrain line and will also be established as transit service is extended into the Fraser Valley, as well as being proposed in the Broadway plan. I noticed while driving through Vancouver over the weekend that nodes of higher density along transit and major arterial routes are literally surrounded by seas of single detached homes that are within a stone’s throw of downtown. In other “world-class cities” that increase in density does not end half a block from transit and arterials, but forms most of our urban fabric.
While change is truly the only constant, fear of change is right there too, and while the need to dramatically increase our housing supply is now almost universally recognized, the reluctance to embrace what that entails might impede and or cause such efforts to fall short. On June 7, an announcement from Minister Kahlon regarding a 258-unit purpose-built rental development at Broadway and Birch was disrupted by representatives of a group called the Vancouver Tenants Union, who decried what they see as the potential for as much as 25% of existing rental being demolished, displacing thousands of families, and that officials are out of touch with the needs of renters.
The project in question displaces no one as it is being built on the former Denny’s site, it provides 58 units targeted to households earning less than $80K per annum, with the balance directed to household incomes up to $170K, and the project represents the cooperative efforts of the province, Vancouver, and the developer Jameson Development Corp. The activists spoke of hundreds of people who if displaced could not afford to remain in the neighbourhood. This is in the face of some of the most stringent renter protection and caveats to accommodate displaced renters under the Broadway Plan that will create thousands of below-market, rental, and market homes in conjunction with retail and commercial uses to support this additional housing.
It begs the question that if initiatives to create more diverse affordable homes are opposed at every turn how can we “get there from here?” In a blog presented by Happy Cities, it is argued that increasing density in a measured and sensitive manner can enhance our collective wellbeing and contribute to happier and healthier urban design. This opportunity though can only be realized by ensuring that densification includes a complete picture including transit, jobs, shops, and services.
The goal of creating the sought-after “walkable neighbourhood” requires density in order for residents to fulfill their daily needs close to where they live and numbers are required to support shops, and services, and justify transit, parks, and community services while reducing car dependency, and building low impact more efficient homes. Happy Cities touches on three key issues that contribute to ensuring increasing density will yield positive results.
These three issues are ensuring we build complete communities offering all of the noted services and supports, that we need to expand housing choices “… allowing for diverse types of attainable, affordable housing and compact communities that meet local needs…”, and “cities should encourage and offer diverse housing and ownership models that meet people’s unique needs, including housing for seniors and older adults, culturally distinct communities, intergenerational residents, people with disabilities, people on low or fixed incomes, and more.”
Municipalities need to encourage the provision of healthier designs in multi-unit social units and mixed-use development that draws people into the community with shared amenities, open space, and access to the things they need. The City of North Vancouver has been at the forefront of such efforts and has established its Active Design Guidelines that define “… Active Design … an approach to the development of buildings that uses architecture and urban planning to make daily physical activity more inviting, and to encourage social interaction in new multi-family development.” The Shipyards area in Lower Lansdale is a great example of these principles in real-time.
The need to increase density though must extend into the fabric of our urban centers on a broader basis and in line with the HAS. Pre-dating its release, the City of Vancouver has been working on policies to revise zoning in single-family areas to also allow for 4-6 units per lot since December of 2021. With extensive public, and industry engagement that included survey results including:
Strong overall support for the proposed changes:
- 77% agree multiplexes should be allowed in all low-density areas
- 60% agree with reducing the max. size of new houses
- 80% agree with increasing the max. size of new laneway houses
- 74% agree with removing design guidelines, standardizing regulations, and reducing the number of RS zones
Many respondents liked:
- Multiplexes provide gentle densification and more housing options
- Promotes livability, walkability, and neighbourhood vibrancy
- Simpler rules and processes that speed up construction, reduce costs, allow design flexibility, and apply equitably in all neighbourhoods
Some respondents were concerned about:
- Compatibility with neighbourhood character
- Affordability for lower-income households, fairness of below-market ownership
- Impacts on infrastructure, parking, and trees
There are other issues touched on in the linked power point from the City and these responses and input from industry have resulted in draft policies that are soon to be presented to Council and developed into new by-laws. The City will be hosting an information session later this week and there is much to unpack but per updates published on May 18, 2023, the cornerstone of the considerations for Multiplex Housing are:
- 3 to 6 units (8 units for rental)
- 1.0 FSR if: Density charge collected, or Below-market unit provided, or All units secured as rental
- 3 storeys
- Focus on family-size units
- All above-grade or basement
- Low or no on-site car parking
The final details are still pending from the City of Vancouver, and these will surely influence the forthcoming regulations the province will roll out later this summer or early fall and that is why we need to pay attention here.
In the same vein, Sightlines published an article presented by Daniel Oleksiuk, and HAVAN member Byrn Davidson, principal of Lanefab and an accomplished builder of laneway homes. They argue that the City’s proposals do not go far enough. Laneway homes were approved in 2009 and since then over 4500 have been built with another 4000 on the horizon through 2028. Despite almost half of all new builds or major renovations including a laneway home, this “affordable alternative” has seen serious increases in cost to produce and cost to secure, suggesting it is coming on as ‘too little, too late.” The slow rollout and time required for approval could not contend with demand and hence the impact was not as dramatic as it could have been.
The thesis being presented by Oleksiuk and Davidson is that between the provincial and municipal programs, we need to capitalize on more, as much as possible, as fast as possible, and there are five key points made to achieve this end:
- Make it dense—build up, not out.
- Make it affordable.
- Make it fast.
- Do it everywhere.
- Make it accessible.
The article provides examples of multiplex units of up to eight units on a single-family lot, but the big issues are height and Floor Space Ratio (FSR). The Vancouver plan establishes a max FSR of 1.0 pending conditions and a base of 0.7 to 0.86 with enhanced performance. As illustrated with numerous 3D images of potential multiplex opportunities on the very types of lots being considered, it is proposed that a max of 5 stories and FSR of 2.0 would create substantively more homes and create the opportunity to offer a much more diverse range of choices including 3-bedroom units.
The illustrations are very well evolved, and by including existing architectural forms and massing, demonstrate that even at the maximum potential scale character can be preserved. This effort to apply gentle density will roll out much the same as laneway homes – slowly and organically, but if we wish to truly move the needle it must be affected in a timely manner as possible with approvals and mechanisms such as pre-approved designs adopted to expedite the process. The example of the Grandview-Woodlands plan that was approved in 2016 is cited in the report, to accommodate as many as 10,000 new residents, but the population of this area has declined due to multi-layered and complex processes that choked progress and inhibited opportunities.
At this time, it is feared that even with the progressive initiatives being considered failure to lift these initiatives to realize the highest possible potential will mean falling short of the goal of more homes, faster, for less. Affordability is the lens that we must use to evaluate these efforts and we need to ensure the path that leads to maximum potential in the most cost-effective manner. It is proposed that Passive House be the standard to be applied but Net Zero is arriving at similar performance goals for much less cost.
Considerations around hydro capacity and or energy sources should also be carefully considered to ensure the most affordable and effective outcomes.
The proposals being offered will be highlighted this week by the City are a positive step in the right direction but could go further to maximize the provision of homes, increase diversity and choice, pay attention to true affordability, and contribute to achieving the “happy density” and “walkable nieghbourhoods” we would like to see. HAVAN has participated in and provided comments to the city and the provincial task group that reflect these ideas, and we will continue to push for the best possible outcomes to serve the best interests of our communities.
HAVAN continues to work with CHBA BC and CHBA to advocate for all levels of government to work together to address the challenges of the housing industry including zoning restrictions, density limits, and NIMBYism.
Looking to stay up-to-date on Metro Vancouver’s residential housing industry? Sign up for Ron’s weekly Monday Morning Briefing and other HAVAN emails here.
QUICK BITES …
- A piece from Buildings highlights a common theme regarding government charges in an article entitled “Are Canadian Governments a Vampire in Housing Affordability?”
- Picking up on the theme of the “lens of affordability” this article discusses the potential collision of our goals to double our housing supply output and meet our much-needed efforts to offset the impact on climate.
- Discussions and workshops are ongoing in regard to the province championing the “digital permitting” across the province including a 6-hour meeting taking place today that HAVAN is participating in. In this piece we hear of the efforts extended in Kelowna to introduce AI to the approvals process that could lead to a 30% plus reduction in turnaround times.
- This piece highlights changes being introduced to immigration policy that will focus on prioritizing candidates that can fill the gap in our needs for skilled tradespeople, and ensuring those newcomers can help meet our industry-wide labour shortage, and offset retirements.
- BC Housings New Homes Registry April Report is out highlighting housing activity in BC.
- Mental Health is an important topic for everyone and one that impacts your company’s bottom line. Sign up for HAVAN’s morning session ‘Let’s Talk Mental Health in the Construction Industry‘ scheduled for tomorrow, June 13, from 8am – 11:30am (doors open at 7>30am), and take this opportunity to empower yourself and strengthen your company’s role in supporting the health and wellbeing of your employees. Keynote speaker, Corey Hirsch, former NHL Canucks player, together with a line-up of engaging speakers will have a real conversation about mental health in the construction industry, its commonality, understanding perspectives, and responsibilities for both employers and employees, with resources shared to ensure members have the tools and strategies to support mental wellness in the workplace. Sign up here.