Opinion: Retaining our character and heritage homes must be a priority
By Elizabeth Murphy, Special to The Vancouver Sun September 14, 2015
Elizabeth Murphy believes that Vancouver needs a balance of incentives to encourage retention that is fair to homeowners, so that home like the Walkem house can be preserved. Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann , Vancouver Sun
To their credit, the city of Vancouver has been working on a heritage action plan. Although Shaughnessy has a moratorium on demolitions until a heritage conservation area is established, character houses continue to be demolished at a record rate across the city. It is critical that measures are put in place soon to protect heritage and character homes before this important housing stock is further depleted.
However, the devil is in the details. We need a balance of incentives to encourage retention that is fair to homeowners. There are ways this can be done. The city has many tools it can use, but the city also needs support from senior governments.
In addition to enhancing neighbourhood character and livability, retention of character and heritage homes aligns with the city’s stated goals of sustainability, affordability and family housing.
The best way to divert waste from the landfill is to adaptively reuse buildings. Less new material is used for a renovation than for new development. It therefore has a much lower environmental footprint.
The existing older character and heritage housing stock is generally valued at close to land value. Renovation provides an opportunity for owners to add sweat equity to adapt to current needs at a relatively modest cost.
With incentives such as rental suites for mortgage helpers or extended family, this can provide economic advantages over owning a single strata unit. New houses are typically twice as expensive as the older stock.
When reviewing the single family (RS) zones, it should be kept in mind that there is no such thing as real single family zoning in the city. Now every RS lot can have up to three units; the main house, a secondary suite and a laneway house. This just needs to be rebalanced as an incentive to retain the character and heritage houses over demolition and new development.
Also, the RS zones are non-strata rental zones. There are a huge number of secondary suites across the city, mostly in the older character houses; these are some of Vancouver’s most affordable housing. If strata is allowed in RS zones this rental stock could be lost. Although strata can work well in some areas, this should be very selectively applied.
The RS zones are the city’s current family housing zone. They have the majority of the larger family sized units.
The older stock is more adaptable and can be further improved by adding another secondary suite as a mortgage helper when character houses are retained. This would give families the option of having more mortgage helpers when they need it when they first purchase; it could also allow for the family to take over more of the house as they need it; or rent out more as they downsize and need less.
Retention provides options for owners to age in place while still providing more rental housing.
Rebalancing the RS zones to incentivize retaining character and heritage houses offers an opportunity to meet many of the city’s policy objectives. As many character houses as possible should be retained covering these zones. Currently the Heritage Action Plan is only looking at RS3 and RS5. This only covers nine per cent of the 68,282 lots in the RS zones. RS1 in particular should be considered as a priority, since it covers most of the city.
For instance, the West Point Grey Community Vision was approved by council in 2010. Retaining heritage and character buildings was highly approved by the neighbourhood-wide city survey at 82 per cent and 76 per cent respectively, and included as directions in the community plan. Multi-family conversion dwellings to retain character houses was also highly supported. But because West Point Grey is zoned RS1 it is not part of the current RS review even though it is also being hit hard by demolitions.
In 2009 a number of critical changes were made to RS zones. Increases were made to square footage FSR and building height, while design guidelines were effectively eliminated from conditional zones. This resulted in much larger new house development, lower quality design that doesn’t fit in, and increased demolitions. Allowing laneway housing as an outright option with new houses, rather than as an incentive to retain heritage and character further added to the incentive for demolition. These problematic zoning changes should be reconsidered and rectified.
The current proposals for the Shaughnessy Heritage Conservation Area have a number of incentives for retention. However, it is important that a proper economic balance is achieved in fairness to current owners. Unfortunately, because of the impending end to the demolition moratorium, extending the public hearing to make further changes may be impractical. If that is the case, the city should order a review with a report back to council within six months of zoning approval to propose further amendments. One thing for reconsideration might be to allow exemptions from FSR for basements only in retention options rather than new development. Another amendment could require full basements to the size of the main floor footprint to encourage less bulk and smaller footprints.
In addition to property tax incentives for the city to consider, the federal government could provide support to the city.
Since part of the incentives for retention could be conversion for more than one secondary suite or a laneway house, it would be advantageous to make changes to capital gains taxes to allow this without penalty to the principle residence exemption as long as the owner occupied the main unit. This way there is an incentive for producing more rentals rather than just building monster houses that are left empty.
The federal government could also resurrect the former RRAP program under CMHC that previously provided grants for low income homeowners to help upgrade older character homes for maintenance and safety. These included roofs, drainage, electrical, fire exits and the like.
There are many options that could be considered to incentivize retention of heritage and character buildings. Getting on with this work is essential before there is nothing left to save, as the city becomes overwhelmed by demolitions and empty monster houses that make Vancouver less livable, affordable or sustainable.
Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and was formerly a property development officer for the City of Vancouver’s housing & properties department and for BC Housing.