New direction in housing policies needed
OPINION: Renovating existing homes can accommodate growth
By Elizabeth Murphy, Vancouver Sun, August 31, 2019
Artist’s rendering of a 14-storey tower proposed at Broadway and Alma St.
For a decade, the top issue in Vancouver has been housing affordability. Yet every policy response from the City of Vancouver has not improved the situation, in fact making it progressively worse. We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. That is the definition of insanity.
Ending homelessness has not been achieved and has increased by multiples. The contagion spread to price out almost every income bracket. The exponential growth and supply economics has proven to be a dismal failure as the older more affordable housing is demolished and replaced with new, more expensive stock. Yet we see these policies continue to play out as history repeats itself.
In the Great Recession of winter 2009, Vancouver’s new Vision council was dealing with most large condo developments being cancelled. Many developers were considering building rentals instead of condos since the market was entirely stalled for strata.
Then-mayor Gregor Robertson was looking to partner with the development industry on rental housing. This was the first evolution of the Vision rental incentive programs called Short Term Incentives for Rental (STIR).
Ironically, this was initiated through industry consultation in a graveyard. So began the death of liveable Vancouver.
A large meeting was held with the biggest players of the development and real estate industry at the city-owned Mountain View Cemetery’s just completed architectural modernist crematorium. Only a few token “others” were invited, including myself.
Driving up the heavily guarded graveyard roadways that were lined with luxury cars, it was an indication of what to expect at the meeting. The industry attendees had their calculators out and directly demanded that the city officials get to the point. How much of a density and height bonus was the city prepared to approve?
The resulting STIR program created large controversial projects such as 1401 Comox St. in the West End and the Rize at Broadway and Kingsway. These and other STIR projects were grossly out of scale with the surrounding communities.
In January 2012, then-director of planning Brent Toderian, outlined the problems with the STIR program: huge height and density increases of mostly strata condos were used to secure very few rental units; waived amenity contributions; and STIR rents were high.
The program was then cancelled and replaced with the Secured Market Rental Housing Policy, and Rental 100. This would be 100-per-cent rental and limited to six storeys, but generally still out of scale with surrounding areas, with waived amenity contributions and unaffordable rents.
The high rents from these programs have inflated market rents generally and also set precedents for land inflation, with increased development expectations in surrounding areas.
Then in 2018, in the dying days of the Vision council, they initiated another rental program to attempt to include affordable rents. The Moderate Income Rental Housing Program (MIRHP) is currently being carried forward by the city under the new council.
MIRHP is a pilot for 20 rental projects that gives large density and height incentives, similar in scale to STIR, except that 20 per cent of the rental units must be affordable for moderate incomes. The controversial projects include the 28-storeys at Birch and Broadway and 14 storeys at Alma and Broadway. These would set huge precedents for built scale in their areas and the upcoming Broadway Corridor plan for the subway.
Mayor Kennedy Stewart has followed in Robertson’s footsteps in calls to partner with the development industry to build rentals. He has been meeting with developers. The projects will soon be coming forward for council consideration.
Partnering with the industry is not compatible with the city’s responsibility to regulate development and will not likely create affordability, given the industry’s motivation for profit.
For below-market affordable rental units, we need provincial and federal funding. Co-op housing programs should be reinstated. Social and supportive housing is essential. But don’t expect the development industry “partners” to reasonably deliver meaningful affordability as the last decade has demonstrated.
To set a new direction, the first step is to stop the current programs that are only making matters worse. The new pilot program should not proceed since it is going backwards by giving away too much for too little benefit, with problematic precedents. This is no way to go into a city-wide plan process.
Instead, we need to avoid further demolition of liveable homes for new, more expensive units. Protecting the older, more affordable housing stock and doing more with it is the low-hanging fruit that we need to do first. This includes not just character houses but also older apartments, such as in the C2 commercial zones that currently have no protections.
Even if half of the 60,000 lots in the RS zone added an average of one unit over the next decade, that could be 30,000 new units without much disruptive change or displacement. Based on recent historical rates of population growth, that would more than cover the required 26,000 units, without including all the additional major projects currently in the pipeline.
Unlike condos, secondary suite income from detached housing can be added to employment income to make housing ownership more affordable. Older houses, even on the west side, can be bought for under $1,000 per square foot. But in many new buildings, condos go for double or more that rate, without any potential for rental income.
More needs to be done to incentivize retention of character houses since they provide an opportunity in Vancouver that few other municipalities have. Most of the city was built pre-world-war, so it is based on old-growth wood construction that is easily adaptable to multiple secondary suites that allow flexibility for use and rental income for mortgage helpers.
Demolition of the older stock also greatly increases the city’s ecological footprint. We can produce more rentals by doing more with what we have.
A 2018 study by University of B.C. architecture professor Joseph Dahmen concludes, “it can take years before the embodied greenhouse gas emissions associated with new construction are offset by more efficient operations. The average carbon dioxide emission payback period of 168 years for a typical high-efficiency new home renders it unlikely that emission savings will be realized before it is replaced….”
New wood-frame buildings are generally made of engineered, glue-based wood, concrete floor-topping and in-floor heat that is much more difficult to adapt to more units later so are not as flexible or resilient as the older stock they replaced. This means the new builds will likely be replaced quicker, rather than the older stock that now approaches 100 years old, far less than the 168 years required to realize energy savings from new construction.
Although recent changes to the RS zones of 60,000 properties city-wide were changed to add incentives for retention of pre-1940 character houses with more units, the vast majority of applications to date have continued to be for the demolition of older homes for new construction. The changes have not been adequate.
The building codes and permitting process need to change to make renovations more viable, and a shift of the city bias from a main focus on new construction. The mountain of wood chips on Kent Avenue from demolished character houses, much of which will be burned as biofuel, is not sustainable nor affordable.
Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and was formerly a property development officer for the City of Vancouver’s housing and properties department and for B.C. Housing. firstname.lastname@example.org
Vancouver Sun Print Edition – Saturday August 31, 2019 – page H2
Copyright Elizabeth Murphy 2019 all rights reserved.