Low-to middle-income housing still a challenge

Mayor's task force has issued some 'quick-start' recommendations, but still has work to do

By Bob Ransford, Special to The Sun March 17, 2012

Jake Fry of Smallworks is a pioneer of laneway housing in Vancouver.

Jake Fry of Smallworks is a pioneer of laneway housing in Vancouver.


Photograph by: Mark Van Manen, PNG , Special to The Sun


The Mayor's Task Force on Housing Affordability in Vancouver has begun to tackle the challenge of finding ways to provide more housing for low-to middle-income households in the city.

Barely a month after being appointed, the 16-member task force this week issued its first progress report containing a few key "quick start" recommendations that are focused on spurring the approval of some new housing supply.

The task force is focusing its efforts on low-to middle-income earners - those with individual household incomes of $21,500 to those with combined household incomes of up to $86,500 annually.

They believe this will capture a number of different market segments, including lower-income singles and couples looking for rental accommodation they can afford, modest income couples struggling to buy their first home, families with children who want to live in the city rather than have to move to the suburbs, and seniors wanting to downsize while remaining in their neighbourhoods.

It is interesting to look at what a couple earning a combined $86,500 can afford to buy with today's current interest rates. Assuming they would have saved enough to be able to make a down payment of 10 per cent and that they would qualify for a mort-gage where the mortgage payments and taxes would not exceed one-third of their income, they would be able to afford a home priced around $500,000.

The February Real Estate Board's benchmark selling price for all residential properties in Greater Vancouver was $670,900. For detached housing, that price was $1,042,900. Supplying homes for those households that earn up to $86,500 is not an easy challenge.

The task force's first set of recommendations focus on expediting applications for new market housing development targeted to low-to middle-income earner.

The quick start recommendations also focus on bringing some more clarity to policies in the Cambie Corridor Plan to ensure that they trans-late into actual new development. The city's land-use plan for the stretch of Cambie from 16th Avenue to Marine Drive has opened up new areas of the city for a fair amount of transit-oriented development, including rental housing required as a part of the new zonings. However, 10 months after the plan was adopted, not a single project has been approved.

These recommendations came rather quickly, but they only brush the surface of the issue in terms of increasing housing supply to a level where the supply-demand curve will actually start to permanently warp in favour of buyers looking for afford-able housing options in Vancouver. It was encouraging to see task force co-chair Olga Ilich quoted as saying that the task force would be talking a lot about "gently densifying neighbourhoods." This is where the work of the task force can make a real difference.

Making housing affordable for modest income earners will require much more housing supply and a diversity of housing types. Not everyone wants to live in a highrise condominium apartment or in an apartment above retail on a busy main street.

Gentle density needs to be introduced to Vancouver's single-family neighbourhoods. Laneway housing was the beginning of a creative approach to small density increases in residential neighbourhoods. Other even more creative ideas are now being looked at, just in time to perhaps be considered during the next stage of work by the Mayor's Task Force.

Smallworks' Jake Fry, who is the pioneer of laneway housing in Vancouver, recently convened a group of architects, developers, builders and residents to explore some ideas that might one day allow homeowners to redevelop their own residential lots, introducing some additional housing units with a form and character that could be compatible within the single-family neighbourhood pattern.

With this kind of flexibility, homeowners become the developer; they use their own equity in their home as financial leverage and they create some additional "gentle" density that might be in the form of housing types that are in short supply - housing types that would be in the reach of modest income earners - and housing types that are what's called "ground-oriented", with their own outdoor entrances like a house.

One idea that is being explored is either permitting the conversion of an existing home on a standard 33-foot lot or building a new structure that would accommodate two basement suites of 560 square feet each, two two-storey duplex homes of 1,120 square feet each and a laneway building with a small 400-square-foot studio on the main floor and a townhouse in two storeys above with 1,290 square feet. That means doubling the dwelling count to six homes from three homes on a single-family lot, which is currently per-mitted with a primary residence a secondary suite and a laneway house. This would bring affordable housing and housing choice through land-use efficiency and creative design.

Another design idea that is being explored would see eight units on a 50-foot-wide single-family lot, all in a form not that much different than the massing of the typical house plus a laneway house, with the addition of another laneway house.

These ideas and others require creative design and some compromises, such as reductions in front and rear yard setbacks, parking reductions and some modest height reductions. They aren't ideas that will work in every block and every neighbourhood. Adding density to corner lots is easier, for example, than adding density to a mid-block single-family lot.

These are all ideas that need to be explored, refined and adopted for the gentle transformation of our single-family neighbourhoods if we are going to supply the housing that is needed to make Vancouver an affordable and livable city.

Bob Ransford is a public affairs consultant with COUNTERPOINT Communications Inc. He is a former real estate developer who specializes in urban land-use issues. Email: ransford@ counterpoint.ca or Twitter @BobRansford


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