Vancouver mayor makes new pitch for gentle densification on single-family lots

Jan 25 2022, 7:06 pm

Aside from the new Secured Rental Housing Policy, which was approved in December 2021 after years of delays, the current Vancouver City Council has yet to approve a concrete policy that establishes a framework for catalyzing more housing.

After more than three years of governance, the current city council has largely been presiding on housing policies that were established by their predecessors.

But Mayor Kennedy Stewart is hoping that will change, if city council approves the second iteration of his Making Home policy this week.

Up to six ground-oriented units would be permitted on a single-family lot, with property owners being offered the option to convert or redevelop their large detached houses into multiple stratified homes.

Allowable building heights would see a modest increase, as the added density would be partially accommodated by basement suites.

With this building form, Stewart says homeowners then have two pathways to choose for their housing tenure, which act to help enable housing affordability for middle-class households with an annual income under $80,000, and provide the municipal government with a new revenue source — such as through community amenity contributions (CACs) — to fund public benefits such as affordable housing, childcare, infrastructure, and the Climate Emergency Action Plan.

One option enables the property owner to build all six units — possibly keeping one for themselves if they intend to stay on the property by downsizing — and sell all of the other units as strata. The city would capture the lift in land value from this extra density as a measure to limit speculation and fund public benefits.

The alternative option is to redirect the land value lift towards maintaining the affordability of at least two units on a permanent basis for the lifespan of the structure. This guarantee would be made through a covenant on title in the Land Title Act and possibly by placing a second mortgage on title facilitated by BC Housing through their Housing HUB program of catalyzing housing for middle-class families.

“You buy them at a lower price, you’d see an increase in value, but you’d sell them in a lower price. It’d enable people with lower and middle incomes to get on the housing ladder,” Stewart told Daily Hive Urbanized in an interview.

Stewart says Making Home would start with a program capacity of 2,000 lots, potentially enabling up to 10,000 more affordable homes for middle-class households — catalyzing gentle densification to accommodate incomes that typically would not be able to afford homes in single-family areas.

This is far from being the conventional option for redeveloping a single-family lot, given that it adds more layers and considerations. Property owners, particularly those inexperienced, would understandably weigh the financial tradeoffs.

But Stewart says there has been “enormous” interest in uptake, based on the roundtables he has engaged in with the community and builders.

“Rather than just talking to groups and saying how would you like affordable homes, this is definitely a nuts and bolts proposal,” said Stewart.

“For example, I sat with a roundtable of small builders who I have not met before, and they were very excited about this. This would be in their range of capital, and they could probably do one of these at a time. They were very excited because they thought they could turn it around in nine months.”

He adds that there is flexibility in the program to enable the feasibility of various construction financing models, including partnerships with other co-owners, builders, non-profits, or even co-ops.

Stewart’s motion to be considered by city council would direct city staff to develop further details for Making Home’s implementation. Further approvals by city council would be needed after city staff return with a report outlining the policy.

If all goes as planned, he says, construction on the first projects could begin next year. Sales would begin as early as 2024, with the potential for pre-sales in 2023.

Based on the level of uptake, the program can be adjusted. Stewart says the proportion of land value capture could be increased if there is high demand in the program, or decreased if there is very little uptake to encourage more property owners and builders to engage in the program.

Such density would add pressure to utilities and infrastructure, but the motion calls for development cost levies in addition to the CACs. There could also be added pressure for street parking, requiring localized parking demand measures, which is already a pattern experienced in neighbourhoods with a higher number of basement suites and laneway houses.

“We’ve heard about the affordability crisis for a long time, we’ve seen ownership rates drop. Finally the feds and province have found that they’re seeing this as a national and provincial level challenge, but a lot of it needs to be done at the local level,” said Stewart.

“When I was a kid, we lost our home and that affected me for 20 years, and I just don’t want folks to experience the same. I identify folks with their stress and I want them to have a good life here in the city, so I hope council supports this.”

Stewart’s first iteration of Making Home was rejected by city council in a 7-2 vote in September 2020. At the time, he was calling for a pilot project of up to 100 single-family lots — each with up to six units, with four units as sellable market market homes and up to two additional units permanently set aside for affordable use. It did not contain the second iteration’s land value lift capture measures for public benefits.

City council rejected his first Making Home proposal on the basis that it would supersede the ongoing Vancouver Plan, and that it required more public consultation and detailed planning work by city staff.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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