Opinion: Vancouver’s missing middle housing proposal misses the mark

Feb 8 2023, 12:02 am

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Owen Brady, who is the director of Abundant Housing Vancouver.

It was almost five years ago now that a previous Vancouver City Council, already frustrated at the lack of progress on “missing middle” housing policies, directed City staff to propose options for more housing types, from triplexes to small apartment buildings, to be built in Vancouver’s vast swathes of single-family house zones.

At a public meeting last month, City planners finally presented a proposal for discussion. After such a long wait, it is an extraordinary disappointment.

The proposal is to allow up to four homes on a standard 33 ft wide lot and up to six homes on larger lots. Low-rise apartments and townhouses would still be banned outright on most of the residential land in Vancouver.

The policy may allow a homeowner to pay a “density bonus” fee in lieu of providing a below-market home on-site. These fees can be used to build housing better targeted to those most in need. The greatest advantage of a fee is that it can be easily adjusted annually to ensure the program stays viable, thus ensuring that below-market homes are actually getting built.

However, City planners say they are deliberately crafting a modest policy that will mostly replace redevelopments that are happening anyway, perhaps about 150 projects per year. It has not been stated whether, as with the recent Broadway Plan, any extra benefits will be provided to tenants evicted for redevelopment.

The proposal is to allow a density of only 1.0 FSR (Floor Space Ratio: the ratio of building floor area to lot area), an increase of only 17.6%. City staff say this limitation is necessary because of aging infrastructure, but it is unclear what, specifically, the limitations are. City planners have pointed to concerns about stormwater runoff but were unable to specify what lot coverage they assumed, even though it is the footprint of buildings and other impermeable surfaces like asphalt that affect runoff. While citywide housing policies are the right approach, this lowest common denominator approach to infrastructure needlessly reduces housing options.

missing middle housing vancouver

Example of the range of missing middle housing. (City of Vancouver)

missing middle housing vancouver 1

Example of the range of missing middle housing. (City of Vancouver)

Furthermore, allowing strata plexes will make the already poor Secured Rental Policy in Transition Areas even less viable, as the “transition areas” mostly overlap with these single-family zones. Small rental apartment buildings will have to compete with fourplexes that do not have to provide the same security of tenure as a purpose-built rental.

Our City planners are asking citizens yet again to participate in multiple rounds of consultation on the smallest possible increment of change, consultation that is now running the better part of a decade. Once again, the policies are crafted to do as little as possible, using fees and process to limit uptake.

As John Maynard Keynes famously said, “in the long run we are all dead.” If this policy is approved, apartments and townhouses — what Vancouver’s tenants and growing families need most — will remain illegal in most residential areas. The prospect of 150 fourplexes per year is a tiny contribution to this ABC Vancouver-led City Council’s goal of tripling housing starts. For context, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation estimates imply Vancouver needs about 18,000 more homes per year through 2030 as part of achieving their 30% affordability metric in British Columbia.

This proposal allows far too little in the areas with the best opportunities. We should be building today what will make sense 40 years from now, not what made sense 40 years ago. The policy could be made much better by increasing the allowed floor area density to about 1.4 FSR through added building heights. This will allow more appropriate density given land costs and will raise much more money for infrastructure and affordable housing. Where there are infrastructure limitations, the number of projects may need to be capped temporarily.

The Secured Rental Policy also needs to be upgraded: allowed density must be increased, especially on side streets where only up to four-storey apartments are currently considered, and rental options must be set in zoning so that long, costly, risky spot rezonings are no longer required.

If you are as concerned about the lack of ambition and timeliness this proposal represents as I am, please let the City of Vancouver know. Public information sessions will start this week, the city has an online survey here, and you can even write to City Council.

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