Article by Tsur Somerville in the Vancouver Sun. Voices comment: Perhaps rezoning the Ridgeway Annex site to allow more affordable family sized units would be a better use of the land than more million dollar detached houses?
Quoting from the article in part: ‘We can do much more to improve affordability, and create more sustainable and family-friendly neighbourhoods. Local government and the development community must offer choices that are less jarring to the existing built form. Planners must move to saying yes to developments that may not perfectly fit the myriad design rules propagated by government.’
Anthem is a multi-family housing unit developer, and could offer the City and neighbourhood another option. Maybe this would allow more open space.
Blaming foreign investors is distracting us from the underlying determinants of the Lower Mainland’s high housing prices and the challenges to addressing them.
How we use the land we have is in our control. If we choose to preserve single-family neighbourhoods in their current form and densities, we must recognize the challenges for affordability this imposes.
To lessen the housing burden on younger families, residents must be more willing to accept changes to their neighbourhoods, government needs to look for ways to say yes to new and more varied development, and the development industry must collectively put more emphasis on neighbourhood context rather than fighting height.
Housing is expensive relative to incomes here for three primary reasons.
First, the natural amenities and lifestyle attract us, and we are willing to pay for these features through higher house prices and lower incomes than is the case elsewhere.
Second, the developable land base is tiny compared with other cities. Within a 45-km radius of downtown Calgary, about 75 per cent of the earth’s surface can be developed for urban uses; for Vancouver the figure is 20 per cent, thanks to mountains, water, the U.S., and the agricultural land reserve.
Third, population growth: between 2001 and 2011 the Lower Mainland grew by over 130,000 households. Affordability is unlikely to act as a brake on this flow, as over 80 per cent is from immigration and reflects federal policy and the appeal of life in Canada.
Even with a major rethinking of how neighbourhoods should look, affordable single-family housing will be a challenge. At the same time that we added 130,000 households, we only added 35,000 single-family units at very most to the stock of housing. So rapid escalation in the price of single-family units should not be surprising and a worsening of their affordability is to be expected. This would be the case even if immigrants came with little wealth and foreign residents were prohibited from buying units here.
Yet it is not as though the Lower Mainland was affordable prior to the large increases in immigration that began in the mid-1980s. The ratio of house payments to median income for a standard single-family house in the Lower Mainland was 60 per cent in 1985, compared with 34-42 per cent in other major Canadian cities, where 32 per cent is considered affordable. This in-affordability measure has worsened rising to 73 per cent for Vancouver in 2013, although down from 81 per cent in 2007, while the other cities remained in a 27- to 45-per-cent band.
If our notion of appropriate family housing remains the Canadian standard detached single-family unit, we cannot avoid grave challenges here to affordability. There are no simple fixes that do not involve changing the forms of our neighbourhoods. There is land that can be converted into housing without building higher: front and back yards. In 2011, there were over 360,000 single-family detached houses in the Lower Mainland. Subdividing some of these lots to convert their back yards to other detached units, would help. Allowing more of these lots to accommodate up to four units, or to amalgamate several single-family lots into row housing along with a more forgiving permitting process would create more family-friendly options in existing neighbourhoods without wrenching changes in their character. Without the ability to subdivide existing lots, the most profitable land-use choice is to replace modest older homes with dramatically larger and vastly more expensive single-family structures. But this is not a recipe for affordable middle class housing.
Even this will not make single-family housing on the West Side of Vancouver accessible to all. Instead, a more achievable goal is to have affordable family appropriate units, recognizing that the form of these units will differ by jurisdiction. In the city of Vancouver, probably three bedroom condos, slightly more distant town and row-houses, and single-family structures should only be expected to be affordable in more distant suburbs.
Density has for many people come to be a dirty word, but density does not need to mean 30-storey towers. It can be created at a more human scale, but doing so requires that the more intensive use of land happen at a large number of locations across the regions, and not just at a limited number of sites near SkyTrain stations. And this requires a re-evaluation of the permissible land uses in single-family neighbourhoods
Communities resist increased density for very good reasons. Residents tend to like their neighbourhood the way it is, which is why they live there. The increased density they see in practice is in buildings that are dramatically higher and larger than their existing homes. If residents believe density will bring increased congestion without much that improves their lives, resisting redevelopment makes a great deal of sense.
We cannot make Vancouver as affordable as Winnipeg, but we can do much more to improve affordability, and create more sustainable and family-friendly neighbourhoods. Local government and the development community must offer choices that are less jarring to the existing built form. Planners must move to saying yes to developments that may not perfectly fit the myriad design rules propagated by government.
As citizens we must be willing to let our neighbourhoods change, which is hard, because most of us like things the way they are. Change will be disruptive, but the way we approach land use in our neighbourhoods now is making life here less affordable and accessible everyday.
Tsur Somerville is director of the Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate at the Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia.