Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart seeks to permit up to six properties on one residential lot

[Globe and Mail – September 14, 2020]

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart is launching a bold push to create cheaper forms of housing in Vancouver’s single-family neighbourhoods by calling for the city to allow up to six units on any residential lot.

The catch is that two would have to be rented or sold at below-market rates permanently.

That could be a first for Canada and is only outdone by Portland, Ore., which recently passed a similar policy in mid-August except that it required three “affordable” units if there were six built on a lot. Fourplexes would be allowed outright under Vancouver’s new proposal.

Most other U.S. cities looking at housing reform in single-family neighbourhoods have not proposed anything beyond allowing triplexes.

Mr. Stewart said the new approach is desperately needed because it would provide affordable options “in the 60 per cent of the city that is simply out of reach to average families, couples and those looking to downsize their homes.”

A single detached three-bedroom house in Vancouver was selling for $2-million in August, while a three-bedroom townhouse was $1.4-million, according to statistics from real estate site and lister

The mayor’s idea, if endorsed by council, could see as much as 50 per cent more buildable floor space allowed than even the most generous current zoning provision in single-family areas. That would mean allowing as much as 4,800 square feet of housing on a regular Vancouver lot, instead of the current 2,800 square feet that is standard or the 3,260 sq. ft. allowed on lots where there is a laneway house linked to a pre-1940 house.

Any extra density would only be granted if one or two below-market homes were included, to be registered with the city and kept below-market permanently.

The mayor said surveys have shown that more than 70 per cent of residents want to see new housing options. Local homeowner representatives did not have a response to the mayor’s idea immediately, saying they needed more time to look at it.

One urban design professor who is vocal about city planning said Mr. Kennedy’s proposal is a good model, but has one major flaw.

“I think requiring any less than three [affordable] units of the six is a missed opportunity and will lead to inflated land prices,” University of British Columbia professor Patrick Condon said.

The local group that supports more housing options, Abundant Housing Vancouver, is solidly behind the idea.

“About 55 per cent of new floor space built in Vancouver is detached houses that just replace old detached houses with no increase in homes. This is a good first step toward addressing that wasted opportunity while providing some enhanced affordability,” said AHV’s Owen Brady.

Mr. Stewart’s proposal – which his team crafted in consultation with a group that included small-home builders, an architect and a planner – will be included in Wednesday’s council meeting as an amendment to a housing motion already on the schedule from Councillor Lisa Dominato.

The plan is for staff to come back with guidelines in the middle of next year, then begin with 100 applications in a pilot program.

The program wouldn’t be open to owners of homes with renters or homes on the heritage register.

It is likely to become a campaign issue in the 2022 civic election, given the frequent divisiveness in the city over allowing denser housing in existing neighbourhoods.

City staff had been working on a new policy to allow housing options with more density – everything from duplexes to small apartment buildings – in small transition zones next to major streets, but that work has been moving slowly.

With his amendment aimed at more aggressive action, Mr. Stewart said he hopes the new initiative will be a compromise that a majority of councillors and residents can get behind.

The Vancouver builder who came up with the original version of the idea a couple of years ago, Jake Fry, said he believes his solution is a way out of some of the current impasses over how to add new homes to the city.

“I think this is really the only progress we’ve seen that addresses homeowner affordability without changing the fabric of the neighbourhood. This is something we can do and have low visual impact,” said Mr. Fry.

He championed the hugely popular laneway houses more than a decade ago and his company, Smallworks, has built hundreds of them since they were first allowed in 2009.

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