Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver
This week, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson announced yet another step toward making housing more affordable in this city and it is – are you ready – laneway houses! Not just any laneway houses – laneway and infill houses that could be purchased rather than just rented! Laneway houses that may be slightly larger than what is currently allowable! In neighbourhoods like Dunbar, MacKenzie Heights, Arbutus Ridge and Kerrisdale!
Okay, I’m being a little facetious, but enough with the laneway houses and coach homes and town homes as the solution to Vancouver’s housing crisis.
Details of the policy won’t be unveiled until a council meeting next week, but the city is hoping to achieve several goals, namely increasing the amount of, ahem, affordable housing while incentivizing the preservation of character homes. Right now the city allows laneway houses to be built in those aforementioned neighbourhoods, but they can’t be stratified or sold – only rented.
The city has also noticed data from the latest census showing that in those neighbourhoods there has been a drop in the number of families and children. It would apparently like to reverse that trend and repopulate certain neighbourhoods so they look less like The Omega Man.
Over in the single-family zones of Mount Pleasant and Grandview-Woodland, the city would allow three homes (rather than the current two) to be built on a standard 33-foot lot. Larger lots would be able to accommodate four-plexes. For the rare east-side homeowner on a 50-foot lot, you no longer own a home, you own development opportunity. Congratulations.
All of this falls under the Housing Vancouver Strategy, the intent of which, according to the city, is to “deliver the right supply of housing to match local needs and incomes.”
The local needs are obvious. Since buying a home is out of reach for so many families, we need affordable, purpose-built rental housing for all kinds of families, preferably close to amenities. Housing that isn’t going to be sold out from under the renters.
We also need affordable housing for young people who would like to stay and build a life in this city but currently can’t afford to.
Matching local incomes? That’s another matter. The gap between earnings and housing costs is no wider anywhere in Canada than in the city of Vancouver.
So far what the laneway house initiative has given us are some tiny, albeit charming rental homes across the city with most in the range of $2,000 to $2,500 a month. If you’re taking home $6,000 a month, then they’re technically affordable, though, as Vancouverites we’re used to laying down far more than a third of our earnings for housing.
All of this said, opening up single-family neighbourhoods to higher density is a good idea. You may recall that for decades, single-family neighbourhoods resisted secondary suites. They worried about the character of their neighbourhoods, parking, the drain on city services, and well, you know, renters. Those worries vanished when the cost of housing made a reliable basement tenant the key to home ownership. When the city finally moved to lift restrictions on the suites in 2004 there was barely a peep.
UBC sociology professor Nathanael Lauster, author of The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City, says a diversity of housing stock is fundamentally a good thing. But he says what was announced this week amounts to baby steps toward densification.
Prof. Lauster was asked in an interview whether people need to accept that the era of the single-family home is over.
“If you’re living in one and you own it, you don’t have to accept it, but I think the idea that you can say your neighbour has to live in exactly the same type of housing – I think that is something we are going to have to accept is gone,” he told the CBC. “And we should move beyond the understanding that people can prevent their neighbours from providing more housing options to other people.”
I expect that some neighbourhoods will mount a decent fight against the move to increase density – crème de la crème and all that. But I expect it to be short-lived and, as was the case with secondary suites, and finally out of necessity, end with a whimper and not a bang.