A Magic Bullet For The Housing Crisis?

April 15, 2013

In his column in the Vancouver Sun last week, developer-promotor Bob Ransford floated the idea of eliminating single-family house zoning to allow more units to be built on each lot.  He suggested this was  a magic bullet.

[Mike Harcourt and I] both know we can make traditional single-family neighbourhoods more pedestrian-oriented and transit-supportive by intensifying land use and when we do that, we will be supplying more housing and make home prices more affordable.  How do we do that? Mike simplified the challenge with the two simple ideas that, together, represent that closest thing to a magic bullet.

First, he advocates eliminating traditional single-family zoning across the entire Metro Vancouver region and replacing it with a permissive regulation that would allow all current single-family lots to have up to three dwelling units. Second, he argues we need to abandon our obsession with parking the car by getting rid of on-site parking requirements …

There are approximately 303,000 single detached houses in Metro Vancouver. If we assume only one-third of them currently have a secondary suite, that means there are at least 200,000 lots that could accommodate two more homes and 100,000 could accommodate a third home. So, a half-million more homes could be developed on the existing single-family lots in Metro Vancouver with this simple permissive designation. With a minimum of two people per home, the region could accommodate one million more people without building another apartment tower or another townhouse project.

Implementing ideas like these is the closest thing to finding the magic bullet that will make housing affordable for all and preserve our quality of life.

Somehow that didn’t seem at all right to me, and so I was glad to hear from Elizabeth Murphy, a development expert who also writes regularly for the local media. She supplies a necessary corrective and notes:

1. Vancouver does not have a supply problem. So much supply is being created that there is a glut of empty units being used as speculative investments without housing people who live here.

2. Ever increasing amounts of supply have not reduced the cost of housing and is making things more expensive by inflating land and demolishing the older more affordable stock. More supply does not make it more affordable.

3. The City of Vancouver has already eliminated single family zoning by allowing a main unit, secondary suite and laneway house in most RS zones. If these additional units were allowed to be strata titled rather than secondary suites as they now are, it would just cause more demolition than there already is and create less rentals.

There is no magic bullet!

Michael Kluckner, another specialist on housing in Vancouver, has also chimed in with a valuable perspective:

Bob Ransford (and Mike Harcourt) believe that ridding Metro Vancouver of single-family zoning would help solve the affordability problem. Unfortunately, the evidence in areas that were once single-family demonstrates the opposite. On the 33-foot lots in Grandview, small single-family houses are sold for lot value, about $800,000, taken down and replaced by front-back duplexes which sell for $850-900,000 each. This has been going on for several years now.

Why would any other part of Metro be different, unless Ransford is proposing subdividing, say, Kerrisdale’s big lots into fours or sixes? This is an economy where even a 550 square foot lane house costs a cool quarter million to build.

The moral of the story is that “Building Affordable Housing” is an oxymoron; a better plan is to retain housing, and modify it to meet new circumstances, to keep housing prices as low as possible. Mike Harcourt, with his environmental reputation, should recognize the “reuse” and “recycle” part of this strategy.

This is a good start to a debate that is vital in Grandview these days as we face the prospect of a new Community Plan that will significantly affect the future of our neighbourhood for a generation or more. For my own part, I have to note that Ransford (and Harcourt)’s sweeping idea is fully complicit with Vision Vancouver’s belief that city-wide policies, in which neighbourhood context is simply ignored, are the solution.  This is just a modern version of the “we know best” elitism that we need to throw out of City Hall.