Legalize the Village

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We should all be troubled that our zoning laws make it much easier to replace old homes with mansions than to build apartments.

So we need to make it easier to build apartments. But most strata apartments, including my own cohousing unit, are out of reach for people who live, or want to live, in Vancouver. If Vancouver is to provide homes for the people who work and study here, we need rental housing, and plenty of it. I did a search for one- or two-bedroom apartments for rent in our Riley Park neighbourhood today. How many rentals did I find? Just three, in a neighbourhood with the population of a small town (22,000). No wonder the cheapest option is a dingy, one-bedroom basement, listed at $1,650 per month.

Governments around the world are opening the doors to more housing. New Zealand’s national government has passed a bill legalizing townhouses everywhere in all big cities, and six-story apartments near transit hubs and job centres. In a modest move, California ended single-family-only zoning to allow for duplexes, and streamlined the process for cities to zone for multi-family housing.

Vancouver is working on a new long-term City Plan, which may include measures to legalize apartments in RS zones—if enough people demand the change. That plan could take years. But the City has just passed a policy to allow rental apartment buildings of up to four stories within 200 meters of shopping streets. It’s a timid move that I don’t expect to result in a flood of new construction. After all, my co-housing neighbors and I had to build six stories to keep our own unit costs within reach. If we are really concerned about housing non-millionaires in Vancouver, we should be rezoning the entire city to legalize rental apartment buildings up to six stories.

Some pundits argue that upzoning for more rentals alone will not solve our housing crisis. They are partly right. The most vulnerable and marginalized people in society will always require subsidized housing, and we need massive government investment to make it a reality. The good news is that rezoning single-family neighborhoods for apartments will make room for social housing by making use of the airspace above what are now private houses, lawns, and garages. That’s part of the reason why non-profit housing associations in British Columbia are the strongest advocates for upzoning these single-family areas.

Evidence from studies in Europe and North America suggest that, on a city-wide scale, building any new rental housing, including market-rate rental housing, helps low-income renters because new apartments relieve the pressure on older, less expensive rental apartments elsewhere. In a phenomenon known as filtering, people move from less expensive housing to new housing, then other people find housing in those vacated units, leaving their own units available for yet other people, and so on, resulting in a knock-on effect involving as many as six households choosing to move.

This musical chairs-like process works, provided that: (a) we don’t knock down affordable rental apartments to replace them with new luxury apartments, and (b) we have strong protections for current renters. So where is the right place to build more rental apartments if we want a more inclusive city?

It’s all around us.

Our vast, single-family zones are our greatest resource for equitable housing. Ending the ban on apartments in these low-density neighborhoods doesn’t force detached home-owners to build apartments. But it does give some of them the chance to be part of the solution, along with market and non-market builders.

Lesson Two: We Need To Fast-Track Housing Projects That Provide Social Good, Such As Co-ops, Cohousing and, Especially, Subsidized, Affordable Housing.

And by fast, I mean really fast.

When we first planned our cohousing community, we were sure that our homes would cost us much less than the for-profit condos we saw popping up around the city. After all, nobody was going to make a profit off of our building. We had no marketing costs. And we weren’t outfitting our apartments with fancy features like marble countertops and the home spas that you see in real estate ads. What’s more, we were convinced that we could get our village built quickly, because city councilors, city planners, and everyone else who heard about our project said they loved it.

None of that seemed to temper the brutal lethargy of the City of Vancouver’s processes. Even though we built in a district that was designated for new apartments, it still took us two-and-a-half years to complete the rezoning and development permitting process. Here’s how those delays inflated our apartment costs:

Each month, we were paying about $35,000 in interest and other costs for the land we purchased. Our various consultant fees ran about $20,000 per month. That means every month of delay cost us an extra $55,000.

What’s a reasonable amount of time to get an exemplary housing project approved? Should it take the same amount of time that it takes to build a mansion? In 2019, after the City created a project to fast-track single-family permits, wait times for many single-family builds or renovations fell to just three months. But let’s not reach for the stars. Let’s say a year of hoop-jumping is acceptable. In that case, the extra 18 months we endured added nearly $1 million to the cost of our project. That’s about $40,000 extra per unit in our building, not including the $900,000 we paid the city in various fees.

It sucked for our group of mostly middle-income earners to pay these costs. But it is outrageous that non-profit housing providers end up facing the same extra costs. The City of Vancouver has launched a program to reduce permit wait times for what it calls its priority projects, including social housing and secured market rental housing. But once again, it would be even more effective to legalize co-ops, cohousing, and social housing projects that meet clear social and design objectives, thereby eliminating lengthy hearings and design reviews.

If we don’t require them for mansions, why put this burden on housing for non-millionaires?

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