May 14, 2014

BIV Column: “No easy way to save city heritage homes”

My Business in Vancouver column:

No easy way to save city heritage homes from wrecking ball


The civic election may not be until November, but along with the blossoms and sprouts of spring, we’re spotting some signs: the early-bird candidates, the first polls, the perennial fundraisers.

And some emerging issues. The public’s top concern, of course, is housing affordability – by a long shot – and there is already a vigorous conversation about a lot of related issues, particularly the changing face (and character) of the city.

Vancouver Sun columnist Barbara Yaffe tackled a topic that’s gaining increasing traction: the loss of Vancouver’s pre-1940s stock of character homes, at a rate of about 70 a month in the city of Vancouver, primarily on the west side where the loss is most keenly felt: “These older homes, with their pitched roofs and leaded glass windows, French doors and narrow-slat oak floors, often are architecturally charming, part of the city’s history, a positive for tourism, deserving of refurbishment.”

heritageShe’s not alone: Caroline Adderson launched her “Vancouver Vanishes” Facebook page, along with a petition urging the city to take fast action to stop the demolitions.

“Delay action for a year,” she fears, “and we will be down another 850 (homes), by which time city staff may be hard-pressed to find a concentration of character homes.” With more than 3,000 signatures on her petition, she aims to make this an election issue.

But what policies and promises should follow?

Unfortunately, few address (other than to bemoan) the underlying cause: land values so high they cannot be realized without the demolition of the smaller, older houses – and the expensive deterrents and regulations if a character home is to be upgraded to contemporary standards.

Then there’s the even more touchy issue of “offshore” money (whether from Asia or Alberta) sustaining a real estate market that does not or cannot incorporate intangible values.

The easy out is to blame the politicians, to call for some unspecified action or, at least, for more information on what is actually happening.

There are, however, tough questions for the public, especially those who already own property or have some kind of tenure in the city.

If the city could indeed come up with a way to lower land values, who would be willing to argue for a permanent lowering – if it were their values being lowered?

Specifically, who would take less than the market value in a sale by contractually constraining the subsequent owner to ensure the preservation of an existing home?

Or how about this: who would be willing to be taxed on the unearned increment of their property (the difference between what they paid originally and the escalation of value separate from improvements)? If, say, a tenth of the increased value in the last few decades were put into a fund to purchase character homes in the city, with a long-term limit on subsequent sale or rentals, that might directly preserve hundreds of homes.

If sold to lower-income purchasers, that would also address affordability and inequity. So who would accept taxation at that level – or voluntarily contribute to a fund through the Vancouver Heritage Foundation?

Or here’s another approach: who would be willing to have their property taxes raised sufficiently to allow the city to compensate for the difference between what a character home is worth on the market and the value if it were designated and protected as a heritage property?

Or yet another way: who would be willing to rezone their neighbourhood so drastically that it would flood the market with enough housing to make the character homes competitive?

Or, who would be willing to support density bonusing or infill sufficient to make retention of existing houses attractive, even if it changed the scale of the community?

Who, then, would be willing to run for office on a platform of lowering property values or increasing taxes enough to protect homes almost a century old?

Or to put in place regulations so onerous they would effectively prohibit demolition?

I’m guessing that when you see the party platforms this fall, there will be only small answers to this big problem. Yes, there will be calls for action from senior governments, demands for more data on the impact of offshore capital, promises to listen to community concerns and to undertake studies.

But to commit to action within the city’s jurisdiction that would negatively affect the current owners before they cash out? Not so much.

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  1. Vancouver’s runaway realestate will undo any sustainability achievements we’ve gained. People are sprawling out to the burbs because even a half duplex on the Eastside is $1,000,000. It wouldn’t be so unfortunate if those sprawling families were being pushed out by wealthier locals who bought in the city and walked, took transit, or biked to work. But, instead, more and more of our premium housing lots are being used as absentee vacation homes. It seems like such a misuse of scarce resources. Ferrari sales are increasing faster than bicycle mode share.

  2. Excellent column. Many homeowners see any infringement on the right to do whatever they want with their property an infrigement on their rights and some even see this as a form of civil forfeiture, and that left to its own ineluctable ways the free market will take care of everything. Let the free market reign. Reign that is until someone proposes a seniors’
    home down the block; a modest rental building in the neighborhood; or something that is ‘out of character’ with the neighborhood – then the knives come out.
    I see ex-premier Mike Harcourt is being excoriated in some circles because a house he purchased – well before I’m told – near the Point Grey bike path will increase in value. If the Arbutus CP right-of-way becomes a green way, hundreds of homes will probably increase in value, and substantially I’ll bet.
    Hypocrisy knows no bounds when it comes to real estate.

  3. I think it would be more palatable (to me, anyways) if the older housing stock were at least being demolished to build mutli-familty housing that would add density and help prevent sprawl, rather than with more single family homes. Even laneway houses don’t add much density.

  4. It would seem to me that any campaign to be the Greenest City in the World would include a robust plan to ensure that perfectly livable homes are not sent en masse to local landfills by the tonnes. Let’s be honest, any small gain made in carbon reduction by getting 100 Vancouverites out of cars and onto bicycles is offset by 20 people be lifted out of poverty and into the middle class in China. However, we can have a very real control over what gets thrown in our landfill.

    Why not quadruple permit charges on newly built homes that involve a demolition versus those that incorporate an older home in a renovation? Why not ratchet down the allowable square footage in newbuilds (didn’t Vision Vancouver increase the allowable floor space, and the have the temerity to complain about the loss of tree canopy!) If we allow reduced parking available in multifamily buildings, why are we still allowing three car garages?

    As a house owner I am not going to feel cheated out of paper gains if somebody acts to pop Vancouver’s real estate bubble. Prices at these levels do not create a livable city.

    1. How about: let owners decide what they want to do. If they wish to tear it down, let them tear it down. If they wish to build a quadruple garage, let them. A large city like Vancouver needs all sorts of places to live, for the very poor, for the lower end middle class, for the middle class, for the upper class and for the very rich.

      Yes along some busier arterial streets more density or higher Multi-family buildings are in order, but not in every single family neighborhood.

      Also, is a fifty year old home, or even 80, really “heritage” ? Many Europeans or Asians who move here look at a 500 or 1000 year old structure as heritage, but not a fifty year old one.

      Every regulation costs money to create and enforce. I think we need less regulations, not more; less government, not more.

      There is no real estate bubble btw. Prices will continue to climb as Vancouver is not overly expensive compared to similarly desirable cities to live close to ocean and mountains. Prices will double over the next 20-25 years.

    2. I’ve seen some rather interesting renovations in the last few years. A couple involved taking an older home, jacking it up, and putting it back down on a new full height basement. The old structure stayed mostly intact while becoming essentially a new home.
      I also saw a similar renovation that left behind almost nothing of the original house. That one started out like the others, but quickly diverged. The old house was stripped to the basic frame before being jacked up. That’s good I thought, they’re going to re-wire, re-plumb, re-window, re-roof and insulate without throwing away the old wood frame. With the old house up in the air the new basement was built, but as time went by I noticed that sections of the old frame were being chopped out. Eventually there was almost nothing of the main floor walls left, just a small section that gave the original second floor its distinctive shape. By the end of it all I’m not sure any of the original house was left. I have no idea why they bothered jacking up the house in the first place if they were going to demolish it while it hung there in mid air. It would have been so much easier to just knock it down in the first place. I sure hope they didn’t get any “renovation vs. demolition” credit because what they did was slow motion demolition.

  5. About 20 years ago, as a planner with the City of Vancouver, I wrote the zoning that has preserved the character houses of Kitsilano’s RT-7 and RT-8 districts. I won’t bore you with the zoning’s details, but I will say that it took an amazing amount of work. The technical work involved detailed analysis of the various types of house built in Kits before about 1930. The public consultation work involved managing a very divisive neighbourhood dynamic, and a detailed survey to every household to gauge support for a proposed zoning that would require a “character house” owner to add/renovate to get the full allowable floor space (rather than demolish and build new: effectively a downzoning). Has anyone at the City contacted me about how the zoning was developed, and how it functions, to ask about pros, cons, pitfalls, how-tos? Nope. History does not exist for the current Council and senior management.

  6. What if we said that anyone owning a home older than a certain age could only demolish it if it were replaced with a duplex or triplex? The idea would be to discourage investors who buy and demolish so they can build investment-driven trophy homes that are sometimes not even inhabited. They presumably wouldn’t be interested in duplexes.

    And it would begin “gentle infill” of single family neighbourhoods, presumably delivering some affordable housing by diluting the land cost over 2+ housing units.

    Of course it might just trigger a wave of heritage tear-downs by people who see a development opportunity.

    It would certainly trigger some political resistance in single-family neighbourhoods. If the heritage house were doomed, would they rather have some (more) affordable infill housing or a monster house?

    Nobody loses property value.

  7. very good piece, Peter. I agree that this issue is so much more complex than the “save the character homes” crowd thinks.