April 17, 2015

Twinning Tweets: Mutual support for the Missing Middle?

Two items thast came in that same time, both dealing with the dominant planning and social issue of our city: affordability.

Phase3One is city-initiated: to rezone significant stretches of off-Cambie for the missing-middle urban form.  From The Sun:


Cambie corridor plan calls for higher-density housing


About one-quarter of the single-family homes in Vancouver’s Cambie corridor could eventually make way for higher-density “ground-oriented and family-friendly” housing, according to proposals contained in a report from city planning director Brian Jackson.

The report — which details the scope of work for Phase 3 of the Cambie corridor planning program — said 74 per cent of single-family-zoned parcels in the area would be left unchanged as the city promotes more townhouse and row house development.

The other 26 per cent could be affected, though a lot of community consultation has to take place before the Phase 3 plan is officially approved in about two years. …

It said townhouses and row houses offer many of the desired qualities of single-family homes at a more affordable price — including front-door entrances and private outdoor spaces.

The area affected by the proposal stretches from 16th Avenue to the Fraser River and from Oak Street to Ontario Street. (Study area in dark gray in graph on right.) Phases 1 and 2 of the Cambie corridor plan have already permitted extensive mid-rise and highrise housing developments, with 26 rezoning approvals the past four years paving the way for the construction of 6,600 new housing units, including 2,900 at Oakridge shopping centre.

Report here.

Initial criticisms, I’d predict, would be (1) too little and still too long, and (2) too much and still too expensive.  (Already in the comments to The Sun article: “When will politician figure out that densification is not a good thing.”   “Delusional. Higher density does not equal affordability.”)

But this is the first significant initiative to start converting tracts of single-family housing to a form of housing this city jumped right over in the streetcar era when land was cheap: we went directly to detached housing, without districts of row housing – a form that is now the dominant style in this region’s suburbs but not in the city.  It’s the missing middle.

Row housing in this neighbourhodd won’t be inexpensive, but it will be cheaper than the single-family homes they will replace.  And hence in the interest of these people, who I found out in the second tweet, linking to a CBC News piece:



Vancouver housing prices tweet spurs ‘DontHave1Million’ social media campaign

“It’s not just me, everybody’s talking about it,” said 29 year-old Eveline Xia, in an interview with CBC News.

“It’s the number one issue we’re talking about. People in higher income brackets, people in lower income brackets.”

Sick of stressing out about how she could afford to have a family in Vancouver, the environmental professional took to Twitter to express her anger over sky-high real estate prices in the city.

Xia had no idea her #DontHave1Million hashtag would go viral, trending on Twitter across Canada on Thursday.

“It’s really struck a chord, people are responding like crazy,” she said.

Many people have taken to Twitter to express their frustration over the lack of affordability in Vancouver real estate.

I’ve been wondering how long it would take before we seem some action among younger people sufficient to create a new political dynamic.  I’m not sure whether this is it. But is it likely that the those holding the signs will be in the same process as those with a vested interest in maximizing land-value return along the Cambie corridor?


Donthave1million tweets here.

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  1. Plenty of choice for housing in the 300-500,000 range in MetroVan.


    Either condos or small houses further out, or half-duplexes or townhouses.

    This silly campaign shows how dillusional some young people are. You cannot expect the state to educate you for free until your late 20’s then automatically move you into a $1M house by the time you are in your early 30’s. That takes a few years of hard work, at long hours, in risky jobs. Not in cushy 9-4:30 city based jobs where housing is expensive.

    You could however, as an average plumber or engineer work in NE BC or AB or SK and make six digits and have a 500,000 house in your early 30’s. Not in Vancouver though.

    1. I don’t think these people expect the government to give them 1 Million dollars. What they expect is for the prices in Vancouver to not be so high. Unfortunately the only viable solution is a massive increase in supply. So yes I am in the camp of too little too late.

    2. I think it’s an expectation (read: entitlement) issue.

      Expectations should not include ownership of a free-standing single family house within the City of Vancouver.

      Would you expect that in New York City?

      There are other options – townhouses, condos or moving to a different city.

    3. I agree that it’s a delusional entitlement issue, but I don’t agree that young people are any more delusionally entitled than older people. Older generations feel entitled to not even see any unsightly development occurring in their leafy neighborhood while their property values balloon.

      So in a way, the sense of entitlement coming from old people is far more damaging. Young people can write on signs and whine, but old people actually skew the planning process in their favor to keep people out and inflate their property values.

      1. Good point about the older folks.

        If ownership comes with privileges, then perhaps it should also be fully-burdened – by cancelling the home-owners grant. Then they’d be paying for their privileges…

  2. Good that the City is finally exploring the missing middle. But count me in the “too little, too late” camp. This on page 10:

    “In an effort to minimize change to single-family areas, the proposed areas considered for change are limited and focused, resulting in 74% of single-family zoned parcels in the Corridor left unchanged.”

    And that’s all within walking distance of Canada Line. Why this obsession with maintaining $1,000,000+ single-family homes adjacent to high-capacity public transit in a city where we desperately need additional housing for families and young professionals? This is not ambitious enough.

    1. Affordability is a zero sum game.

      If prices are ever to become “affordable”, a vast segment of the population would need to see their biggest asset and retirement fund lose value.

      Everyone pays lip service to the notion, but should we be surprised there are no serious measures taken to increase “affordability”? There is really only one measure which would improve affordability, and that is to increase housing supply at a rate faster than population growth. I doubt that’ll ever happen. And if it does happen, and prices start to fall, you can imagine how quickly it’ll be stopped.

      1. If it did ever happen prices would start to decrease while other projects would be in mid construction so those projects would not be cancelled. This could lead to further price reductions. It is possible but it would require really brave municipal leadership, its possible but very unlikely.

      2. Upzoning to multi-family housing will more likely lead to win-win scenarios for existing homeowners. Valuations of single-family homes in upzoned districts would skyrocket on a development premium. Retirees in Vancouver bungalows would actually see a huge increase in sale price, since developers would stand to make more return on the sale of multiple units on the same parcel of land.

        As was mentioned on this blog a few days ago (https://pricetags.wordpress.com/2015/04/09/simple-math-elizabeth-murphy-responds/), increase in apartment supply may actually be exceeding projected growth in demand. What’s missing is the “missing middle” — homes between 2br+den glass apartments and suburban-style single family houses.

        More money for homeowner boomers, more housing for young families, less pressure on all levels of the housing market, more use of active and mass transit, etc. I don’t see where the negatives are. As far I can see, the only thing preventing the City from blanket upzoning à la Kitsilano RT-8 is a BANANA revolt — Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.

        1. I sure hope you’re right. This depends on the degree of “fungibility” in the housing market. If housing is basically a commodity, then the supply-demand paradigm best explains things. If it isn’t, like if the market is just fundamentally segmented into housing types and people want something very particular, then a different perspective might best explain things.

          Honestly, both outlooks probably explain some aspects of the market.

        2. Unless you have an expectation that single family home prices would be lowered by increasing the supply of multi-family homes then a lack of fungibiliy shouldn’t be an issue for affordability.

          If there are essentially two markets, one for multi-family and one for single family, then replacing single family with multi-family should improve the affordability in the multi-family sector and reduce the affordability in the single family sector.

          If there good degree of fungibility in the market on the other hand then you might expect to see improved affordability throughout the housing sector since the overall supply of housing is increasing even as the supply of single family is decreasing. It’s worth noting though that you wouldn’t expect the same improvement in affordability of multi-family because of the additional demand from the people previously committed to single family.

          1. If multifamily homes are perfectly fungible with single family homes, then replacing single-family with multifamily will result in more supply and lower prices across the board. If multifamily homes are not fungible with single family homes, then they will become affordable more rapidly with increased supply, while single family homes continue into the luxury investment stratosphere.

            In Vancouver, the reality is somewhere in between. Certainly single family homes are more fungible with well-designed townhomes than with 2br apartments. Many families would choose a ground-access triplex in Vancouver over a Maple Ridge house for reasons of lifestyle and commute, but not a fifth-floor 2-bedroom apartment

            I don’t see how either scenario is undesirable for the livability of Vancouver. It’s plain that the market for single family homes is no longer about housing people.

          2. There is always a degree of fungability. Use me as an example if you want. I now live in a condo, although could afford a house. Many people will interchange them, especially if the price differential is sufficiently attractive, but some will never buy a condo as they like individual land ownership.

            One needs to assume though that single family houses will ALWAYS be expensive in Vancouver, and never ever drop in value, except for small annual fluctuations. I wished politicians just be honest and say so. No amount of planning can reduce single family house prices unless you subsidize them, say force extremely high taxes on some groups, or allow only certain people to buy certain homes, such as “no house may be owned by families with less than 3 kids” but that is neither good policy nor likely.

            When I lived in Burnaby (as a renter, starting my career) in the late 80’s you had the very same debate as today: “who can afford it, house prices too high, there is a bubble, unaffordable for the average family, bla bla bla ..” the EXACT same debate as today 25+ years later. “Who can afford a $250,000 bungalow in Burnaby” they asked in 1988 .. and today, that same bungalow is at least $1M and will be $2M+ in 2035.

            Single family houses are cheaper as land gets cheaper, i.e. further out: Coquitlam, Bowen Island, N-Van, Port Moody, Delta .. so if you include those cities in your definition of “Vancouver” it would have plenty of houses under $1M. Plenty.

            Vancouver is not all that different than other large cities in Europe. Houses are expensive and only people of means buy them. One reason I moved to Canada.

            1. I think there are two main points:

              1) Whether or not they are largely fungible an increase in supply of multi-family is still a good thing, except for possibly from the perspective of people strictly looking for single-family homes.

              2) Gordon really needs to reduce the allowable nesting depth in his comments section.

  3. The vast stretches of single-family homes in Vancouver are the Expo lands of tomorrow in this City. While this plan will be loudly criticized by some, there will be little protest from the property owners affected by this plan. The lands to be rezoned are already rapidly being assembled and sold off for development:


    The most shocking part about this process is that some of the homes being sold off in this manner were recently built. For example, this large home at the corner of Heather and King Edward with a carriage house and massive, granite retaining wall is now for sale as part of a larger assembled parcel:


  4. The “I Don’t Have 1 Million” campaign bugs the hell out of me, and I’m exactly the target demographic (young, decent salary, could afford a house in, say, Kelowna but not Vancouver).

    It perpetuates the idea that a detached single family home is what we should all be aspiring to, and implicitly argues that we have a right to such housing in a crowded urban area.

    Affordable rentals? Yes, absolutely. The Cambie rezoning is a blueprint for the rest of Vancouver. But affordable homes? Forget it. Move to Kelowna, rent, or buy a condo.

    1. Mike, studies repeatedly show that a house of one’s own is what most people want. Few people aspire to multifamily housing. Rather than beat one’s head against a brick wall about it, let’s look at policies that prioritize the needs of Vancouver’s working residents over wealthy offshore interests.

      Given that a decent family sized townhouse costs at least a million now, it’s foolhardy to think new builds will be any cheaper.

      1. And what specific action do you suggest here for its “working residents” ? Subsidies ? Higher taxes for foreigners ? Higher taxes for non-working residents (aka seniors) ? Higher density ?

  5. Let’s put some number on how affordable could be a row house in the Cambie corridor

    the land is appraised at ~$300/sqf in teh Cambie Corridor
    So $1M will be be not even enough to buy the land for a row house in this corridor!
    put a house on it, and probably a row house will need to be priced in the vicinity of $2M to make financial sense for a builder.

    The picture could be slightly better for a townhouse. If by “affordable” we mean a house able to be financed on average working income . I am afraid it is too late for “affordable “ground-oriented and family-friendly” housing” form in the Cambie corrdior.

    It is also too little.
    The grey shaded area should be all zoned for mid rise. (as in Norquay for the transition zone).

    then the surrounding “block” for town/row house, and the rest of the area as per Chris suggestion (RT-7 RT-8 style).

    By the way, this devlopment in East Vancouver was offered for sale last saturday:

    It has been a matter of hours before being sold-out (priced between 770K to 900K and it was multiple offers situations! Land is strata title)

    No doubt this kind of product is in very high demand, but almost impossible to build in Vancouver due to adverse zoning.

    Having the City Staff/Council bragging that 74% of he Cambie will be preserved of even such a gentle densification” is really the root of the Vancouver affordability problem.

    otherwise, excellent comments and post from Chris.

  6. There is a cognitive dissonance I find with many people when discussing density and prices. It was perfectly displayed by Stephen Quinn in his article “Selling density as a means to affordability is Vancouver’s Myth.” He goes on to discuss the relatively more affordable multi-family options he found on the Cambie corridor, and follows it with “So with the law of supply and demand apparently suspended…let’s just admit that the myth of affordable housing in the Cambie corridor is exactly that – a myth.”

    So some degree of price reduction was found through density, but since that degree wasn’t as large as you might hope the conclusion is that supply and demand doesn’t apply in Vancouver? Then why the price reduction… and could there have been a greater degree of price reduction if a greater degree of densification was permitted?

    Just looking through some listings I found a brand new 2.5 bedroom condo in Vancouver with great access to transit and lots of amenities for $440,000 (it has sold). For first time home buyers in Vancouver that is in the realm of affordability. But in a community meeting if I talk about how I think we should allow for more dense multi-family construction because we need more affordable options, I get the response “well no, it is a myth that density improves affordability”, or “density could be affordable but in reality the developers just take all the profit.” Yet the affordable options you see in Vancouver have all come from increases in density, so how could these statements be true?

    1. This was exactly my reaction reading Quinn’s column, and a puzzling interpretation of affordability that many in Vancouver seem to share. The interpretation seems to go something like this: new-construction multifamily homes are expensive in Vancouver, despite being more affordable than single family homes, so this means no quantity of multifamily homes will make them more affordable and that we should oppose density entirely.

      I don’t share this interpretation, and I don’t think most people who have experience with property markets will either. Quinn ridicules Sam Sullivan for invoking rules of supply-and-demand, but at the most basic level the price of real estate in Vancouver comes down to how much of a given housing type is available versus how much it is wanted. It’s very clear that multifamily housing is in high demand in Vancouver, and that the demographic looking to buy them are families and professional couples trying to stay in Vancouver. It’s also clear that multifamily housing is in short supply. To me, this is a more rational explanation as to why multifamily housing is expensive in Vancouver: that it is in high demand and there isn’t enough of it. Not, in the words of Quinn, that the law of supply and demand is “apparently suspended”, however sensational that makes for an opinion column.

      Unlike single-family homes, we can increase the supply of multifamily housing in Vancouver. This is what we did for apartments, and why they are still within financial reach despite the spiking price of houses.

  7. Multi-family would be more attractive if there was more variety in apartment sizes and styles, and if the buildings were built more soundproof. Compared to Europe, Japan and especially Korea apartments here are poorly soundproofed (nothing to do with materials, but with regulation). It’s bad planning and policy to cram more and more people into small spaces without changing the building code to ensure better soundproofing.

    1. Antje (from Holland or Germany?) I agree with your (scientific ? anecdotal ? ) statement. However, do you got some evidence for that, or is it just hearsay ?

      1. Japan and Korea have much stricter soundproofing standards, which Canadian lumber exporters had to figure out when they promoted North American platform wood frame construction in those countries. In many European countries both single-family houses and apartments are also built more soundproof (maybe even all of Europe).

        Perhaps soundproofing of multi-family buildings was not regarded as important in North America because historically most people lived in houses or at least they aspired to live in a house. But the majority of new housing in Canada has been multi-family for many years now.

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