May 26, 2017

The Dilemma of Affordable Housing Design

We never used to have a term called ‘affordable housing.’  If housing was produced by the market, it was affordable to local buyers or it didn’t sell.   Speculators could only function when scarcity existed, and there was always the risk that lower-cost housing could come on stream and drive down the price.
If government built the housing for those not served by the market, it was ‘social’ or ‘non-market’ housing.
But there was a problem.  Affordable housing tended to look like this:

Or, in multiple-family form, like this:

Both versions are Vancouver Specials from the 1960s: the least amount of architectural design, the most amount of density – where the land was a relatively small component of the final price, not the determining factor.
Imperial Towers, at 1255 Bidwell, is perhaps one of the most egregious examples. According to Emporis, it is the 26th tallest building in the city, the first to have 30 storeys, the tallest apartment building in western Canada at the time.
Designed by architect Peter Kaffka, completed in 1962, it was developed by former Vancouver mayor Tom Campbell (he became alderman in late 1962, mayor from 1966-72).  Talk about developers controlling City Hall.
When completed, this was the last wide-slab tower permitted in Vancouver.  After that, the floorplates were smaller, the towers thinner, the heights shorter.
The public backlash was understandable.  If growth was ever said to be ‘out of control,’ this was the time when public amenity and urban design were less used if not unknown terms in the approval process.
But here’s the irony: with increasing design control, slower approvals, more downzonings and constraints, both quality and price went up.  In other words, we induced scarcity by stopping growth from being ‘out of control’ and getting much better quality in amenity and design.
Today, the Imperial is still targeted to middle-income renters (one-bedrooms under $1,500), even though it sits on one of the more attractive sites with dynamite views in a very convenient neighbourhood, half a block from English Bay, next to Alexandra Park.
Yes, land cost is the most excruciating factor today – but it too is a function of scarcity that could be alleviated by significantly increasing density in return for negotiated affordability.  If we really wanted that.
There will be a host of new towers emerging on lower Davie Street in the next few years (already word among neighbours unaware of the 2015 West End Community Plan is that growth is out of control.)  While there is provision for more rental and some affordable housing, most of the new housing will not be considered by most to be ‘affordable.’
But would anyone really advocate we return to the era of the Vancouver Special and Imperial Towers?

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  1. If the trade-off that you’ve identified really is true (and certainly many would argue that it isn’t) then we as a society decided to drive up the cost of a basic human need in the name of elite aesthetic preferences.
    And then we did mostly nothing to compensate the people who were harmed by the resulting higher rents and reduced access.
    If that tradeoff exists, and if that compensation does not, I will loudly say yes, bring on the imperials and the specials and all the rest. Just plant more trees this time.
    It’s not like we have become unable to build ugly houses anyway.

    1. The small construction cost difference between attractive & ugly is not the problem. It is the cost of land. UBC , municipalities & the BC govt could build attractive affordable rental housing on land they already own for about $300 sq ft . Affordable rents would more than cover the interest cost.

      1. What land parcels come to mind that are owned by City of V or BC government that could be used here besides Langara Golf Course ?
        UBC is NOT building affordable housing. It is building at-market student rentals or selling land leases off at $15-40M/acre to developers for 99 years.

  2. I don’t find Imperial Tower much worse than the bland highrise parade at Marine Gateway. A refreshing reminder of a time when a more egalitarian country didn’t think views or city living was to be the purview of only the global elites. I’d take a suite there over the overpriced and new Alexandra next door. As to your West End neighbours, they’re absolutely right. It’s criminal we’re allowing affordable rental to be destroyed at several sites along Davie in favour of overpriced condo towers.

  3. Building infill houses piecemeal is the most wasteful way to build imaginable. Shoehorning a house between two others is complicated. In the time it takes to put up one Van Spec Dreck you could build a hundred units. Land assemblies are logical.

    1. Yes land assemblies make sense but they are very expensive and also risky. As such affordable housing is not going to happen in the City of Vancouver unless the city or the province does it and hands over the land for free, or substantially below market, to developers. Essentially a subsidy thus higher taxes collected elsewhere.
      Higher density makes sense in many places especially E-Van and along all arterial roads, or along subway/SkyTrain lines ( existing or planned) and will create more housing, but it ain’t affordable if done solely by private sector.

      1. I would rather see the city and province build and manage their own market rental housing on their own land than to hand the land over to developers for free. What a ridiculous idea.