One of the important tasks of the Mayor and City Council especially in an election year is to heal rifts in the community and work from a base that not only represents differing opinions but is informed from public process and input from the community.
Vancouver Council’s decision asking City staff to report back on allowing up to six units to be built on a single detached or duplex lot is surprising. And not for the reasons that you might think.
As Duke of Data and Director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, Andy Yan writes in the Vancouver Sun the question is not only “who the proposal is ‘making home’ for but who will be displaced, and just how many of the units will actually be affordable.”
The proposal that was presented to Council was vague on the details, and cleaves comment in two opposite directions: a group that believes by increasing the supply of housing more will be housed, and a group that is questioning what this proposed policy will actually achieve and who it is for.
This Council with no public process or notification of residents or tenants in the residential areas is directing planning staff to work up a potential zoning regulation and guidelines for potential rezonings (and yes they are rezonings)for up to six units per lot.
This work will not be reported back to to this Council, but will be something the next Mayor and Council will be tasked with, as well as dealing with the response from the neighbourhoods that were left out of all preliminary consultations. Earlier work done by Research.co showed that the vast majority of homeowners in single detached housing areas favoured increased density.
But of course it would have been equitable for those Vancouver citizens in detached housing areas to have a seat at the discussion table, not just the group of developers, funding and housing specialists.
Instead of asking for a demonstration project of 100 projects (which is how laneway housing was first conceived and evaluated) the Council motion asked for 2,000 projects before a review.
Instead of being focused in one neighbourhood as a test community (which would have meant the City included citizens in exploratory talks) this initiative will be applied in single detached and duplex zones throughout the city.
Andy Yan perceives a challenge in that blanket approach: there are not many family sized housing units in the city that are rental, and many of the family units existing are in the same neighbourhoods that will be targeted by this new proposal.
As Andy Yan says “The ambiguous goal of 10,000 units is promised for areas already endowed with billions of dollars of family-supportive amenities. But how many of these new units will be affordable and livable family-sized units for renters or owners? Should developments with more two- and three-bedroom units be prioritized? How will these new housing units meet population needs yet also meet the profit requirements of private development? After all, from a private market perspective, affordable family-sized units are the least profitable form of housing per square foot.”
Andy Yan notes that some of the neighbourhoods have up to 80 percent rental homes, meaning that if these are demolished in favour of the smaller more compact proposed units, working-class families will be displaced.
There has been no review of who we need to house in neighbourhoods, and census data shows that family forming people, those in their late 30’s and 40’s are leaving Vancouver. Of course there is an associated dip in the number of children in the city. Those people are going elsewhere to find family housing. Shouldn’t we be accommodating Vancouver residents in all stages of their lives?
Maybe it is not quantity of units per lot but quality and closeness of amenity that is important, bringing families with children back to the city in ground oriented units close to schools, shops and services. That would also bolster the survival and support of local businesses, and create a vibrant community. Family oriented units might be needed in communities, but will not be as profitable for private development and may need to somehow be prioritized.
Andy Yan mentions the 1998 Kensington-Cedar Cottage Community vision and the Norquay Village Neighbourhood Centre plan as examples of single family neighbourhoods that were rezoned into multi-family districts. No review has been done on how effective these policies were, and what the rate of change was, or how that work would inform this process.
A development assessment and a rate of change analysis of these established plans would provide critical insights into what happened and what did not.
As Andy Yan concludes: “This city needs to go beyond faith-based development and fancy websites. Faith that housing affordability and livability will be delivered like gifts from the heavens needs to be replaced with the leadership, grit, and resolve informed by history and data from the city’s past actions — its successes and its failures — coupled with commitments to equity and sustainability in all neighbourhoods across the City of Vancouver.”
I keep saying this: identify transit crossroads and build villages at them, whether it’s 41st and Victoria or 41st and Dunbar, with a variety of housing in a variety of densities. Learn from the past!