Back in the 1990s when Christina DeMarco worked as a planner at city hall, she and fellow planner Ted Sebastian got an idea while cycling to work.
What if, they thought, the city cut 66-foot wide side streets in half to create 33-foot lots on which to build affordable housing?
After all, there was virtually no traffic on more than 40 of the north-south streets they crossed, even in areas populated by apartments.
If the idea was employed in single-family zones, they estimated anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 units of housing could be built.
Alas, the idea never got any traction at city hall.
Now there’s a chance the idea could become part of Mayor Gregor Robertson’s strategy to get affordable housing built in this city.
“It’s a great idea that has been bouncing around for some years—and given the affordability crisis—I think there’s a need to explore this further,” Robertson told the Courier Wednesday.
DeMarco, Sebastian and Charles Dobson of Emily Carr University of Art and Design submitted their admittedly simple idea to a city hall-sponsored competition and won the category for vibrant public neighbourhoods.
A jury composed of members of the mayor’s task force on housing affordability coupled with votes received online by the public selected the trio’s entry.
Winners of three categories were announced Tuesday.
“Having lived in lots of other cities around the world, I was really surprised by the amount of under utilized road space in the city,” said DeMarco, the former manager of regional development for Metro Vancouver. “There’s much better ways to use the space without interfering with traffic and parking.”
DeMarco and her team propose building different forms of housing, including row houses and duplexes, on the converted strips of land with each lot leased rather than sold.
The city could charge an annual or monthly leasing fee rather than requiring a prepaid land lease. New residents would not need to pay the significant borrowing costs required for a prepaid lease on the land portion of the home.
DeMarco said an endowment fund could be established from the lease payments and used to support affordable housing and improvements to neighbourhoods such as repairs to playing fields and keeping libraries open longer.
But what about that homeowner with the corner lot that doesn’t want a new neighbour?
“You either make a [financial deal] with the person living on that property, or you go somewhere else and try the idea on another block,” DeMarco said, noting seniors who are “house rich and cash poor” might be intrigued by a financial offer from the city.
Though many of the north-south streets allow parking, DeMarco said most people prefer to park in front of their house.
She believes narrowing a street would have minimal impact on neighbourhoods and not affect emergency vehicle access, pedestrian and bike routes or normal traffic.
That belief will be tested when city staff and the mayor’s task force finalize a report on affordable housing strategies for the fall sitting of city council.
“Ensuring that emergency response is timely and effective is paramount, so we’d obviously look at that first and foremost in any changes we’d make,” Robertson said.
The other winners of re:THINK HOUSING Ideas competition can be viewed on the city’s website. The city received 68 entries, some of which came from Ireland, Singapore, Mexico and Turkey.