Opinion: Affordable housing concerns here to stay

Last week, marketing research firm Insights West presented its latest poll results on the Vancouver political scene. There were not a lot of surprises, other than public awareness for one of the mayoral candidates. Sixty-six per cent said they did not know who independent candidate Colin Shandler was. I would have thought the number would be closer to 100 per cent.

As to the most important issues facing Vancouver right now, housing topped the list at 39 per cent, followed by transportation (16 per cent), poverty (12 per cent) and economic development (nine per cent).

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I expect we will hear a great deal about housing affordability over the next three months. With this in mind, here are some things I would suggest be done to reduce housing costs and improve affordability.

• There will always be a desire for single family housing in our city. However, many people would prefer smaller, more affordable houses on smaller lots. In some neighbourhoods, the city should allow 50-foot wide lots to be subdivided into two 25-foot lots. Secondary suites could be permitted on these skinny lots, but not laneway houses.

• Basement suites provide some of the city’s most affordable housing. However, they are usually not permitted in duplexes or rowhouses. Zoning bylaws should permit basement suites in these more affordable forms of housing. The city should also allow a second basement suite in larger single family houses if there is no laneway house.

• Laneway housing is becoming increasingly acceptable. However, these houses must be rental and the rents are not cheap. To create more affordable ground-oriented ownership housing, the city should allow some laneway houses to be sold, starting with those on corner lots 50 feet or wider.

• I was born in England where semi-detached and terraced rowhouses are among the most affordable housing forms. But not so in Vancouver. Neighbourhood plans should be revised to encourage these forms of housing across the city.

• Small, low-rise walk-up buildings provide Vancouver’s most affordable rental apartments. However they are no longer built since building codes require elevators and two sets of stairs from each floor. But not so in Calgary or Sydney, Australia. Since we rarely read about people burning to death in these cities, and new buildings are sprinklered and constructed with less flammable materials, we should revise codes to again encourage small, affordable apartment buildings. Accessible suites could be on the ground floor.

• The cost of underground parking can be significant, especially for smaller suites. Given societal concerns over traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, the city should reconsider having minimum parking requirements. Instead it should establish maximum resident parking requirements. To address neighbourhood concerns, visitor parking requirements should be increased beyond what they are today.

• Many older rental apartment buildings are in need of substantial upgrading. However, it is expensive to bring these buildings up to modern day codes. Moreover, tenants may need to be relocated and rents will increase. Since most landlords do not want to risk seeing their photos on the front page of community newspapers, too often they defer these major upgrades.

To offset renovation costs and increase rental housing supply, apartment owners should be encouraged to construct additional suites on roofs, above parking areas, or on underutilized land around their buildings wherever feasible. While neighbours will complain, if we do not start upgrading these buildings now, many will not last into the future, especially after an earthquake.

Recently, in an effort to improve housing affordability, the City of Vancouver announced the creation of the Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency (VAHA). This is not the first time the city has created a separate housing entity. It had one in the 1970s. Whether it will be more effective this time remains to be seen. The city recently issued a call for a board of directors. If you are interested in applying, the deadline is Sept. 22. I may join you.

There are many more things that need to be done to reduce housing costs in Vancouver. Over the next three months, I hope we will hear good ideas from the various political parties as to what they will do if elected since housing affordability is likely to remain the city’s number one issue for many years to come.

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