Opinion: Affordable housing, Hawaiian style

Whenever travelling to other places, I enjoy observing how they are addressing the various housing issues facing Vancouver. During a recent visit to Hawaii, I did not have to look far to learn about housing issues in that U.S. state since they were all over the front page of the local newspaper.

Like Vancouver, many places in Hawaii are struggling with housing affordability and homelessness.

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Yes, homelessness, even in Waikiki.

One way Honolulu is trying to address these issues is to allow higher density micro-apartments, as small as 250 square feet, with limited parking. It is noteworthy that similar proposals in Vancouver have attracted considerable attention and debate.

Currently, our city bylaws require rental units to not be less than 320 square feet and units for sale to not be less than 398 square feet.

However, a number of projects have received relaxations to permit smaller suite sizes.

In 1993, VLC Properties, the company created by the late Jack Poole to develop affordable rental housing on city-owned lands using union pension funds, developed 600 Drake St.

Sixty-four percent of the units were less than 320 square feet. (One city alderman compared these suites to coffins.) However, in the subsequent 21 years, the building has been very popular and achieved full occupancy.

In 2009, the city approved the concept of “lock-off” suites within apartments in certain zones.

Lock-offs in existing suites can be as small as 205 square feet and 280 square feet in new units. Although this concept has proven to be popular at SFU’s UniverCity where they were marketed as “mortgage helpers in the sky,” only a limited number have been built in Vancouver, generally as a lower level in townhouse developments.

A highly publicized rental project in Vancouver is the renovated Burns Block in the Downtown Eastside.

Furnished suites averaging 270 square feet rented very quickly and the developer, Reliance Properties now wants to build micro-suites for sale as part of its redevelopment of the Jim Pattison Toyota site.

My personal view is that micro-suites can offer a viable housing choice, both for rent and for sale, especially when designed with built-in furniture and storage. However, to address the concerns of municipal officials, it may be appropriate to limit the size of projects, or the number of micro-apartments in a large project, until the concept has been proven.

Another hot topic in Hawaii is under what conditions to allow “Ohana units” or accessory dwelling units.

In Vancouver they are better known as secondary suites or laneway houses. In the past, Ohana units had to be attached to the main house and could only be rented to relatives of people living in the main house. They also required two parking stalls.

Under a new proposal, they may be rented to anyone, be attached or detached from the main house, and require just one parking space.

In comparison, although Vancouver allows basement suites attached to the main house, new grade-level secondary suites cannot be attached to the main house. They must be separate structures.

Furthermore, they do not require any additional parking space.

While most people in Hawaii favour the proposed regulations, one concern expressed by some opponents is that units may end up not as rental suites, but as illegal vacation rentals. Ironically, I discovered this is happening in Vancouver during a previous Heritage Vancouver Laneway Housing Tour. While the number of laneway houses being rented out nightly or weekly, rather than daily is not known, a few are regularly listed on the Internet.

Another interesting Hawaiian regulation allows a second home to be built and sold on larger lots.

As readers of this column are well aware, I strongly advocate allowing laneway houses or coach houses to be sold in certain situations.

Perhaps it is time for Vancouver to reconsider its regulations and allow a second house to be sold on lots over 8,000 square feet, which is approximately twice the size of a 33 foot wide lot. The second house could be at the rear or as part of a duplex.

While Hawaii can learn much from Vancouver, perhaps we can learn from it, too.

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michaelarthurgeller@gmail.com

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