Want to increase Vancouver’s rental supply? Lift restrictions on duplexes

Currently, city doesn’t allow laneway houses on duplex lots

Vancouver city council’s decision to reject a rezoning proposal that would have resulted in 21 rental housing units on a large single-family lot continues to prompt much debate amongst planners and housing advocates. While some saw this as a council attack on renters or a misguided desire to protect the sanctity of single-family zoning, others recognized the unique circumstances of the proposal.

Since this decision, Mayor Kennedy Stewart has repeatedly told us we are in a housing crisis. He therefore wants to rezone other properties around the city for higher density rental apartment developments.

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While I generally support these proposals, especially within the context of overall plans, there are other planning and zoning approaches that the city should pursue to increase the supply of more affordable housing. We might take some lessons from Toronto, from where I recently returned.

Although Vancouver and Toronto share similar concerns when it comes to housing affordability, there are significant differences in the types of housing found in each city, especially within the “mature ring” — those neighbourhoods outside of the downtown core but not the suburbs.

In Vancouver, these neighbourhoods are generally dominated by older, single-family houses with basement suites. Recently, these neighbourhoods were rezoned for duplexes, but few duplexes are being built. In Toronto, comparable neighbourhoods are predominantly higher density “semi-detached” dwellings.

While duplex and semi-detached dwellings each comprise two units, duplex units are both located on the same property. However, semi-detached units are located on two separate properties, joined by a common party wall.

As a result, a duplex is a form of strata development, whereas semi-detached dwellings are not. As Vancouver attempts to gently densify single-family neighbourhoods, city planners and politicians should be promoting both duplexes and semi-detached dwellings.

But they must do more.

Over the past 10 years, Vancouver has approved laneway houses in single-family neighbourhoods. This is commendable. However, laneway houses are not permitted on duplex lots.

Although Vancouver now allows legal basement suites in single-family houses, it is not well known that it also now allows basement suites in duplexes.

If the city allowed basement suites and a laneway house on a duplex lot, the result could be five, rather than three separate dwellings on a 50-foot lot, without significant change in neighbourhood character.

This brings me to a somewhat sensitive subject. While Vancouver did not allow secondary suites in duplexes until recently, there are in fact many duplexes around the city with one or more basement suites.

Yes, they are illegal. But they often provide good, safe, and affordable accommodation…. until a neighbour complains. Then, a city inspector is likely to show up and offer the homeowner a difficult choice. She can seek to legalize the situation, which usually involves a complex and expensive development permit or rezoning process, or “cease use of the unauthorized dwelling units in the basement.” In other words, she must evict the tenants.

That’s right. Even though we have a housing crisis, homeowners around the city are currently finding themselves facing this dilemma. It is not realistic for them to obtain the necessary approvals to allow the secondary suites to continue, and for various reasons they do not want to evict their tenants, despite receiving notifications from the city that they must do so.

If the units are unsafe, the tenants should be evicted.  However, in those situations about which I have become aware, the homes have been independently inspected and adequate fire safety measures are in place.

Often the properties were purchased with suites in place. Over time, they have been upgraded with new kitchens, bathrooms and fire safety systems.

The owners do not want to evict their tenants. Nonetheless, the city is demanding that tenants be removed since repairs were undertaken without all the necessary permits and the suites are not in conformance with the zoning.

In order to increase the supply of rental housing sooner, rather than later, I would like to see the city develop a new duplex zoning that allows both basement suites and laneway homes.

This would also make it easier for the city administration to then address the many safe, but illegal rental suites around the city, resulting in greater peace of mind for both tenants and landlords.

@michaelgeller

geller@sfu.ca

Note: This story has been updated since first published.

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