Opinion: Time for a sea change in float home regulations

Floating homes overcome land constraints and offer fabulous, affordable waterfront living. Why aren’t they more accepted?

We’re surrounded by water in the form of rivers, oceans and lakes in the Lower Mainland. Water covers 71 per cent of our Earth's surface.

Here in Metro Vancouver, our land has natural and planned boundaries where homes can’t be built, such as parks and the agricultural land reserve. We’re also hemmed in by mountains and the US border, as well as our water bodies.

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Are we ignoring this abundant supply of water that can offer more affordable home options in desirable locations? I’m not talking about a derelict sailboat bobbing on anchor in False Creek.

Float homes are one solution that feature truly waterfront living with ocean or river views at a fraction of the price. Neighbours include herons, sea lions, bald eagles and many other forms of wildlife. While this style of living may not be for everyone, they do come in single family, apartments/condos, custom built or modular, prefabricated options. New models include the usual home amenities such as stainless-steel appliances, heated floors, soaker tubs, on-demand water heaters, and even rooftop decks. They follow stringent building codes, fire safety and environmental standards demanded by local, provincial and federal authorities.

Locally, we already see these charming, floating communities in Granville Island, Mosquito Creek

Marina, Coal Harbour, Ladner, Richmond, Langley and Queensborough. They also exist in other remote B.C. locations and abroad. Billed as a “Secret Sea Village”, established in the 1960s, Granville Island’s tiny enclave of float homes rarely have resales.

Seattle has float homes on Lake Union, dating back to about 1895. Not to be outdone, New York City is planning a float home community of 19 high-rises, 29 to 138 metres, on Manhattan’s Pier 40, with 450 living units, for all budgets. Serbia offers floating apartments and hotel rooms on the Danube River. The City of Amsterdam describes “IJburg”, their floating home community currently under construction, as a project that will see 18,000 homes for 45,000 people, along with schools, shops, and restaurants. Proponents call this a solution to rising sea levels and flooding related to climate change. Richmond, which also faces similar flooding concerns, might want to research this option. That rising sea level threat was recently featured at a UDI educational seminar for local home builders and other community planning experts.

While a rising tide floats all boats, how exactly do these homes stay afloat? They rely on a concrete pad filled with dense Styrofoam, moored within a marina. Although they can’t be driven like a boat, they are portable and can be towed to other locations. Using the latest engineering and innovation, newer models are more self-sustaining, with solar panels, and a built-in sewage treatment plant that discharges clean water while older homes still require daily waste removal service. Communities on water can be more densely constructed and still stay clear of commercial shipping lanes.

Judy Ross, a local realtor who specializes in float homes, is showing an older, one-bedroom, one-bath with 633 square feet of living space for $159,000 in Richmond Marina, not including associated sales, property taxes and marina fees. A four-bedroom, 2.5-bath, 2,250-square-foot home at Richmond’s Rivers Bend Marina, advertised at $399,000, just sold. No, this isn’t missing a zero in the price. In North Vancouver, steps to the newly open Spirit Trail, SeaBus and Lonsdale Quay, a new, one-bedroom-plus-loft, one-bath, 575-square-foot float home is $559,900, built by the entrepreneurial Squamish Nation Marine Group. They’ve been in the float home-building business for 10 years.

Yet these homes face the typical challenges that exist in constructing land-based apartments. Those are zoning hurdles, opposing politics and multiple layers of bureaucratic red tape.

Without a real "sea change" in public policy to accept more of these home choices, we’ll continue underusing our local waterways. These homes are ideal for people who love marine air and gentle waves, in a community that clearly welcomes landlubbers.

Anne McMullin is president and CEO of the Urban Development Institute, a non-profit and non-partisan industry association of residential, commercial and industrial builders 

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