This week, the new, ABC-majority City Council was officially sworn in. One of ABC’s stated priorities for this Council session is to address the housing crisis by streamlining permitting and tripling the number of housing starts. How might they go about meeting this ambitious target? Here are the most promising planks we pulled from ABC’s election platform.
- Review "Missing Middle" Programs
- “Finish a Vancouver Plan OCP (Official Community Plan) in 4 years. Design 15-minute neighbourhoods where services and amenities can be accessed by walking, reducing reliance on motorized vehicles and supporting aging in place.”
- “Support increased density along the Hastings Corridor to provide new housing options and economic opportunities.”
- Reconciliation: “a stronger and more meaningful partnership, sharing in the wealth of the land and sea, and acknowledges that both the history and future of Indigenous people needs to be self-determined.”
- Double Co-op Housing in 4 years
- Approve towers in 1 year, apartment buildings in 3 months and townhouses in 3 weeks. Make CAC charges predictable and “re-focus development fees to support the creation of a greater supply of affordable rental housing stock.”
1. Review “Missing Middle” Programs
“The missing middle” can generally include anything from duplexes to small apartment buildings. Over the last half decade, Vancouver’s missing middle programs have been revised often with very little actual implementation. Duplexes, with secondary or “lock-off” suites, are allowed city-wide but cannot be larger than a single-family house, making it difficult for two would-be duplex buyers to outbid a single, deep-pocketed single-family home buyer.
In the middle of the missing middle, the outgoing Council passed two motions to look into allowing multiplexes, but specific policies are yet to come back from city planners. That hasn’t stopped some local small builders from dreaming though.
Next in our infinite series of infill housing explorations...— Bryn Davidson @Lanefab (@Lanefab) October 5, 2022
A 7 plex on a 33' lot (1.4 FSR) with only 48% site coverage (i.e. similar to a house plus garage).
Height and width tapered where adjacent to neighbouring rear yards. pic.twitter.com/jEeNGjihFZ
At the upper end of “the middle”, developers & homeowners can technically apply for a rezoning to build 4-storey rental apartment buildings, but only up to 1 block from certain arterial streets. The terms of the City’s Secured Rental Policy are generally not economically viable, to the point that, up to now, only one application in the entire city is public for off-arterial apartments under RR-2A zoning (there is another application for mixed commercial space & apartments under RR-3A zoning, but RR-3A rezonings are only allowed on the few lots with pre-existing commercial uses).
To make the “missing middle” a big piece of tripling housing starts, Council needs to focus on getting the most homes per redeveloped lot:
- Focus first on building more apartment buildings, especially rental (another focus of the ABC platform). Rental is much less viable than condos of the same size; Council can counteract this by:
- Increasing the maximum floor-space ratio (FSR) for apartment buildings. Currently, only 1.75 FSR apartments are allowed off-arterial. Increasing this to up to 2.5 FSR, as is allowed for mixed-use buildings, would also provide more space for “family-sized” apartments.
- Allowing mixed-use everywhere. This will also help lower rents for small businesses.
- Allowing apartments in more places, not just within one block of arterial streets. This will also be nicer & healthier for the people that live there.
- Being more flexible with setbacks & frontage requirements.
- Pre-zoning for rental options instead of requiring a separate rezoning process for each building. The last council was bottle-necked by the arduous, discordant, worse-than-pointless public hearing process.
- Create pre-approved and customizable prototypes of missing middle options, both large and small. This will help missing middle options compete with detached house redevelopment, which is the most common choice in Vancouver.
- Implement multiplex and rowhouse options city-wide, while making sure that extra fees do not make six-plexes and rowhouses less competitive than duplexes or detached houses. Currently, multi-family projects generally pay much higher fees per square foot than are charged for detached houses.
All of these suggestions are in-line with ABC’s platform and will help streamline the development process.
2. “Finish a Vancouver Plan OCP (Official Community Plan) in 4 years. Design 15-minute neighbourhoods where services and amenities can be accessed by walking, reducing reliance on motorized vehicles and supporting aging in place.”
Official Community Plans in other municipalities are detailed land use policy documents that are used to implement rezonings, including skipping public hearings for proposals that comply with the OCP.
Implementing walkable/rollable mixed-use density in all neighbourhoods, the type of mixed-use that actually allows and entices residents to live car-free, could be a huge win for both housing affordability and climate action. Local businesses and services will only be viable with sufficient nearby population to be customers & users.
3. “Support increased density along the Hastings Corridor to provide new housing options and economic opportunities.”
Detailed planning along the tricky Hastings corridor will be a good proving ground for the land use concepts proposed in the Vancouver Plan. Planners will have to delve into questions like “is it a neighbourhood retail village, or a truck route?”
The ABC platform separately promises a review of the DTES (Downtown East Side) Area Plan with many stakeholders involved, and to review all bylaws through an equity lens. This should mean that wealthier, detached house and strata condo-dominated areas along Hastings will be asked to shoulder more of the increased density.
Densifying around Hastings will also be key to funding BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) upgrades identified in TransLink’s 10 year priority list, and perhaps even securing a Hastings SkyTrain line, which ABC has also highlighted in their platform.
4. Reconciliation: “a stronger and more meaningful partnership, sharing in the wealth of the land and sea, and acknowledges that both the history and future of Indigenous people needs to be self-determined.”
Some MST-owned (Musqueam Indian Band, Squamish Nation and Tsleil-Waututh Nation) land falls inside the City of Vancouver, such as the large Jericho site, the plan for which is expected to come back to Council for review very soon.
In this case, the new Council can do the most to encourage more housing starts simply by staying out of the way and allowing the nations to fully realize their vision. Neighbours in should be invited to participate in planning how they want to integrate the surrounding areas with the nations’ development plans, rather than asking the nations to scale their plans down to the existing buildings in those neighbouring areas.
5. Double co-op housing in 4 years
There are currently about 6400 co-op homes in the City of Vancouver. A planning program is starting for False Creek South that will likely add some new co-ops and redevelop others for higher density.
Most likely, about 30% of these co-op homes would be below-market, so as to provide cross-subsidy from market-rate units in the same buildings. Even with this cross-subsidy, building thousands of new co-op homes will most likely require employing fees (like CACs) collected from other, market-rate projects. It is an ambitious undertaking, but if achieved would both provide noteworthy levels of below-market homes and require much-needed market-rate housing too.
6. Approve towers in 1 year, apartment buildings in 3 months and townhouses in 3 weeks. Make CAC charges predictable and “re-focus development fees to support the creation of a greater supply of affordable rental housing stock.”
The permitting backlog figured prominently in ABC’s campaign. Approving towers and smaller apartment buildings faster, along with making fees predictable, would certainly help make more projects viable.
Faster permitting is not, however, a replacement for the need to legalize apartment buildings in many more places, and doing too much to speed up permitting for detached houses, laneway houses, and duplexes relative to expediting apartments could actually harm housing affordability in the long run by locking-in poor land use for another generation.
Tripling housing starts will not be an easy task. It will require an "all hands on deck" approach from Council and a focus on fixing the big policy and operational issues instead of getting bogged down in the minute details of individual buildings. There are plenty of good ideas in ABC's platform, not to mention the Green and OneCity platforms, but they will need swift, steady execution to address a housing shortage that is only growing more dire.