Vancouver's Missing Middle Initiative Misses the Mark

Too Little Middle, Much Too Late

It was almost 5 years ago now that a then Vision-majority City Council, already frustrated at the lack of progress on "missing middle" housing policies, formally asked planners to bring forward proposals to allow more housing choices, from tri-plexes to small apartment buildings, in Vancouver's vast swathes of low-density RS (single-family detached house) zones. Planners have now finally presented a proposal for discussion, and, after such a long wait, it is an extraordinary disappointment.

"Missing Middle" includes duplexes through small apartment buildings

The proposal is to allow up to four homes on a standard 33'-wide lot, and up to 6-plexes on 50'-wide or larger lots. Low-rise apartments and townhouses would still be banned outright on most of the city's residential land, as they are today. The homes would be sold off individually under strata title (i.e. like condos). This has the potential to be much more viable than purpose-built rental policies, as rental buildings have much lower value than condo buildings, and plexes generally lack the economies of scale of larger rental buildings.

The Good

The policy may allow a homeowner to pay a "density bonus" fee in lieu of providing a below-market home on-site. These fees can be used to build equivalent housing, better targeted to those in need of non-market housing. A requirement for an on-site below-market unit is appealing because it could help create mixed-income neighbourhoods, but it would be much less flexible as both the size of the unit and the subsidy would have to be targeted to what the buyers of the market-rate units are willing & able to subsidize. The greatest advantage of charging fees instead is that they can be adjusted annually to ensure the program stays viable, thus ensuring that both market and below-market homes are actually getting built.

The proposal would also make it optional to include more than one parking spot, basically letting the market decide, or may even set a maximum on parking spaces.

The Bad

Planners have stated that they expect this plan to mostly replace single-family and duplex redevelopments that are happening anyway, perhaps about 150 projects per year. It has not been stated whether any extra provisions will be made for tenants living in existing basement suites.

The Ugly

The plan allows only up to 1.0 FSR (Floor Space Ratio: the ratio of total floor area of buildings to land area). Staff say this limitation is necessary because of aging infrastructure. It is unclear what, specifically, the limitations are. At the council meeting where the proposal was presented, planners pointed to concerns about storm water runoff, but were unable to specify what amount of lot coverage they assumed, even though it is the footprint of buildings, and other impermeable surfaces like asphalt, that increase runoff. 1.0 FSR is an increase of only 17.6% over what is already allowed for single-family detached houses with laneway houses. While citywide policies are in general a good way to get more housing built, a "lowest common denominator" approach to infrastructure that needlessly reduces housing options is not.

Furthermore, allowing fourplexes will make the already not viable Secured Rental Policy in Transition Areas even less viable, as the transition areas are mostly located in the same RS single-family zones and will now be competing with strata duplexes. The Secured Rental Policy does allow building townhouses and small apartment buildings, but the required density to make rental competitive with single-family and duplex uses is much higher than what is needed for ownership housing.

Bottom Line

"In the long run we are all dead" - John Maynard Keynes

Our city planners are asking citizens to yet again participate in multiple rounds of consultation on the smallest possible increment of change, after delays running the better part of a decade. They are once again aiming to make their own policies as ineffective as possible, by using fees and process to limit uptake.

If this plan is approved, roughly 6 years after thousands of Vancouverites said they supported missing middle options as part of the original Housing Vancouver Strategy consultations, most missing middle housing, such as townhouses and small apartment buildings, the types of housing that Vancouver's low-density areas need more than anything, will remain broadly illegal. When it comes to alleviating the housing shortage, 150 fourplexes per year (replacing as many as three existing homes), is a rounding error. CMHC estimates imply Vancouver should be adding about 18,000 homes per year (net of demolitions) through 2030, to achieve their affordability metric.

In the long run, this proposal allows far too little housing in the areas with the best opportunity to add new homes without displacement. We should be building today what will make sense 30+ years from now, not what made sense 30+ years ago.

A Short Term Fix

This proposal could be made better by increasing the allowed heights and FSR, perhaps to 1.4. This will allow more appropriate density given land costs, and will raise much more money for affordable housing and infrastructure upgrades. Where there are infrastructure limitations, the number of projects may need to be capped until upgrades can be performed.

The Secured Rental Policy will also need to be upgraded: allowed FSR must be increased, especially off-arterial where only up to 4-storey apartments are allowed, and rental options must be set in zoning so that long, costly and risky spot rezonings are no longer necessary.

Have Your Say

Public information sessions will be held at the following locations and times (in-person events do not require registration):

  • Tuesday, February 7, 5:00-7:30pm, City Hall, Joe Wai (Townhall) Room,
  • Saturday, February 11, 2:30-5:30pm, St. James Square Community Centre, Room 120
  • Monday, February 13, 5:00-8:00pm, Killarney Seniors Centre, Grand Hall,
  • Wednesday, February 15, 5:00-7:30pm, Roundhouse Community Centre, Exhibition Hall
  • Saturday, February 18, 1:00-3:30 pm, Dunbar Community Centre, Room 208,
  • Wednesday, February 23, 5:00-8:00pm, Marpole Neighbourhood House, Gathering Hall
  • Saturday, February 25, 2:00-4:00pm, Hastings Community Centre, Community Hall
  • Monday, February 27, 6:00-7:00pm, Online Session, Sign up via Eventbrite

And don't forget to fill out the City's survey. For suggested answers and considerations, check out our Survey Walk-through.

More Reading

Analysis from Russil Wvong at More Housing: "The initial target for the Making Home four-plex/six-plex proposal was for 2,000 lots over four years (500/year), adding 10,000 homes. The FAQ for the Missing Middle proposal suggests that staff is setting much lower targets"