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Affordable housing rises on wise use of land

Blog by The Schacter Team | December 13th, 2006


Replace big houses with row houses, apartments

Michael Geller


Saturday, December, 09, 2006

Architect Michael Geller, a proponent of livable densification, stands between a three-storey apartment on Oak Street (left) and some single-family-detached bungalows (right) behind. Photograph by : Stuart Davis, Vancouver Sun


All too often I hear that Lower Mainland homes are so expensive because we are running out of land on which to build them.

We are not running out of land. We are just not making the best use of what we have.

By replacing single-family-detached homes on large lots along arterial roads with row houses and apartments, we could add tens of thousands of affordable homes to the Lower Mainland inventory.

Further, we could do it without compromising the integrity of the single-family-lot neighbourhoods the arterials flank and border.

To see how well this can be done, look at 42nd and Oak in Vancouver, where 43 apartments replaced four bungalows.

Alternatively, visit 41st and Balaclava, where 65 row houses and apartments occupy seven single-family lots.

Seen from above, the Lower Mainland shows a lot of green and a lot of grey. The grey offers much opportunity for residential use, especially the parking lots surrounding shopping centres and other commercial buildings and churches and schools and community centres and older apartment buildings.

Of course, you will ask, where will the parking go? In some sites, it could be placed underground. In others, it could be placed above ground in garages concealed by shops and offices and homes.

This is now happening at SFU's UniverCity development, where new homes are being built on land once set aside for parking vehicles.

In other locations, however, we could reduce the amount of parking. Just think about it.

At a time when we are all complaining about too many cars on the roads, and their contribution to global warming, most Lower Mainland municipalities are insisting that we provide for more cars!

That's right. Zoning bylaws prescribe a minimum number of parking spaces for all new developments, including low-income housing and smaller condominiums.

Consequently, renters and purchasers are expected to pay for at least one space.

While most of us are addicted to our cars and parking, it's time for our city halls to reduce parking requirements, especially for new-home developments located close to transit and community amenities.

In many places, parking-requirement minimums could become maximums. I am confident many Lower Mainland developers, if allowed, would take the lead from Toronto and other urban centres. There, no buyer is required by city hall regulation to purchase a parking space with an apartment or townhouse, a saving of $35,000 or more.

We could also create affordable housing through alternative forms of housing.

These could include back-lane homes, over, or in, garages; smaller-lot housing without useless side yards; and semi-detached houses, duplexes and triplexes.

We could also start building individually owned row houses along our streets. This is one of the most common forms of housing around the world, and yet it is not built in Vancouver.

Instead, we build row houses or townhouses as part of condominium developments.

Consequently, the people who can often least afford the service have to pay someone else to cut their grass!

These types of housing are generally not being built because our zoning, building and subdivision bylaws do not allow them

One of the most affordable housing choices in our region is the ''secondary suite'' found in many single-family-detached homes. Sometimes they are legal; often they are not.

So, why not allow legalized secondary suites in apartments and townhouses? A portion of the unit could have its own entry door, cooking, and bathroom facilities, while part of the larger home. These have been built at SFU's UniverCity, thanks to the support of Burnaby city hall. This idea could work almost everywhere.

Many residents may fear these ideas will reduce the value of their homes, and decrease the livability of their neighbourhoods. However, this is not necessarily true.

Denser neighbourhoods, offering a variety of housing choices and uses, close to public transit and other amenities, are often better neighbourhoods. Residents can walk to shops and schools rather than get in a car.

Recent planning studies by Lawrence Frank of the University of B.C. and others have also revealed that there is a direct correlation between the density of a neighbourhood, and the health of its residents.

Those living in denser communities are healthier than those in low-density locations, where residents must drive everywhere.

One Lower Mainland municipal leader has made a public commitment to increasing the inventory of homes that make home ownership more affordable and less of an imposition of the environment, natural and built.

Mayor Sam Sullivan of Vancouver is that leader.

His "EcoDensity" initiative, if only it was allowed to proceed, could help reduce housing costs, traffic congestion and create a more sustainable region. It could also help us live healthier and longer lives.

While this initiative will result in more opportunities for builders and developers, the true beneficiaries will ultimately be our children and grandchildren, who will not have to move elsewhere to find affordable housing, who will not have to sit in traffic congestion, polluting the environment.

Moreover, hopefully, we will all live longer lives to see them enjoy a truly sustainable region.

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A developer for 30 years, Michael Geller has passed the last seven years at SFU managing the development of the UniverCity new-home community. In the new year, he will be travelling the world on sabbatical, looking at how other cities are addressing their housing and urban-planning issues. He will be filing reports for Westcoast Homes readers from time to time.

© The Vancouver Sun 2006