Monday, April 18, 2016

Vinson House Cottages: A Heritage Revitalization Agreement (HRA) proposal West Vancouver

An artist's illustration of the proposal to conserve West Vancouver's heritage Vinson House and add two cottages on the large (almost double lot) property at 1425 Gordon Avenue in Ambleside
It was five years ago today that my rezoning proposal for Hollyburn Mews went before West Vancouver Council. It was eventually approved and today the development is highly regarded in the community as a development for those ready to downsize, but not downgrade.

I am pleased to report that Vinson House Developments Ltd, a partnership between Trasolini/Chetner and one of my companies has now submitted another innovative housing proposal to West Vancouver. If approved, Vinson House Cottages will result in the conservation of one of West Vancouver's oldest houses, two infill cottages, and a basement suite on a large 11,550 sq.ft. Ambleside Lot.

Details can be found here,

The staff report goes to Council next Monday April 25th and if supported, a Public Hearing will be held on May 16. If you live in West Vancouver, and are concerned abut the loss of heritage and character houses, and agree there is a need for more housing choices, I hope you will come out and support this proposal at the Public Hearing.
An artist's illustration of the view along the lane with the new laneway cottage, and garages serving Vinson House and the new infill units.

Is Vancouver really running out of land? Opinion: Vancouver Courier April 14, 2016

When you fly over Vancouver you see a lot of blue and green....but there's also a lot of grey. We should be building on some of these grey areas; roofs, roads, railway ROWs, etc.

We are often told that Vancouver is running out of land. While the region is constrained by ocean, mountains and ALR, a more important issue is whether we are really making the best use of the land we already have. I do not believe we are.

This was the underlying theme of my recent lecture titled “12 New Affordable Housing Ideas,” which followed up on a similar lecture just over a year ago.

There are numerous ways we can create new housing sites in the region if we just use our imagination. They range from the small — subdividing corner lots for smaller, detached single-family houses — to large-scale redevelopment of aging public and social housing projects.
When you fly over Vancouver you see a lot of green and blue, but there is also a lot of grey. The grey areas include streets, rooftops, and large swaths of industrial lands.

I see real potential in building housing on top of existing apartment buildings and other rooftops. While this might seem far-fetched, it is already happening in many places. One Toronto non-profit increased the number of units by locating modular housing units on its rooftop. It’s an excellent way to conserve and upgrade older buildings, and increase housing stock.

While in the past progressive zoning bylaws separated residential and industrial development to prevent people from having to live next to noxious industry, today’s industry is very different from our grandfather’s industry. I foresee many opportunities for mixing new housing with uses such as high-tech industries, and even warehousing, storage, and other similar uses.

In response to those who might be concerned this will simply increase the value of industrial land, I would argue that as long as industrial development is maximized, does it really matter if land values rise because the sites can now accommodate new housing.

Many Vancouver architects and planners will remember a 1980s downtown Vancouver zoning policy that allowed residential development on the upper floors of office buildings, provided the amount of office space was increased. This “4+1+1” zoning provision, which allowed extra housing density in return for an additional office space, might be a precedent for future development on light industrial lands.
I also see opportunities to build new housing over public infrastructure such as roads and railway lines, including key nodes along the recently acquired Arbutus Railway Corridor. My talk suggested other ideas.
While it’s often sacrilege to suggest that we should be building on green spaces, I know of two green spaces that should be developed for housing. The first is a berm running along Sixth Avenue that was created to protect future residents of the south shore of False Creek from railway noise. Now that the railway no longer runs, we should build new market and non-market housing here.
We should also cut off a strip of the Langara Golf Course, fronting along Cambie Street for new housing. This would be very feasible, without destroying the golf course. More importantly, given the new Canada Line station and land values in the area, this would make a lot of sense.

I would also like to see more housing over water, noting the desirability of floating homes. While I acknowledge these homes must not interfere with the operations of Port Metro Vancouver, there are many locations where floating homes could be accommodated. Furthermore, they may be the best solution to address rising sea levels and climate change.

As I noted in my last column, the 2012 Mayor’s Task Force on Affordable Housing included excellent recommendations on how to create more affordable housing. While the city’s chief housing officer attended my talk, he has not yet called to thank me for my suggestions.
However, I hope the city will now carry out an annual review of the task force recommendations to see how much progress we are making.

I also urge city planners to prepare an overall planning framework for the city, including new procedures to determine how we finance growth, since the current “let’s make a deal” approach to determining community amenity contributions is unfair, and adding to the cost of housing.
But that’s another story for another day.

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Breaking into the housing market: My advice to millenials at Kollel April 7, 2016

A full house at Kollel learned about housing policy and taxation, and where and how to buy a home.
You don't have to be Jewish to worry about getting into the Vancouver housing market. However, on April 7th I was pleased to join UBC professors Tom Davidoff and Penny Gurstein on a panel discussion at Kollel, a Jewish community organization, to discuss housing affordability in Vancouver.

Davidoff is a very interesting guy.The incoming Director of the Sauder Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate, he obtained degrees from Harvard, Princeton and MIT; worked in real estate development in Brooklyn, with two startup real estate intelligence companies, and at UC Berkeley. He has published research in leading economics and finance journals, and advised the White House on housing and mortgage policy. Most recently, he attracted a lot of attention with a taxation proposal he developed with and other UBC and SFU professors, to discourage vacant housing.

Penny Gurstein is Professor and Director of the School of Community and Regional Planning and the Centre for Human Settlements at UBC. Her research interests focus on helping people who have been marginalized in planning processes. She has led a number of large research projects investigating housing access and affordability, and inequality and access issues for low-income people.  

While Tom and Penny provided a broad overview of housing and taxation policies, and how they should be improved to increase affordability for all segments of society, I decided to provide more practical advice to those in attendance, based on my own experience.

So what did I tell people?

My first bit of advice was something told to me when I was still at university. While hitchhiking to school, I was offered a ride by someone who warned that he had to make a few stops. I soon realized he was picking up rent cheques. He asked me where I lived and if I owned my property. I was 21 and told him of course not. He told me to buy as soon as possible, and not to worry about paying too much because in the long term, the price wouldn't matter. If I couldn't afford a place of my own, buy one with one or more friends. Foolishly, I didn't take his advice until 11 years later. 

In terms of where to buy, I suggested that the best investments are often in the worse part of town. I reflected on how many years ago I used to tell people to buy in the Downtown Eastside, other parts of East Vancouver, Maillardville (Coquitlam), New Westminster, and Squamish, I still regard these places as good investment areas in terms of potential upside.

In terms of buying new or used, I recommend buying older condominiums, rather than presale units. While we don't talk about it a lot, in some parts of Metro, new units are like new cars; they depreciate when driven off the lot. However, if you are buying an older unit, do not buy into a project that has not completed a depreciation report. 

This led to a discussion of the value of depreciation reports. While some are being prepared by firms that are not qualified, and too lax, others may be overly conservative. I think this is fair comment; however I stand by my advice.

On whether to buy wood frame or concrete, as a rule I prefer concrete, noting the premium is often not as high as it should be. If buying into an older building, it is important to see if it has been 'rain-screened'. If buying into a wood frame building, it is best if it has roof overhangs. If not, it is likely to leak again. 

We briefly discussed the benefits of co-housing. While this is a relatively new concept in Vancouver, it can be a good way for younger people to band together and get into the market.

 I also suggested a few small 'tricks'. When looking at a unit, examine it carefully. Too often people buy, especially in this market, without checking to see if there are enough electrical outlets, or room to furnish properly. Also check to see if there is a lazy-susan in kitchen corner cupboards. If not, don't buy. If the developer is trying to save a few dollars here, where else has he tried to save money?

If you can't afford to buy, you may need to rent. As a general rule, while rents may seem high, they are often a good deal compared to buying. I have found that many new laneway houses rent for much less than I think they should, given all they have to offer. 

Finally, I told anyone who still hasn't bought real estate who has a car to sell it. When one compares the cost of operating a car over 10 years, with what the same money will do if invested in real estate, you're much better off without the car. Join a car-share instead.

12 New Affordable Housing Ideas SFU Lecture April 6, 2016

While many of my colleagues hate public speaking, I enjoy it. More importantly, I enjoy sharing ideas, especially about housing. 

Over the years, while working for CMHC, and subsequently as President of UDI, the SFU Community Trust, and principal of my own firm, I was often invited to give talks about planning and affordable housing.

In 2011 I created a holiday greeting card offering 12 affordable housing ideas for the 12 Days of Christmas. This morphed into a 2015 SFU Continuing Studies lecture. Inspired by the response, I decided to present another lecture this year, summarizing last year's ideas, and offering 12 more ideas.  You can watch this year's presentation on-line; however, if like me, you'd rather not, below are the 24 affordable housing ideas I have presented over the past 2 years:

2016 Presentation
  1. Controls on foreign investment; taxation of vacant units
  2.  more affordable detached housing choices: subdividing corner lots; selling laneway housing; heritage conservation and infill housing;
  3. other forms of infill housing: Seattle 'four-packs';  a new Vancouver Special; 
  4. regenerating older public and social housing projects
  5. mix housing and industrial development without losing industrial lands
  6. expanded application of modular housing
  7. laneway apartments
  8. housing on rooftops
  9. housing on/in/over public assets including roads, railway ROWs, water
  10. co-housing and co-living
  11. 'supply-side' vs 'demand-side' subsidies and inclusionary zoning
  12.  planning within an overall zoning framework: the need for city plan and new approaches to financing growth.
2015 Presentation;jsessionid=0817CF8BC10F416FB6C84E935171AED9
  1. making things smaller: smaller houses on smaller lots; micro suites
  2. laneway and coach houses
  3. zero-lot line housing (eliminating unused side yards, front yardmixs and even rear yards)
  4. duplexes and semi-detached housing
  5. sensitive infill housing (replacing single family houses with three homes for sale, etc.)
  6. 'fee-simple' row housing (individually owned units, rather than being part of a condominium)
  7. creating more rental housing (including small apartment buildings and adding to existing rental buildings and complexes)
  8. stacked townhouses (so popular around the world, but not so much in Vancouver)
  9. alternative forms of construction, including 6 storey wood frame and modular housing
  10. flexible housing including 'lock-off suites' and one bedroom apartments that convert to 2 bedrooms;
  11. alternative financing including Shared Equity and Life-lease ownership
  12. creative partnerships