A proposal for affordable housing that is context sensitive and preserves heritage homes.
Right now the average single-family unimproved bungalow in Vancouver is valued at about $1.5 million (and most of that is land value). Given that the average family income in this city is around $70,000, this is about five times too expensive to buy because the rule of thumb is that average house should cost four times the average family income.
A simple solution emerges. Split that average home into smaller more affordable parts. Currently subdividing homes into separate ownerships is prohibited in RS-1 zoned areas, and RS-1 zoning covers over 60 per cent of all residential lands in the city. But if you could split a single family bungalow in Killarney or Dunbar into five units of various sizes, the purchase price would be, in simplified terms, $300,000. A figure much more approachable for families earning the average wage.
Of course there would be reconstruction costs associated with this change in tenure: new bathrooms, dormers, additions, more spacious basements, lane houses etc. But at even gut rehab prices of $150 per square foot that adds roughly $100,000 to the price of each of the five units -- $400,000 is (with gritted teeth) doable.
You need great architects
Architectural skill is required to insure such alterations respond both to existing architectural and neighbourhood context. Happily we have scores of examples of projects where this has been achieved. In the Kitsilano district between 10th and Cornwall and Alma and MacDonald, a special zoning district to do something quite similar has been in place since the mid-1990s. There, single family homes can be "stratified" into three individually owned units per parcel. The results are almost universally quite attractive. The stipulation for adding this density has been a requirement that, even while in many cases more than doubling the habitable square area of the structure, the existing structure must be reused. This tends to result in a proliferation of dormers, additions, side houses and lane houses added to the house and site.
I have had the good fortune of living in that area for 20 years and have made a study of these changes. The most important change? The area has become more and more alive as the decades pass. Unlike Coal Harbour and Dunbar, two districts where it seems the vampires have struck in the night, this part of Kits retains its children, and its life. The local schools are full, the resident demographic ranges in age, and in comparison to Dunbar anyway, in income. Sadly this area has also been priced out of the range of the average millennial, but it would not be such a stretch if the city took the next step of allowing four and then five strata units per site.
It's true that squeezing three units out of a 3,200 square foot lot is a lot easier than squeezing five units out of the same sized lot. But it's not impossible. Good architects can do it. And the need seems desperate. The alternative is that the next generation will not be able to compete for space in the large majority of this city, and will never have the option of locking down a share of the wealth pie in time for it to do them any good later in life.
We really need a strategy that lets our children compete with those who can afford a $1.2 million home. Today's millennials, by and large, cannot.
The fact that this strategy will reinvigorate parts of the city that seem to be losing their vitality -- with aging residents, emptying schools, empty buses and shops without customers -- seems a huge bonus as well.
Patrick M. Condon
Chair, Urban Design Program. University of British Columbia.