Dan Fumano: Six-homes proposal latest in Vancouver housing ‘evolution’

Opinion: After controversially legalizing basement suites, laneway houses and then duplexes, Vancouver’s new six-units-on-one-lot proposal is the latest shift.

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Sandy James remembers taking an informal poll of her city hall colleagues in the 1990s and learning every one who owned a house in Vancouver had a basement suite, or “mortgage helper.”


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At the time, those suites were illegal.

It was not until 2004 that Vancouver legalized secondary suites in single-family houses citywide. Such homes already formed an important part of Vancouver’s housing stock – the city estimated in late 2003 there were more than 20,000 illegal suites. But the debate around legalizing them, James recalls, was “extremely contentious.”

It might seem surprising or even bizarre to younger Vancouverites to imagine a heated debate around basement suites less than 20 years ago. But such is the nature of a city’s evolution. There has often been tension between how some people want to live, what some others want in their neighborhoods, and what city halls allow.

James, who worked in Vancouver’s planning department from the 1980s until 2012, reflected on this history Thursday following the council’s decision Wednesday night to explore a pilot project to allow up to six strata units on a single residential lot.


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James is skeptical the policy will go far enough to have the desired effect. Many planners and development experts have expressed similar thoughts. City staff will now try to create the actual policies, and the details will, of course, be crucial. If the program eventually receives final approval, time will tell if these projects are actually viable.

But James called it “a good first step.”

Backers of this direction say Vancouver needs to add smaller, relatively more affordable homes in low-density neighborhoods where secure rental housing is scarce and ownership is unattainable for all but the very wealthy, or those who bought in an earlier era.

“This is just evolution,” James said. “The city is dynamic. The way we use space is dynamic. ”


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Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who introduced the motion, called it “the single biggest shift in housing policy Vancouver has seen in a generation.”

Every generation has had its own debates.

In the fierce opposition to legalizing basement suites, James recalls, “parking was always the big thing.”

In Vancouver and elsewhere, parking is one of the issues raised most frequently in opposition to new development or proposals to explore different kinds of housing.

Addressing council on Wednesday night, Elizabeth Murphy of the Vancouver Character House Network said: “This motion raises more questions than answers. What about parking? ”

The proposal, which directs staff to develop policies to target up to 2,000 lots currently zoned for houses or duplexes to be redeveloped for up to six stratified units, would have “a major effect on neighborhood character,” said Murphy, who is also the vice -president of TEAM for a Livable Vancouver, a new political party.


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In 2018, Murphy was a prominent opponent of the direction under Vancouver’s previous Vision-majority council to allow duplexes in almost all the low-density areas previously called “single-family neighborhoods.”

In 2009, Vancouver gave the green light to laneway houses, and faced similar backlash.

There was a time when much of Vancouver hated the housing type that now bears its name, recalls civic historian John Atkin.

So-called “Vancouver specials” started popping up by the thousands in the mid-1960s. These houses often had two kitchens, one upstairs and one down, and were therefore “an incredibly efficient house form” that was widely popular, particularly with multi-generational immigrant families, Atkin said. But a backlash to the Vancouver special had formed by the 1980s.


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In 1987, then-councilor Carole Taylor introduced a motion to ban second kitchens in new homes, as “the first step toward ensuring that single-family neighborhoods survive in at least some parts of Vancouver, and stopping the ‘exponential growth’ of illegal suites , ”The Vancouver Sun reported at the time.

At that 1987 public hearing, then-councilor Libby Davies “drew howls of outrage, as well as some applause, when she said she found an ‘element of racism’ in the debate,” Sun reporter Carol Volkart wrote.

“I find it very disturbing that every speaker from the Indo-Canadian community who got up here and spoke tonight was booed or hissed,” Davies said at the meeting. “Some of the comments that were made about ‘them’ and ‘their big families’ – I think you have to understand that Vancouver neighborhoods have changed with new Canadians who have come to live in Vancouver and there are cultural differences.”


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Council voted 9-2 to eliminate second kitchens.

Peter Whitelaw, a senior planner with Simon Fraser University’s Renewable Cities program, spoke in favor of the latest direction on Wednesday evening. Whitelaw said Vancouver’s leadership needs to reckon with the fact the population density of many low-density areas – once called the “single-family neighborhoods” – has actually dropped since the 1970s.

During that time, most of Vancouver’s population growth happened in a relatively small chunk of its land, such as the downtown peninsula, the Broadway corridor, and a few other hubs.

Much of the city’s residential land, especially in its southern half, have not experienced much physical change in the past few decades.

“But change is always happening, whether we see it or not,” Whitelaw said Thursday. “The loss of population, we do not really see it, but that happened. And eventually you get these empty, unaffordable neighborhoods. ”

The motion directs staff to report to council in 2022 with recommendations on next steps. Considering council is scheduled to break in July before the October election, it seems likely final decisions will be made by whoever sits on Vancouver’s next council.

Whenever that happens, expect debates about parking.





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