A proposal for increasing attainable home ownership and/or rental that builds on the City of Vancouver’s Heritage Revitalization Agreement (HRA) policy – developed by Jake Fry, the owner of Smallworks Studios and Laneway Housing Inc.

A Proposal for Increasing Home Ownership and/or Rental using Vancouver’s existing Heritage Revitalization Agreement Policy

The core idea is to use the HRA tool to promote an initiative that would provide easy and significant incentives for property owners, resulting in both more housing and heritage retention.

The proposal is to develop a three-tiered system of development streams, with each tier representing an incremental increase in housing density.

Tier One

Allow a homeowner to preserve an existing character home by designating it through the HRA program, whereby the incentive is to allow the construction and strata-titling of a typical-sized (approx. 600–900 sq. ft. or 0.16 FSR) laneway house (laneway houses in Vancouver are currently not allowed to be strata-titled, only rented).

This incentive would increase the number of houses that would be heritage designated (thus saving such homes from demolition), add more housing density in a neighbourhood-compatible form, and offer an alternative to renting (thus appealing to a wider range of potential residents).

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Tier Two

Allow a homeowner to preserve an existing character home by designating it through the HRA program, and to add a modest amount of additional density (say up to 0.9 FSR) over current permitted levels in RS zones, and to build an infill house such as is allowed in the RT8 zone (e.g. Kitsilano, Mount Pleasant, etc.).

In this option, the principal building (the original home) would be permitted to be divided into up to 4 strata-titled units, plus the strata-titled infill house.

In this model, all the units thus created would have restrictions placed on their resale price, to reduce speculation and maintain affordability. Such restrictions could lower resale prices by 15-20% of market value, and keep this housing stock below market value in perpetuity.

Tier Three

Allow a homeowner to preserve an existing character home by designating it through the HRA program, and to add a modest amount of additional density over current permitted levels in RS zones, and to build an infill house such as is allowed in the RT8 zone (e.g. Kitsilano, Mount Pleasant, etc.).

This option is similar to the Tier Two option in terms of the building form, however in this option the housing units thus created would be required to stay as rental units (no strata-titling allowed). In exchange the homeowner would be allowed to have a little more density (say 0.95 FSR) and the principal building (the original home) would be permitted to be divided into up to 5 units, plus the infill house. In addition, the main house could also have the opportunity to create a lock-off suite.

General Conditions

Under this proposal, this initiative would be available to any single-family character or heritage home. All lot sizes could work as long as there is (as in current laneway houses) the safety requirement of a minimum 1.2 m (4 ft.) wide access path to the infill/laneway house in the rear, plus the standard 4.8 m (16 ft.) separating distance between the homes.

The City’s approvals process is key to the success of this proposal. It needs to be easy, quick and simple to get approval. The approvals process should be expedited. The City could even go so far as to put specific time limits on development application staff, within which permits must be issued under this process.

Unlike in a typical HRA, there would be less focus on ‘heritage revitalization’ and more on ‘character preservation’: this proposal seeks to keep the subject houses largely as they are rather than restoring them to a specific heritage style.

Parking is also addressed in this proposal:

In the Tier One option, only 1 on-site parking stall would be required. This will free up more of the site for the proposed development, reduce demand for vehicles, and encourage alternative means of moving about the city.

In the Tier Two and Tier Three options, 2–3 on-site parking stalls would be required for lots over 12 m (40 ft.) in width. The City could consider parking relaxations for sites narrower than 40 ft.

Observations

Any infill housing triggered by character home retention under this proposal potentially can have a lot of flexibility, meaning it would not have to be exclusively traditional infill or a laneway house.

The infill housing that existed in the pre-laneway housing era was taller (24 ft. in height whereas laneway houses are 20 ft.) and usually comprised more square footage than a laneway house.

An infill building on a character/heritage home site could differ from property to property, depending on the lot size, location of the existing character home, and surrounding character context.

‘Character Home’ will need to be defined with specific criteria developed by the City, in order to determine whether an application is eligible under this program. There are a number of ways in which this can be defined such as a date cutoff (e.g. all home older than say 1940, etc.), specific design criteria, a set of characteristics/attributes that are spelled out by the City, etc.

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VHF: Martin Knowles

Under this proposal, the result does not have to be what we have done in the past. The HRA process is potentially very flexible if the program is administered in a progressive and more facilitative manner. For example:

  • it could privilege single storey designs, with greater parking relaxations
  • it could be bigger units for rental, smaller for strata title
  • it could comprise a rental unit option
  • it could offer options which avoid onerous rezoning approvals processes
  • it could showcase innovative, progressive housing design

In short, the building form could be tailored to meet Council’s agenda. More importantly, this can be done without having to go to any committee or rewriting any bylaws – it just needs the right people supervising the HRA approvals process, with approval subject to the Director of Planning’s discretion, which could be delegated to the staff person managing this program.

Addressing Speculation

Firstly, it is important to remember that this would not be implemented city-wide. Whereas it would be available everywhere across the city, it would only be taken up by those homeowners proposing an infill project in association with character home protection through an HRA. There are a limited number of character homes.

262-grayhouseThis in itself will be a great regulator of price as this is not a bare land strata, and such projects will come with encumbrances associated with a heritage designated property. This is in addition to the price regulation proposed in the Tier Two option.

It is important that this become a homeowner-driven program – one which gives real incentives for homeowners to consider this option over simply selling their property, to open up potential equity in their homes.

It is worth bearing in mind that the hesitation by Council to allow strata-titling of laneway houses at the time this policy was introduced was two-fold:

  • At the time of its implementation, laneway housing was targeted at the lack of affordable rental – the situation has changed since then, and laneway houses are not commanding higher rents.
  • Currently the City also needs to add to the ground-orientated housing stock, to address this dwindling portion of the housing spectrum: the starter home and the downsizing home.

This dynamic has existed in the older parts of Kitsilano for a long time and we have not seen a price jump because of speculation but rather because of lack of volume of these small housing forms. This is not a housing form typically being bought by speculators but rather by owner-occupiers. For example, a look at recent sales in Tatlow Court reveals an older cohort lining up to buy there because there are no similar options allowed elsewhere.

Add to this dynamic that with a greater volume of smaller homes becoming available we will see market volumes help keep prices down, or at least slow price increases. In addition, if we allow more living units on a given property without a large increase in permitted density (FSR), as this proposal suggests, we will inherently get smaller units. As such, even if prices do not decrease (as expressed in $ per square foot) the price will go down per household, as we will have more options for smaller ground-orientated living units.

Using Covenants

The City has some options around covenants/resale restrictions. The most appropriate might be:

A covenant on resale:

This scenario lets the market set the price initially, but as a property is resold there is a fixed increase in price. This approach has been used in other cities and works to ensure that ownership is connected to occupancy, not speculation.

There could also be a scenario where price is limited to a specified profit margin (e.g. indexed to cost of living, linked to inflation, resale cap, etc.)

This program could also be used to develop by non-profit housing projects.

Some Final Thoughts

This proposal is not intended to replace or eliminate other forms of infill housing in locations or on sites that would not qualify under this program. There remain significant opportunities for other small infill housing projects in single-family neighborhoods across Vancouver.

It is important to remember that the fundamental idea behind this proposal is to privilege rental co-ownership – both in units per lot and the size of units, so that rental (versus strata title) could very well remain the most attractive option for many homeowners taking advantage of this program.