Rental—Streamlining or Steamrolling?

City Conversations No One Else is Having #11

Remarks to be made to City Council on November 2nd, 2021 at the public hearing considering the report, “Streamlining Rental Around Local Shopping Areas.”

All the blue and orange areas are up for grabs…and then some

“Are you serious? The report is 348 pages! And lots of them are complex diagrams! And you want my comments by the end of the weekend! That’s a big ask!”

A political friend had just asked me on short notice to review and comment on a report with the unwieldy name Streamlining Rental Around Local Shopping Areas— Amendments to the C-2, C-2B, C-2C and C-2C1 Zones and Creation of New Rental Zones for Use in Future Rezoning Applications in Surrounding Low Density Areas Under the Secured Rental Policy.” Can we agree to just call it the Streamlining Report, at least until we determine if it’s actually streamlining anything? Done. But before we look at this current offering, a bit of Vancouver zoning history is in order.

More than a generation ago, anything more than single family homes in the RS districts of the city, which are much of this report’s focus, was forbidden.  Anything more than a single-family home, certainly not the three homes per lot now permitted on each of the city’s 68,000 single family lots, was considered anathema. Basement suites were illegal and their closure was vigorously enforced by city staff—laneway houses as we now know them were nonexistent. The vexing problem of that day was the so-called “monster house,” which was actually entirely consistent with the zoning rules of the day created by city staff.

City Council asked the co-Director of Planning, Dr Ann McAfee, to find solutions to a problem that was jeopardizing the careers of the Mayor and Council. The firm I worked for was hired to examine the issues and make recommendations. It fell to me to do the research and write the report, most of which was adopted by Council and became the basis for much of today’s RS zoning. The problem of “monster houses” receded.

One “monster house” recommendation was to retain a rear yard between the main home and what was then restricted to a garage or carport, to reduce shadowing and overlook of back yards. After our recommendations were successfully approved by Council, I whispered to Ann, “We’ve preserved the future ability to have granny flats on the lane.” She whispered back, “Not ready yet!”

Almost a generation after that work, I introduced the laneway housing concept at the first ECO-density public forum in Vancouver. It was the popularity contest winner of the evening, and today we have about 4,000 laneway homes in Vancouver—one for every 17 single family homes. At that current buildout rate laneway homes in Vancouver will take more than 150 years to populate every lane behind every RS-zoned lot.

One reason we only build about 400 laneway homes a year is all the impediments to their development imposed by city staff. These add tens of thousands of dollars per home in unnecessary permitting and servicing costs, as well as months, even years of permitting delay. Most homeowners, including myself, abandon this approach to gentle densifying as too costly, too uncertain and too lengthy. This report suggests its proposed changes would produce the same number of rental homes per year as rental laneway home efforts already do—maybe we should just make it easier and cheaper to build in our lanes?

Fast forward to this report, where the same staff who impose burden after burden on even the simplest laneway rental home are proposing that RS homeowners solve the affordable housing shortage largely caused by staff’s work pace and fee demands, by accepting a massive up zoning affecting 16 of Vancouver’s 22 neighbourhoods—the other 6 are already subject to special, as-yet not revealed zoning such as the Broadway Plan and the Vancouver Plan. Arguments in favour of this “rental streamlining” focus on the dire shortage of affordable housing, forgetting that, as recently reported by Globe & Mail Reporter Frances Bula, Vancouver staff and agencies have only delivered “about 300 regular, permanent housing units on average a year.” [1] That’s 100 units per year less than the laneway homes developed against all odds by Vancouver homeowners and small builders.

In addition to this naïve math, the report’s details, or rather the devil in the details, worry me. Consider the very important Table 2 on Page 9 of the report, Summary of New Rental Zones:

Table 2 advises that 4-storey townhouse or apartment development can be up to 45 feet in height; 5-storey up to 55 feet high, 6-storey up to 65 feet high; 4-storey mixed use up to 50 feet, 6-storey up to 72 feet. My experience designing thousands of housing units tells me that the floor-to-floor height of most residential buildings, whether concrete or wood-frame, is 9 feet. These proposed apartment and townhouse numbers allow for 11 feet floor-to-floor, plus extra for ground level commercial. Given that the Cambie Corridor’s many townhouse and apartment structures are approved and built, on average, 13% over the maximum allowable height in the applicable guidelines, do we assume staff are simply building that into these guidelines in advance? Or are they building in an extra two floors so three floors can become four or five, and six can become eight? This is an important consideration given staff’s predilection elsewhere for approving more height and floor space than permitted by applicable design guidelines.

Short notice prevents me from further dissecting this report here, although I did provide my political friend with 22 pages of commentary. But I must apologize to the retired or sidelined city planning staff who developed the original C-commercial zone design guidelines that worked so well and so long in the creation of mixed-use commercial and residential projects along our arterials. Current staff have taken design guidelines developed for 4-storey developments and simply plunked an additional 2 floors on top, presumably uncaring about the resulting shadowing, overlook and other impacts that their predecessors were so conscientious about.

Following speakers may talk about other negative impacts of these proposals as they sit before you. As for me, I consider this to be not so much streamlining as steamrolling.

Brian Palmquist is a fully vaccinated Vancouver-based architect, building envelope and building code consultant and LEED Accredited Professional (the first green building system). He is semi-retired, so not beholden to any client or city hall. These conversations mix real discussion with research and observations based on a 40+ year career including the planning, design and construction of almost every type and scale of project. He is the author of the Amazon best seller “An Architect’s Guide to Construction.” He is also a member of team for a livable Vancouver, a new political party dedicated to restoring a livable Vancouver starting with the 2022 civic election.

[1] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/british-columbia/article-vancouvers-affordable-housing-announcements-remain-unfulfilled-years/