Monique Choptuik knew what she didn’t want when she and her husband went looking for a place to live last year.
Not another single-family house on the west side like the one they’d been in the last seven years. Too big, too expensive to maintain, and too affected by the trend of investors buying houses and leaving them empty.
But not an apartment either. She wanted a garden.
“And I didn’t want strata,” says Ms. Choptuik, an effervescent fiftysomething. She and her physics professor husband, Matthew, had lived in a strata apartment at the University of British Columbia for several years. That form of collective ownership dominates in B.C. multi-unit developments, with owners jointly deciding on regulations and maintenance standards for the common areas and exteriors, and Ms. Choptuik felt hemmed in by the kinds of rules the collectives are prone to enacting: nothing on the decks, white curtains only, no noise.
So she started looking at townhouses and row houses. But when she visited the several projects along Oak Street and at the Olympic Village, each one was a strata unit. There was only one she found that wasn’t: one of a group of three houses at the corner of 33rd and Cambie. She loved it instantly. The Choptuiks moved in last September.
“Now, when I work in my little garden at the side, people stop all the time,” she says. “They’re curious about our place and they wish the city had more of them.”
So do many of Ms. Choptuik’s friends and acquaintances, all of whom envy her three-storey row house with its front and back gardens, its own garage at the back, and its small studio apartment on top of the garage.
So, in fact, do city planners and housing advocates and people struggling to find more housing options in this expensive city, which is oddly limited in its range. Between 2008 and 2011, only 40 freehold row houses were built in all of Metro Vancouver, including Vancouver’s lonely cluster of three. In the same period, Toronto, already a city rich with historic row houses, added another 11,277 to its stock.
(The story is somewhat more encouraging on the townhouse front – the name local developers give row houses that are strata-titled – with about 9,000 built in the past four years, compared to 5,000 in Toronto. But nearly all of them – 8,488 to be precise – are in the suburbs.)
“We were a city of single-family housing that suddenly jumped into building condo towers and we missed a stage. There’s a huge gap in the market for next-generation ground-level housing,” says Olga Ilich, the former B.C. Liberal MLA who is chairing a City of Vancouver task force on affordable housing.
While most cities with any claim to livable density – New York, Toronto, Montreal, Philadelphia, Boston – are characterized by attractive stretches of freehold row housing, Vancouver, a European city wannabe, has remarkably little of that form. Many urbanists argue that the row house provides a much-needed alternative for those squeezed by the current limited choice of condo towers, low-rise apartment buildings and single-family homes.
With the growing popularity of strata row houses, a number of local developers have begun experimenting with freehold row houses in recent years. As well, the province finally put through a small legislative amendment – it got royal assent this week – that removes a legal hurdle that had blocked freehold row housing in Vancouver. The legislation will now allow covenants to be registered on land titles requiring owners to maintain their party wall. The covenant will stay in place every time the property changes hands – something the City of Vancouver’s legal department was insistent on having before allowing freehold row houses, even though other municipalities were more permissive.
(The Cambie row houses circumvented that complication when developer Art Cowie, now deceased, came up with the peculiar measure of building separate walls for the row houses, with a one-inch gap between them.)
“They’re the next Vancouver Special,” says Ms. Ilich, who is building two townhouse projects in east Vancouver (one near Commercial Drive, the other near Fraser Street). The Vancouver Special, a boxy form of single-family house that secretly functioned as a stacked duplex for the immigrant families that preferred them, became the city’s ubiquitous form of cheap housing in the 1960s and 70s, until condos took over in the 1980s as Vancouver’s most popular building form.
But unlike the high-rise condo projects, which take a lot of time, money and big developers to pull off, row-house projects are typically done by smaller builders, Ms. Ilich says. Once those small builders get an easily replicable model, they can build as many units as any condo developer and with lower costs and risk.
According to those in the development community, there’s another step that municipalities, especially Vancouver, need to take: creating transition zones that encourage row houses, either strata or freehold. In Vancouver, they can typically only be built in duplex or apartment zones, except for a couple of limited areas – one around Oakridge, another around the new Norquay development at Nanaimo and Kingsway.
“If cities really want to encourage this kind of housing, they need to create the right zones and pre-zone the land,” says Ben Taddei, chief operating officer of ParkLane Homes, a company that has built hundreds of townhomes and was a local pioneer of the freehold row house concept (with its prep work on Langley’s Provincetown development 10 years ago).
Still, hurdles remain in popularizing row houses, including overcoming certain negative perceptions of developers and some systemic barriers in the way cities work.
Some developers dismiss row houses (both strata and freehold) as inefficient and unprofitable compared to condo towers or even low-rise wood-frame apartments, despite densities similar to low-rise apartments (which typically have to include a lot of space for common areas). Even the developers building row houses mostly insist that the freehold row house appeals only to a small niche market of people – those who aren’t comfortable with stratas – and that they’ll never be as popular here as in Toronto or Boston. That’s even though many say their freehold row houses sell for more per square foot than a similar townhouse that’s in a strata.
The economics and street patterns in many municipalities also work against row house developments. Land prices may be prohibitively high in cities that already allow both basement suites and laneway houses on a single-family lot.
And many street grids in older cities like Vancouver, Burnaby and North Vancouver produce deep lots. That works for strata townhouses that face each other inside a land parcel. But it doesn’t for freehold row houses, which have their own front yard, back yard and small garage that typically work best with a lot that’s 60 feet long. Vancouver lots are around 120 feet.
Despite those obstacles, developers say they’ve been surprised by how this form of housing, so reminiscent of Europe or eastern American cities, provokes an emotional response in buyers and a tendency to hang on to them.
Townhouses throughout the region tend to be listed less often and sell faster than other forms, says Geoff Duyker at Mosaic Homes, a company that specializes in building what look like very traditional row homes. “They have an incredible romantic appeal.”
Census numbers show that young families are leaving Vancouver. The city had about 52,500 residents in their late 20s in 2006. By 2011, that group, now in their early 30s, had shrunk to 47,500. It appears they had children they took with them, as 2,300 young children who were in Vancouver in 2006 vanished by 2011.
But the move is not necessarily to buy single-family dream palaces in the suburbs. A lot are leaving to buy the urban-friendly, smaller, dense housing that’s missing from the region’s central city and is increasingly part of the suburban model. (In Surrey, 27 per cent of all new housing in 2011 was row housing, either strata or freehold.)
Statistics from housing analyst Dale McClanaghan show that townhouses sell for half of the average single-family house in Burnaby and about a third less than the same in Vancouver.