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Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim says the city has taken a 'huge step' toward 'housing attainability' by approving multiplex units in single-family neighbourhoods, but critics of the plan argue the step is little more than a shuffle. Cherry trees line a residential street in Vancouver, on April 4.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

In a move that is part of a growing trend in the U.S. and Canada, Vancouver council voted unanimously this week to change the zoning for its dominant single-family areas to allow as many as six new homes per site.

Mayor Ken Sim and planners called the new rules for what are now being called multiplex zones “bold.” Toronto city council voted this summer to allow up to four units per lot and Calgary’s mayor recently launched a process to consider something similar.

A few speakers in Vancouver among the approximately 60 who signed up to comment were enthusiastic about the plan.

George Federoff, who lives in west-side Dunbar, said he and his family would have benefited hugely from the new zoning if it had been in place years ago. He renovated the family home to create a basement suite and a laneway house for some family members, but he would have built a multiplex, if he could have, to be able to house his two daughters.

“This will create opportunities for families,” he said.

But many people said it was only a tiny first step and needed to be followed with much more ambitious moves for the 70 per cent of land that has been reserved for detached single homes in the city.

Planners have estimated that the new multiplex zoning will mean about 150 to 200 of the 600 single-detached homes that are demolished and rebuilt every year in Vancouver will likely be for the new four-, five- or sixplexes allowed. The remainder will be split between more single-family homes (which can have a basement suite and laneway still) and duplexes.

One of Vancouver’s major laneway-house builders, Jake Fry of Smallworks, said the new policy will help create more equity in the city, with people able to buy homes in neighbourhoods they are shut out of now.

“We’re really looking at equity in ownership and redistributing land. And it creates agency for a lot of people,” said Mr. Fry. But, he added, “this is not a wholesale change.”

He and others urged council to see the new “missing middle” policy as just a first step.

Others were more critical, saying the new zoning is more designed to protect the status quo than bring on the big changes needed.

“Please don’t fool yourself. This is not a big change. Staff has given you a policy that is designed to fail,” said Peter Waldkirch. He was one of a number of younger people on the speakers’ list who have become vocal advocates in the city for more housing of all kinds.

The public hearing also brought out a small contingent of people who have been vocally opposed to many of Vancouver’s recent efforts to allow denser housing in different parts of the city.

Randy Helten, who founded a group called CityHallWatch more than a decade ago, said the public hadn’t been consulted enough and urged council to consider it a pilot program that would be adjusted quickly if it started producing negative impacts.

Barbara May worried that the new policy will mean the loss of many trees and gardens, to be replaced by a lot of concrete.

The new zoning comes with a provision that the maximum size of single-detached houses will be lowered, something that prompted many people supporting the overall change to say that they disagreed with that part.

Architect Tillie Kwan, who had started a petition to oppose the downsizing, said big single-family houses also provide a lot of housing options in Vancouver, especially for large multigenerational families or those wanting to rent out basement suites to be able to afford the homes they bought.

Planners told councillors repeatedly that they had reduced the allowable size of single-family homes in order to discourage people from replacing one house with another house and to encourage duplexes and multiplexes.

Heritage advocates were also concerned that there is little in the policy about incentives for owners wanting to restore and preserve Vancouver’s older homes.

Laura Carey, the executive director of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, said renovating older houses, rather than demolishing them to build something new, helps reduce the amount of construction waste going to landfills.

Architect Carmen Kwan also supported more incentives for older homes, saying they often provide affordable housing once they are renovated.

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