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The changes to Vancouver's land use rules would move the city to the forefront of cities in the U.S. and Canada that have been amending their zoning rules in an attempt to fit more homes within their boundaries.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

City planners in Vancouver are proposing significant zoning changes that would allow four to six homes on any residential lot as they continue to search for solutions to the housing crisis.

The change would move Vancouver to the forefront of cities in the U.S. and Canada that have been amending their zoning rules in an attempt to fit more homes within their boundaries in an effort to combat soaring prices for single-detached houses.

The plan to expand “missing middle” options, presented to city council Wednesday, would allow for larger buildings on each lot in order to ensure units could be a livable size. That would mean significantly more floor space permitted on the average 33-by-122-foot city lot: 1,200 square feet more than the current 2,800 for regular homes and duplexes, and 600 square feet more than the current 3,400 maximum for character homes with infill.

The extra space would only be allowed for projects with more than just a single house. Planners are even contemplating reducing the current allowable size for a single-family house (to 2,400, down from 2,800) in order to encourage more multi-unit development.

“We’re not using our land efficiently or effectively,” said Paula Huber, a senior planner, who noted that 52 per cent of Vancouver’s available land is taken up by single-detached homes that only provide 15 per cent of the city’s total housing. “Continuing to just replace houses with houses does not align with our objectives.”

The plan would eliminate special zones created on the west side in the 1990s as residents unhappy about a wave of modern homes asked the city to have more control over new house design. Every part of the city except mansion-heavy Shaughnessy, which has a special designation, would have the same design regulations (such as setbacks and heights) and process rules for all new housing.

Ms. Huber acknowledged there are some downsides to this kind of infill housing.

Allowing more building on the city’s approximately 65,000 single-detached house lots will inevitably mean more trees cut down

“It’s harder to keep trees on the site if you put more building on the site,” she said.

There could also be strain on the city’s sewer and water systems, but the plan envisions allowing the building in every neighbourhood partly to spread out the effects and not load up a particular street, as the Cambie Corridor development of the last decade did.

For years, different councils have put forth initiatives and directives to find ways to add more homes into single-house neighbourhoods instead of funnelling development onto big arterial streets or apartment zones. As a result, Vancouver has slowly been adding extra housing units to single-detached lots for more than a decade.

It legalized laneway homes – small houses built in the back end of lots with an existing residence – and they are now one of the most popular new types of infill allowed. In 2022, 425 building permits were issued for laneways, compared with 394 for single-detached homes and 301 for duplexes.

Vancouver also allowed duplexes on most residential sites in 2018, but the overall size still had to be the same as that of a single detached house. While there wasn’t much enthusiasm from builders at first, even that option has become popular, with more than 1,000 applications since 2018.

Cities such as Portland, Oregon and Minneapolis have been going through similar efforts to allow more homes into single-family neighbourhoods, and many others are considering it.

Vancouver planners did not have any estimates of how many new homes might be created from the plan in the long term. They are also still researching various options that might be available under the new zoning, such as creating a mechanism to encourage or require that one unit in a four- or six-unit development be sold at a below-market price.

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