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British Columbia Vancouver to allow duplexes on most single-family lots as city seeks to unlock more housing options

A neighbourhood of single-family homes is seen in Vancouver's West Side on Sept. 5, 2018. The move to allow single-family lots to be rezoned for duplexes would not be as big a change as it would be in other cities, because Vancouver already allows anyone with a lot zoned for single-family houses to have a basement suite and a laneway house.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The departing Vancouver City Council has passed an unprecedented zoning change to allow duplexes on almost every single-family lot in the city, in an effort to provide more housing options in a city in the grip of a crisis in affordability.

However, even the most ardent supporters of the zoning change say affordability will not be vastly improved and builders say they don’t expect a stampede of demand from homeowners hoping to build more density on their properties.

Mayor Gregor Robertson said the change, which was approved in a vote on Wednesday after two days of public submissions to council, was one small step in providing a needed housing choice in the city.

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“This is not the silver bullet, this is the important next step to produce more housing options,” Mr. Robertson said. “This is not a sweeping change, this is not more density, this is a smart and thoughtful addition in our lower-density neighbourhoods.”

The zoning is believed to be a first for Canada, although a couple of cities in the United States have taken steps in recent years to increase density in single-family neighbourhoods. Portland, Ore., now allows duplexes and triplexes, while Minneapolis, Minn., recently went through a much-debated decision to allow fourplexes.

It isn’t as big a change as it would be in other cities, because Vancouver already allows anyone with a lot zoned for single-family houses to have a basement suite and a laneway house. People who build duplexes will actually be permitted less buildable space than those who stick with the house/laneway/secondary-suite configuration. Duplexes would be allowed on single-family lots in all areas of Vancouver except one West Side neighbourhood that includes parts of southern Shaughnessy.

The difference with allowing duplexes is that it would bring a different kind of resident onto those lots, because the current laneways and suites tend to be populated by lower-income renters and students or singles. Duplexes would allow for two higher-income families or couples on a lot.

Still, about 70 speakers turned out to argue against the city’s Making Room housing plan and three of the candidates in the crowded race for mayor have said they will work to overturn the decision.

“A large amount of our hallmark green space will be lost. It will destroy what makes Vancouver such a green and charming city,” resident Hilary Reid said.

But builders said in interviews they don’t expect there to be a massive change.

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“You won’t see the really high-end neighbourhoods turn into duplexes, but I think it’s going to occur in the more moderately nice neighbourhoods,” said Bob de Wit, the chief executive of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders Association. He said that builders will likely continue to be attracted by the option that already exists in Vancouver: a house with a laneway and a secondary suite.

City council also heard from younger residents and renters who argued in favour of adding any new housing to the city, although many said the change didn’t go far enough.

“Young people and young families are having a difficult time,” Rachel Selinger said. “This would allow my friends, my family, a better chance of staying in my city.”

Vision Vancouver and Hector Bremner, a mayoral candidate with a new party called Yes Vancouver, voted in favour, while Non-Partisan Association and Green Party councillors voted against it.

Green Councillor Adriane Carr said she worried it would lead to more demolitions of good housing stock, as well as speculation. She also questioned how much housing this would really provide for those struggling now.

“What are the impacts of this on affordability? It might be affordable for the people earning about $150,000 a year and more. That’s not in my mind the big target.”

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The zoning change doesn’t become official until the bylaw is voted on, which is scheduled for council’s last meeting on Oct. 30 − 10 days after the civic election. A new council doesn’t get sworn in until Nov. 4.

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