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The downtown Vancouver skyline in an aerial view from east Vancouver, on April 9, 2022.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Vancouver City Council has unanimously voted to send a policy allowing as many as six homes on almost any residential lot to public hearing, though some criticize the proposal as insufficient to meet housing demand, while others say it’s a threat to affordability and neighbourhood aesthetics.

Planners say they only expect about 150 to 200 multiplex projects a year, given the restrictions within the draft policy, and that some of those will likely take the places of duplexes or house-with-laneway options.

Vancouver’s head planner, Theresa O’Donnell, has said this is part of a needed transformation of Vancouver neighbourhoods south of the downtown peninsula and central core that have seen little change in spite of a housing crisis. Some have even lost population.

After city council’s decision Tuesday, a public hearing is set to take place in September, followed by a final vote to approve the policy and create a bylaw enacting it. Multiplexes will likely be a legal reality by January, 2024.

But some housing analysts say the move is a timid step that will not produce anywhere near enough of the kind of housing that Vancouver is lacking.

“It seems to be purposefully incremental. Given how long we’ve been dealing with this housing crisis, it’s shocking,” said Alex Hemingway, an economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

He noted that the proposal increases potential density on a site by only 16 per cent from what’s allowed now, meaning that homes will be deliberately kept small and rental projects won’t be financially feasible.

The planning department’s choice to create such limits at a time when people are desperate for housing is a “self-inflicted wound,” he said.

But others worry that it is far too radical and will lead to beautiful and functional city neighbourhoods being torn down in favour of small, expensive boxes.

“This is shotgun approach of massive rezoning,” said Randy Helten with the CityHallWatch group that has monitored Vancouver’s land-use policies since 2009. It runs the risk of seeing affordable rental housing demolished for newer and costlier units, and the loss of many older character homes, he wrote to The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Helten and others who have objected to many of the city’s efforts to create more housing options over the years say the solutions seem to be driven by the development industry and ignore how much existing housing capacity the city has.

That group of opponents to such density proposals, which includes former city councillor Colleen Hardwick, says that Vancouver already has the possibility for more housing under existing policies because almost every lot in the city is already eligible to have a main house, a basement suite and a laneway house on it.

Vancouver’s proposal is part of a Canadian and American trend to change old zoning laws to allow more types of housing in areas that had been reserved for single-family detached homes or buildings that looked like that, with basement suites and laneway homes hidden from street views.

Toronto approved a new policy allowing fourplexes earlier this year, while Los Angeles is seeing a boom in laneway houses after allowing them two years ago. Cities like Portland, Oregon, and Minneapolis have also moved to allow more “missing middle” housing like triplexes and quadplexes.

In Vancouver, the latest proposal is part of a multi-pronged, years-long effort by the city to create more housing in general and more varieties of housing in particular as the city’s and country’s housing crisis has steadily accelerated.

One of the earliest changes was allowing laneway houses – smaller homes built at the rear of standard lots – in 2009. There are now more than 3,000 in the city, with building permits issued for 440 in 2022 alone.

The previous Vision Vancouver-led city council initiated a 10-year housing-improvement plan in 2017 that has resulted in more changes.

Duplexes were allowed throughout the city in 2019, as long as their size did not exceed what’s allowed for a standard single-family house. There are now about 200 to 300 built in the city every year in recent years.

Many other new initiatives have come on stream as well, including policies that allow for small apartment blocks on side streets, rental buildings up to six storeys on arterial roads and extra density for developers who provide some below-market apartments in their projects.

Along with that, the city recently rezoned 500 city blocks around the Broadway SkyTrain extension now under construction, permitting towers up to 30 storeys right at transit stations and up to 18 storeys in area within walking distance of a transit station.

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