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Legg House represents more than a serious loss of heritage. It’s the poster child for a battle to protect truly affordable rental housing.Photos: Tracey Ayton

Applications to demolish and replace single-family houses in Vancouver have surged so much this year that city staff can't keep up, even as the wheels of council grind toward a new heritage-protection policy.

The city's general planning manager said there are 250 current applications for new single-family houses as he laid out policies Tuesday aimed at slowing down the rate of destruction for pre-1940 houses. In Vancouver, an application for a new single-family home almost always means the removal of an older one.

After months of mounting public anxiety about the rising numbers of character houses being torn down, manager Brian Jackson said Tuesday the numbers are scary.

Demolition statistics show that pre-1940 houses in Vancouver are significantly more likely to be torn down than newer ones, and most of the pre-1940 teardowns the last five years have been on the west side. Forty per cent of houses torn down since 2008 have been pre-1940 houses, even though those buildings only represented a quarter of the homes in the city.

"It really begins to tell a story that we've got a problem," said Mr. Jackson, as he laid out the proposal for change that the Vision Vancouver council asked for last December. Councillors will vote on the measures Wednesday after hearing speakers.

Those proposals include some incentives, such as giving owners permission to add more space to their character house if they retain it. And there are disincentives, such as requiring anyone demolishing a pre-1940 house to ensure that 90 per cent of it is recycled.

Staff are also proposing a temporary moratorium on any demolitions in First Shaughnessy, the city's original wealthy suburb created by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the early 1900s. Thirty-seven pre-1940 houses have been torn down there since 1982; 16 demolition applications have come to city hall just in the last year and a half.

Mr. Jackson said the city's new building code, coming into effect July 1, also allows city staff to be more flexible about upgrades when homeowners are renovating older houses.

The suggested changes have produced a wide spectrum of responses.

Councillor Elizabeth Ball said many seniors in Dunbar and Kerrisdale, who are the biggest group of owners of the city's character-house stock there, are being scared by real-estate people telling them the new protective measures will cause the price of their homes to fall because new owners won't be able to redevelop.

"What is going to make it possible for the senior trying to maximize the value of their home?" she asked, even though her party, the Non-Partisan Association, has generally been critical of Vision Vancouver for not doing enough to protect the city's older homes.

But people who have been mounting campaigns to save the city's character houses say the policies, while at least a start to doing something about the problem, are too limited.

Marion Jamieson, who plans to bring her concerns to council Wednesday, said she's afraid the new policies will just mean more demolitions in her neighbourhood, upper Kitsilano. That's because many of the older houses there are from the 1940s and won't be protected under the city's cutoff date.

Elizabeth Murphy, a former city planner, said the new policy is weak and broad-brush, compared with the very detailed zoning bylaw that was put in place in west Kitsilano during the 1980s to save character houses there from demolition.

Ms. Murphy said the new requirement to recycle 90 per cent of a pre-1940 house, if the owner insists on demolishing it, is more of an inconvenience than a barrier. Mr. Jackson told councillors that recycling adds about 20 or 25 per cent to the normal $16,000 cost of demolition.

She also said the city needs to go back and look at some of the changes made in 2009 that led to the current demolition frenzy – changes that allowed laneway houses, higher houses and more basement space.

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