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Vancouver’s first co-housing complex moves closer to becoming a reality

Howard Staples, middle, catches up with neighbours at the WindSong Cohousing community in Langley, B.C., on Feb. 13, 2013.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver is one step closer to approving development of its first co-housing complex, following in the footsteps of Langley, Burnaby and North Vancouver – a move that could expand the possibilities of home ownership in Canada's most expensive housing market.

City council voted on Tuesday to send a rezoning request to public hearing, which could permit the proposed three-storey, 31-unit co-housing development to be built in the Kensington-Cedar Cottage neighbourhood. This would be the first project to be approved under the city's Interim Rezoning Policy, which aims to increase affordable housing choices.

At a price tag of $450,000 for a two-bedroom unit, it won't cost much less than a typical townhouse in east Vancouver, estimated by the Multiple Listing Service to cost just over $515,000.

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Brenda Birch, one of the members of the Cedar Cottage Cohousing Corp., says the project would allow her to downsize from a three-bedroom home to a one-bedroom unit because of amenities available in the 3,000-square-foot shared space, including a communal dining room, office, kitchen, laundry room, children's playroom and bike repair room.

"My mortgage will be a third less than what I am paying now," she said.

In addition to those savings, Ms. Birch said shared expenses create "long-term affordability." These expenses include maintenance and common meals, in addition to savings associated with neighbours helping out with child care and elder care. These factors helped contribute to the city's determination that the project met the threshold of 20 per cent below market value it needed to be eligible for rezoning.

Inspired by projects such as the 34-unit Windsong in Langley, Ms. Birch and her husband have been looking for co-housing to be part of for 16 years, but potential projects kept falling through. Since proposals were backed by like-minded individuals and not by developers, there was a lack of understanding from the city and banks on how to support a co-housing project, Ms. Birch says.

Howard Staples, founder of Windsong, says developing the project was the most challenging part. "Development is a high-risk industry," he said. "It's [challenging] to take those risks together."

Navigating the complexity of zoning and financing were particularly challenging for Mr. Staples, but he successfully built the development in 1996. His motivation was not so much affordability as it was creating an "old-fashioned" type of neighbourhood, which worked well – for most people. "We had a couple people at the start that really didn't appreciate what it would be like and realized quickly it didn't work for them," Mr. Staples said.

The Cedar Cottage project already isn't working for some people. According to a report prepared by the city, a majority of neighbours who responded to the city on the co-housing project opposed it. In contrast, 95 per cent of those who supported the development did not live in the immediate area.

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City officials explained the responses were submitted prior to a redesign effort that is taking into consideration concerns that community members have expressed, such as building design, parking and increased traffic.

The project still faces final rezoning and design approval before it can break ground.

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