The pace of demolition of Vancouver’s prized old character home stock is not showing any signs of slowing, despite a new program of incentives aimed at protecting pre-1940-era homes from the wrecker’s ball.
The incentives went into effect in January, 2018, in response to growing concern that Vancouver was losing its heritage homes in favour of bigger, more expensive detached houses. But a staff update given to the Vancouver Heritage Commission last month shows the incentives have been largely ineffective. In 2018, 240 demolition permits were issued for pre-1940 homes across the city. An estimated 80 per cent of those would be deemed character houses, with intact exterior features. That compares to 271 pre-1940-house demolitions in 2017; 246 demolitions in 2016; and 329 demolitions in 2015.
“The only conclusion you can come to is that it’s been a complete failure, and I would not be able to say this if the city hadn’t done its report,” says Vancouver Heritage Commission chair Michael Kluckner.
Those numbers only represent the character homes that are demolished. An average of 800 demolition permits for single-family homes are issued each year, according to Paula Huber, senior planner in community planning for the City. Staff will report to council later this spring with details on the effectiveness of the program and offer recommendations.
Mr. Kluckner said the incentives have not been sufficient enough to encourage retention of older homes, which affects the most vulnerable, including low-income groups.
“We believe [demolitions] correlate really strongly with the loss of affordable rental, particularly basement suites,” Mr. Kluckner says. “And everybody is curious about the impact on declining school enrolments, when you get the general gutting of communities that were working in a fairly vibrant way.”
The incentives on offer include allowing the owner of a character home the opportunity to increase their floor area, retaining the character home and converting the property to a three or four unit residence that could be used as rental or divided into strata title. The incentives are optional, so they are just “carrots,” as opposed to disincentives, or “sticks.” A stick would be “downzoning,” which is not allowing a bigger floor area if the character house is torn down. In 2017, the city had considered downzoning but decided against it after receiving push back from some residents and builders.
The Heritage Commission is responding to the ongoing loss of character homes with the recommendation that the city reduce the allowable floor space for newly built houses on a character house site. In other words, they say more sticks are required.
On May 6, author Caroline Adderson was given the city’s Award of Honour for her advocacy around “neighbourhood heritage character and cohesiveness.” She is being honoured for her Vancouver Vanishes Facebook page, where she’s maintained an ongoing list of demolished houses, which resulted in a 2015 book of the same name.
In the book, she says that since 2004, more than 10,000 demolition permits had been issued in the City of Vancouver. In her acceptance speech, she wrote that in 2018, 832 demolition permits were issued and 691 of those were for unaffordable, new single-family houses. She also cited a University of B.C. report last year that said a new house would have to stand for 168 years to recover the impacts of carbon emissions required to construct it. She also said she’d gladly trade in her award for an effective policy.
In a phone interview from Banff, Alta., where she is currently teaching, Ms. Adderson said the honour is bittersweet because the rate of demolitions stayed the same in the time that she’s been lobbying for change.
“I am glad to have five years of volunteer time acknowledged, but they are giving me an award and doing nothing about the problem, so the irony smarts a little. Everyone wrings their hands about affordability, while 83 per cent of last year’s demolitions were for luxury redevelopment.
“The other thing I feel really sad about is that, for me, the heritage part is a tiny part of it. I am as concerned about sustainability and housing affordability as I am about heritage, but somehow forces have managed to flip the argument around and cast preservation and retention and heritage as an elitist concern – and it’s the opposite.
“We cannot build affordably at these land values. The only way to preserve affordability is to retain these houses and buildings, all of it, no matter how old it is. And yet somehow you’re considered privileged if you own a house or want to stop this trend, and it’s distressing.”
The city report shows that some homeowners took advantage of the new incentives, with 22 character homeowners in a single-family zone adding some type of infill under the program. City staff called it a “good uptake for a new program.” But the incentives only led to a “modest offset of character demolition,” said the report.
For several years, the city had embarked on an exhaustive Character House Zoning Review that included extensive public consultation, under the previous Vision-led council. There was public support for RT, or multi-unit, zoning – the type of approach that has preserved much of Kitsilano’s character housing and created substantial density. But the city chose to just offer incentives instead. Proponents say that RT zoning is an efficient way to bring thousands of rental units onto the market without huge cost or upheaval to communities.
Although many of the character homes still standing are perfectly sound, constructed of old-growth timber – many of them well maintained and upgraded over the years – market forces have rendered the old homes irrelevant. Heritage advocates agree that allowing extra units on the properties is the right direction toward affordable housing options. However, if the demolished homes continue to be replaced only with bigger, outrageously expensive single-family housing, it’s a no-win for everybody.
Another part of the problem, they say, is that city building requirements are making it too difficult to save the old houses, even with the incentives.
“It’s all based on existing code for new construction, that’s the problem,” says former city property development officer Elizabeth Murphy, who is now a private project manager.
“The incentives aren’t up to [the program’s] potential,” says Councillor Colleen Hardwick, who is city council liaison to the Heritage Commission. Ms. Hardwick says she is planning to bring forward a motion to council to address the issue of ongoing demolitions.
“Part of the problem is it’s less complicated to tear down and build from scratch than all the interactions you have to have with the city [to retain a house]. They’ve added all sorts of new complexity with building practices, to keep with the green agenda and accessibility and concerns over seismic upgrades, things of that nature, which means it takes longer.
“We do want to encourage more [density],” she adds. “If you can get four units on a property and make a little bit of profit instead of a lot of profit, that’s a good policy that people can be following.
“Because we have to ask, ‘Do we want to live in a city that has character and community and is walkable, or plug people into a bunch of high rises around subway stops?'”
Ms. Adderson points to the fact that only five of the pre-1940 homes demolished last year were in neighbourhoods zoned RT. Meanwhile, in single-family RS zones, 235 homes were demolished.
“You can see how effective it is, and yet the city won’t do it,” Ms. Adderson says. “In my opinion, it’s immoral to destroy a livable home for profit in the middle of a climate and an affordability crisis.”