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Evelyn Jacob at her home in Vancouver on Jan. 25.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

City planners should take a moment to consider “hidden density,” the overlooked and often little understood affordable rental housing that exists within single detached home neighbourhoods, say housing advocates.

New data show this hidden renter density is more than 40 per cent in most Vancouver neighbourhoods, even those perceived as filled with nothing but expensive detached houses.

City planning staff presented their Adding Missing Middle Housing and Simplifying Regulations in Low Density Neighbourhoods report at a recent council meeting, revealing a plan to build multiplex housing throughout low-density neighbourhoods zoned for single-detached houses (in Vancouver called RS zoning).

With the exception of the Shaughnessy neighbourhood, the rezoning would impact all detached RS zones and eliminate yard space and parking in favour of maximizing square footage in order to develop new multiunit buildings up to six units and three-storeys high. A typical 33-foot lot could accommodate a four-unit multiplex and a 55-foot wide lot up to six units. Staff told council they’d already received support from the development community. They would allow bigger buildings in exchange for amenity contributions or some form of below-market housing to be explored.

The aim is to create ownership that is more affordable, though still expensive. The City gives an example of a multiplex unit on a standard east side lot, with a purchase price of around $1.1-million, which would require income of $235,000.

To incentivize the building of multiplexes, the plan includes reducing the size allowed for new single detached homes.

While sustainability has become a major issue over the past decade, ironically, single detached house size has ballooned. As a result, missing middle rezoning has taken hold with municipal planners. In Portland, the zoning change was approved last year, and a couple of weeks ago Victoria also adopted missing middle rezoning.

But there is hidden density that needs to be acknowledged when making such a major planning decision, says Evelyn Jacob, a director of the Upper Kitsilano Residents Association.

“Something not mentioned during the [city’s] presentation is what about all those people living in secondary suites, paying very low rents – where are they supposed to go?” asks Ms. Jacob, a homeowner.

Ms. Jacob’s parents purchased her Kitsilano house in 1958, and on the main floor is a suite for three tenants who also have a garden in the backyard. She says most houses on her street include secondary rental units.

There is already a missing middle that exists in the city of Vancouver that needs to be acknowledged and engaged.

Andy Yan

The city presentation cites trade-offs including loss of trees and parking spaces, reduced privacy and shadowing, and pressure on utilities capacity. However, there’s no mention of loss of existing rental.

And in Vancouver, secondary rental units represent about half the city’s rental stock, according to Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program.

Prof. Yan has new analysis based on 2021 census figures that illustrate Vancouver’s hidden rental density. For example, more than 40 per cent of households of West Point Grey, Arbutus Ridge, Victoria-Fairview, South Cambie, Kerrisdale, Oakridge, Hastings-Sunrise, Riley Park, Killarney, Renfrew-Collingwood and Kensington Cedar Cottage are renters, according to his research.

More than 50 per cent of households in Kitsilano, Marpole and Fairview are renters. In Mount Pleasant, 60 per cent are renters, and 64 per cent of Grandview-Woodland rents. Shaughnessy and Dunbar also have significant renter households, at 28 per cent and 26 per cent, respectively.

“There is already a missing middle that exists in the city of Vancouver that needs to be acknowledged and engaged,” said Prof. Yan, who is a registered planner.

“As they go after this new missing middle for home ownership and launch a new wave of building, you will have a displacement effect,” he said.

As well, there is the chance of investors snapping up multiplexes and raising rents. His research shows that 16 per cent of duplexes are already non-owner occupied, or investor owned.

“They are operating on the premise that more housing is more affordable housing, and the reality is, it isn’t for low and middle renters,” Prof. Yan said.

He’s not arguing against building more supply, but he’s arguing for policy that directly protects and produces affordable housing, he says. At the very least, policy makers need to acknowledge the residents who live in secondary rental units and include them in any plan.

Ms. Jacob is a director of the Upper Kitsilano Residents Association.Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

“I’m saying, ‘enter this looking at what’s there on the ground and mitigate potential displacement.’ It’s the planner’s job to make the invisible visible, and I’m not the first one to say that. There’s a complexity here that shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed.”

The Upper Kitsilano Residents Association has criticized the City plan for encouraging the demolition of character homes and the loss of trees, for creating housing that isn’t affordable for the average income earner, and for failing to address the amenities, including schools and parks, that would be needed for increased density. As well, they argue it could encourage speculation, and also create homogeneity of housing form.

“It is a blanket approach, and what it really means to me is the end of individual neighbourhoods,” Ms. Jacob says.

Many houses shared by roommates, as well as rooming houses have been converted to expensive houses and duplexes, although the majority of the conversions have occurred in duplex zones (called RT zones), according to the City.

Landlord Chris Oliver, who is based in Hong Kong, owns a detached house with three suites in East Vancouver. If the option became a multiplex, he says most landlord investors would “build semi-luxury rental housing.”

“The simple suite with shared laundry, like I currently have, would be ditched. Any zoning policy that’s focused on removing the existing structure with a bigger new build structure would essentially be creating higher-end rental housing at the expense of the middle.”

Proponents say it’s a small step that won’t transform the city overnight. As well, the alternative is losing affordable rental to large single-family homes, which has been the trend over the last decade, according to Dan Garrison, director of housing policy and regulation.

“We don’t expect our missing middle proposal to significantly speed up the rate of redevelopment in RS districts,” Mr. Garrison said in an e-mail. “Therefore don’t expect to lose any more of these housing types than we already do through development of new single family homes.

“With this proposal, our objective is to add new housing options that cost less than a new house or a duplex so that more households can afford them and families can put down roots in neighbourhoods across the city.”

Builder Jake Fry is co-founder and director of Small Housing B.C., the group that came up with the idea of multiunit missing middle housing on RS zoned lots. In 2017, the not-for-profit undertook a feasibility study funded by the Real Estate Foundation of BC, BC Housing and Vancity, to explore adding density to single-detached neighbourhoods. Their permanently affordable home ownership model involved a legal framework such as a community land trust, designed to offer below-market units that would stay affordable in perpetuity. Even if they were only 5 to 10 per cent below market to start, over time that rate of affordability would increase as prices go up, says Mr. Fry.

The idea was to make it possible for moderate incomes to afford home ownership.

Mr. Fry says that missing middle will be a slow process, much the way the laneway housing program unfolded. He says it would appeal to mom and pop redevelopers looking for a way to tap into their equity and provide housing for their kids. Professional developers would be less likely to buy in because the returns wouldn’t be significant, he says.

“You won’t see the razing of city blocks,” he says.

He concedes there might be some loss of affordable rental suites, but the loss will be offset as families buy the units, freeing up their rental units.

“These lots will accommodate more people, and loosen up some of the rental stock in the same neighbourhoods.”

As for the worry that a blanket policy will suck the unique character out of the neighbourhoods and create a sea of same-looking housing, he says design guidelines could be put in place to address that.

“It opens up zoning that has been restrictive. This potentially becomes increasing what’s there, and enhancing the availability of it, in a pretty egalitarian way,” Mr. Fry says.