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A project by builder Smallworks on the east side of Vancouver. Three families currently live there.Courtesy Richard Bell

The city of Vancouver is considering a plan to allow multiplex housing, with three-storey buildings and four- or six-strata units on each lot, and larger laneway rental units, in a move that could transform the city’s detached house neighbourhoods.

The city’s long-time push for “missing middle” housing takes the form of a proposal to allow about 4,000 square feet of floor space, and up to four units, on each 33-foot-wide lot. A 50-foot lot, such as those found on the west side of the city, would allow roughly 6,000 sq. ft. and six units – much bigger building than currently allowed. Up to eight units would be permitted on a 50-foot lot if all units are built rental.

The new rules would impact areas throughout the city, but mostly south of 16th Avenue, totalling about 60,000 lots. Lots for multiplexes must have lanes and be at least 33-feet wide. As a disincentive, newly built detached house sizes will be decreased. Only multiplexes would get the nod for more square footage.

After several months of engagement with industry stakeholders, council will review the recently updated plan this summer and make a decision in the fall. The consensus among industry observers is that the proposal will pass.

Mayor Ken Sim has made it clear that he and his majority ABC council want more housing supply as soon as possible, and the province is pushing hard for more density. The plan has been met with opposition from neighbourhood groups, cautious optimism from industry experts and a thumbs-up from those who see detached house zones as a barrier to density.

Everyone agrees more housing is needed. The worry is that livability could be lost in the process, and because the plan is to simplify the zoning in a one-rule-fits-all approach, some in the industry wonder if distinct neighbourhoods will disappear into a sea of homogenized blocky buildings.

“There is just the livability of it,” says Martin Warren, owner of Vanglo Sustainable Construction Group. “I would worry that fourplexes on 33-foot lots and sixplexes on larger lots as a ‘here and there,’ are fine, but widespread across the entire city? I’m struggling to see what that looks like.

Eventually, developers would figure out their own way to do this as quickly as possible,” he adds, which could result in a lot of nondescript square blocks, such as those built in the 60s that are mixed in with Mount Pleasant houses.

“To have just streets of those would be very undesirable, I’m sure, as a streetscape, and also to live in.”

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A rendering of proposed four-plex homes by Vancouver-based Vanglo Sustainable Construction Group Ltd.Vanglo Sustainable Construction Group Ltd.

Mr. Warren embraces the need for greater density in detached house zones, but only if it’s executed properly will the plan succeed, he says. He’s currently working on a project in east Vancouver with Measured Architecture to build a fourplex on a 56-foot-wide lot, and even though the new policy might allow him to go to a sixplex, he doesn’t see that working out in terms of livability.

“I feel that [the four units] is plenty of density in terms of the number of families living on one plot of land,” he says. “It creates more longevity for the people purchasing and living in these units.”

Architect Clinton Cuddington, who’s working with Mr. Warren on the net-zero project, which includes a Heritage Revitalization Agreement incentive, advocates for sustainable building practices and getting people out of cars, but he’s also an advocate of setting a high bar for design and livability.

“I’m fully in support of moving to densification but I think we need to rise up slowly or we are going to get into this inversion of our neighbourhoods that will lead to a whole series of crises that have not been thought out at the infrastructure level,” he says, referring to the increased need for sewer and electrical systems, for example.

As well, there is the significant cost of constructing what amounts to mini apartment buildings.

“They are some of the most expensive ideas out there, because of the ratio of bathrooms and kitchens to the overall area of the proposition. These are not $500 per sq. ft. ideas,” says Mr. Cuddington.

“These are much higher cost per square foot.”

The fees alone are substantial. City fees were updated last week, based on a consultant report that showed land values could potentially increase on the larger lot sizes due to the upzoning.

With the new zoning, extra floor space is allowed if one unit is to be sold as a below-market home for purchase, or if the owner pays a fee for the extra floor space.

If an east side homeowner or developer wanted to build out their lot to six units by adding 2,123 sq. ft., they would be looking at a contribution of $148,610 as well as a development cost levy (DCL) of $58,235. A west side homeowner would be looking at nearly $300,000 in fees as well as the DCL.

Laneway house builder Jake Fry, owner of Smallworks, said his biggest concern is that the rezoning won’t achieve affordable housing. The plan includes an increase in the size of laneway houses, to offer bigger rental units to families.

But the city could stratify laneway homes and offer incentives on selling them at a below-market rate protected by a covenant, says Mr. Fry. The idea would be to keep them under $1-million.

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Small Housing BC chair and real estate lawyer Richard Bell with his extended family outside his Vancouver home.Courtesy Richard Bell

“They haven’t enhanced the affordability on the nonmarket unit enough to make it desirable – and yet that’s the biggest opportunity to get a lot of below-market housing entrenched across the city,” he says.

For his part, Mr. Warren says that if it’s “the ideal affordability we are talking about, that horse bolted a long time ago.”

He’s also in favour of stratifying the laneway houses to make them sustainable for the long term.

Estate planning lawyer Richard Bell agrees that stratification of the laneway is the way to go. He redeveloped his detached house with two units in the main house and a laneway for his daughter. He says they had to enter into a co-ownership agreement but if they could stratify each unit, each person could obtain their own mortgage and sell when they want to.

The plan also calls for a 16-per-cent floor space reduction if the owner wants to build a new detached house. In anticipation of the rezoning, Mr. Fry anticipates a rush of permit applications from anyone who wants to build a bigger house than the new zoning will allow.

The Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods wrote a letter to council in March that cited a lack of public consultation over the blanket rezoning. The letter, signed by 22 neighbourhood groups, cited the loss of the large number of existing rental suites within RS zones, the demolition of houses and the loss of trees.

Vancouver’s urban tree canopy has shrunk considerably and is at 23 per cent, according to the city. By comparison, Toronto has an urban tree canopy of 28.4 per cent. That loss of canopy is critical especially when the world is facing global warming and the heat dome summer, says Mr. Cuddington.

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