'It's a loss of property rights'
As Vancouver looks for a way to both protect heritage properties while also dealing with a housing crisis, owners of character homes feel caught in the middle, reports Frances Bula
Bruce Pearson is furious that the city is trying to tell him what he can do with his house, a modest 1921 bungalow near Hastings Park on Vancouver's east side.
Mr. Pearson, a retired machinist who has lived in his house for 48 years, is angrily arguing with the soft-voiced city planner sitting across the table from him. They are at one of Vancouver's recent open houses to consult the public on policies to encourage the preservation of the city's character houses.
Planner Tanis Yarnell is trying to explain to Mr. Pearson the bonuses the city wants to offer homeowners like him who own character houses in four large swathes of Vancouver: much of the west side, Point Grey, part of the central city and a pocket in the northeast where Mr. Pearson lives.
But the proposed enticements – the opportunity to build additions to their existing houses, to create multiple suites in a house, the chance of building a laneway house that's much bigger than rules currently allow – aren't going over so well with Mr. Pearson.
"That's what it's about is to force increased density," grumbles Mr. Pearson, who believes his property value will go down when he sells if a new owner can't build something larger.
"It's a conspiracy against homeowners."
As city officials work on a series of aggressive measures to deal with Vancouver's stratospheric property values and near-zero vacancy rates – measures such as the country's first tax on homes left vacant and restrictions on short-term rentals – long-time homeowners like Mr. Pearson are getting buffeted.
The latest proposals, up for discussion until Jan. 15, would offer Mr. Pearson many chances to enhance his existing home, while potentially increasing density in those single-family neighbourhoods. Those are the carrots.
But the city's changes would also wield a heavy stick.
Anyone wanting to tear down a pre-1940s house would be limited to building a much smaller house on the property than is currently allowed. In fact, one option planners are considering is reducing the size of new homes built, no matter what the age of the house coming down, in the four key areas. Critics say that means those properties would decline in value.
"I'm totally against it. It's a loss of property rights," Mr. Pearson says, as he accuses the city of not making it clear in publicity for the character-home review how much owners will be losing . He thinks laneway houses destroy the look of historic neighbourhoods and, if young people need housing, well, they can move to Surrey.
City data shows house demolitions in the city have rapidly increased – a hike of 80 per cent between 2009 and 2015 – as the value of the properties those houses sit on has increased. For pre-1940 homes, demolitions have increased by 73 per cent, resulting in 2,310 of those houses disappearing between 2009 and July, 2016, according to the latest city numbers.
For those who have been dismayed about the demolition of Vancouver's limited stock of older houses, the proposed carrot-and-stick approach is appreciated.
"I grew up in this city and one of the things I've hated about it is how we always tear things down," Jane Heyman, another visitor at the city's open house, said.
"We love our area, I love the character of it," said Ms. Heyman.
But she and her husband, both retired, know they'll need to sell their 1917 Douglas Park house at some point in the near future. "And we're facing the reality that someone will tear it down."
Others say the policy, if passed as is, besides reducing property values in the affected neighbourhoods, will continue to allow very low densities in prime Vancouver areas, make owning a single-family house even more of a luxury, and allow owners who are wealthy enough to continue to build new houses that don't fit the character of the neighbourhood at all.
On a typical Vancouver lot of 33 by 122 feet, an owner now has the right to build a new house that's about 2,800 square feet – the equivalent of 70 per cent of the lot size. In almost all of the city's single-family zones, that owner can also build a laneway house of about 640 square feet.
Until 2009, people only had the right to build about 2,400 square feet total – 60 per cent – but the city changed that rule to create "liveable basements." House sizes started ballooning after that.
Under the current proposal, someone building a new house in one of the character zones would be allowed only 2,000 square feet, equivalent to 50 per cent of the lot size.
But an owner who retains the older house would get the right to expand to 3,600 square feet altogether – 91 per cent of the lot size – with new additions and an infill house on the lot. That infill house could be as big as 850 or 900 square feet, compared to the usual 650 to 700 that laneway houses in those areas are now limited to.
All of that is meant to help preserve three-quarters of the 15,500 pre-1940s houses remaining in Vancouver. (The other 25 per cent are in areas outside the character-retention zones in the proposed policy; another 5,000 exist in older neighbourhoods that aren't affected by the new proposal.)
That kind of bonus is something that many owners are looking at, weighing the benefits and disadvantages.
Sophie Li owns a character house in Kitsilano that she appreciates for its look.
"I do recognize the value of retaining the character homes because the character homes do look very charming," said Linda Ren, Ms. Li's daughter who accompanied her mother to the open house. "The look of the house is like the business card of the city. It's a presentation of the city."
She also thinks giving owners the opportunity to build infill homes, which would be bigger than laneway houses, is a good idea.
"It's creating more affordable homes. Because one piece of land in our zoning is selling for $1.6-million. Many young families cannot afford to buy."
But Ms. Li was concerned about how the city's new policy would help her deal with the main problem in her Waterloo Street house, which falls into the northwest area that city planners designated for the new policy.
"The home is not very up to today's standards. It needs a lot of repair. Plus the square footage is very small and it's low-ceilinged in the basement. Some of the pipelines are located in the wrong places," she said.
Getting the right to build bigger doesn't help someone like her, facing huge costs if she were to lift the house to make the basement more liveable. (City planners are quick to emphasize that about 80 per cent of the historic homes in the study areas would qualify for grants or loans to renovate.)
In Kerrisdale, Kolvane Yuh noted a similar policy approach in Shaughnessy worked to stem the destruction of older homes being torn down in the 1980s, and again when Kerrisdale was rezoned in the 1990s. At that time, owners got a bonus if they built a new house that matched the character of the neighbourhood.
He hopes that the new policy might give his daughter the chance to build an infill house on the property some day.
In fact, the policy currently under consideration was informed by zoning incentives in force in Kitsilano, Mount Pleasant, Strathcona and Grandview-Woodland since the 1980s for owners to retain their historic houses.
Kitsilano property owners have, in particular, taken advantage of that, turning older homes into multiple-suite properties while keeping their look. Coach houses have been added in other areas, although the city recently froze that possibility for Mount Pleasant.
The new Grandview-Woodland plan also contemplates downzoning – only allowing new houses that are smaller than the house demolished – so that anyone who tears down an older house can only build a new one to 50 per cent of the lot size.
Other Pacific cities are considering very similar solutions.
Portland is also looking at encouraging infill as a way of densifying and preserving its historic neighbourhoods. Its council voted this week to approve steps toward two new policies. One would also cap the size of new houses at 50 per cent of the lot size, as Vancouver is proposing. The other is to give incentives for people who create infill housing, something that Portland, once seen as a haven for cheap real estate but now under as much pressure as other West Coast cities, is now looking to create.
Down the coast in Los Angeles, the city has avoided any discussion of providing bonus space for infill housing. L.A. has been struggling with the "mansionization" phenomenon for several years, says Ken Bernstein, the principal city planner in Los Angeles' office of historic resources.
Los Angeles' temporary solution in 2015 was to ban demolitions in five neighbourhoods and place a limit on the size of new houses in another 15 neighbourhoods. The city voted Wednesday to set a cap of 50 per cent of lot size for new houses and eliminate the 20-per-cent bonus builders got for building "green" houses. It is now going through a process of designating new "historic preservation zones" and creating guidelines for "compatible design."
Vancouver realtor Tom Gradecak, who sells primarily in the Point Grey area, said Vancouver's new policy, if passed as is, will without question result in lowered house values.
And he said the proposed policy will do nothing to assuage the concerns of those who worry about losing the character of their neighbourhoods because it says nothing about the look and fit of new homes in the character neighbourhoods.
"My feeling is they should be a little bit more concerned about what they're putting up than what they're taking down."
Bob de Wit, chief executive officer of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders' Association, also wondered why the city wasn't putting more effort into making sure that new homes fit the character of the neighbourhood, instead of focusing everything on retention of the older houses.
"With this, if an owner accepts the smaller footprint, you can build whatever you want."
He said the proposal has also caused prices of homes that aren't subject to character review to shoot up.
What the city should do, he said, is develop a policy that is about creating a character look and feel, whether it's done by retaining older houses or by creating design guidelines for newer houses, rather than jamming everyone into one solution.
But one of the city's most passionate advocates for preserving the city's older homes says she believes that the new policy will have a positive impact. It will encourage density, not take it away, and make those wealthy people who still want to live in the area take a different approach.
"I hope that they embrace the values this city says it stands for – sustainability, more affordable housing, greater density," said Caroline Adderson, who has tracked the demolition of west-side houses in recent years on a Facebook site called Vancouver Vanishes.
"Retention embodies those values."
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