Rental: 6 Homes is Easy, 4 is Easier Still (City Conversations No One Else is Having #12, Brian Palmquist)

Brian is a guest writer for CityHallWatch. An architect whose career in Vancouver has spanned four decades, with projects ranging from first proposing the laneway-housing concept to serving as the managing architect on major multi-building development plans, personally designing more than 1,000 social and co-op housing units, and consulting on thousands more. Please visit this page for a list of all his articles, including this 2021 series “City Conversations No One Else is Having.”

The Streamlining Rental Public Hearing continues at 6 pm on Tuesday, November 9.  Agenda link here.)


City Conversation No One Else is Having #12
Rental — 6 Homes is Easy, 4 is Easier Still
By Brian Palmquist (first published on 6-Nov-2021)

Character Home at left, Laneway Home at Right

“Dad, have you seen City Hall Watch’s latest article about putting more homes on small lots like yours?”

Sometimes when we meet for our regular bike ride, my adult son is ready to take me on over our pre-ride breakfast. Today was one of those days.

“What do you think of it?” I like to answer a question with a question—the old Socratic method at work.

“Well, it’s different than what you were suggesting, what is it, 12 years ago? At the ECOdensity forum?”

“Yes,” I answered. “We’ve come a ways since then, and there are now over 4,000 laneway homes in the city.” I continued. “City Hall Watch’s timing is great. We’re debating Streamlining Rental and there are plans afoot to build tens of thousands of high-density homes throughout the city, mostly in high-rise form. It’s important to notice that in addition to 400 laneway homes per year being built against all odds, there are now 150 homes per year and growing arising from older homes being replaced by duplexes.”

“But will that do the trick?” he asked as he mounted his bike and headed off at my leisurely pace.

As I like to do, I used our ride time around False Creek to gather my thoughts for our post-ride lunch (always my treat). I was ready when he came back bearing food fair food on Granville Island, some for me and more for him—all good.

I began. “It’s worth taking a moment to consider the history of laneway homes, duplexes, etc., before we think about gentler approaches to densifying the city.” He nodded so I continued. “Remember that at the time of ECOdensity, single family homes covered about 70% of the city—68,000 homes by our current Mayor’s own estimate. Since then, by the city’s own rough statistics,” at which he frowned, “there have been about 400 laneway homes and 150 additional duplex homes built each year—that’s about 550 additional housing units over and above replacements, which is less than 1% of existing homes each year.”

“Dad, why are the city’s stats “rough”?” he asked. “Great question,” I responded. “At a recent briefing about the launch of the much-vaunted Vancouver Plan, City Hall Watch asked city staff for some statistics around other housing options than high-rise for homes in the city. For once, City Hall responded quite quickly with the duplex stat I mentioned. That’s apparently a fairly accurate stat, but most housing statistics from the city are vague or nonexistent, such as the laneway house 400 per year number—an accurate number seems unavailable. And we have no idea how many new and existing homes add a rental home by developing a secondary suite.”

“Is that what was at work when you wrote about How Many Homes does Vancouver Really Need?

“Yes.” I smiled at his perceptiveness. “City staff have admitted, finally, after Council waited over a year for an answer, that they have no idea how many homes can be built under Vancouver’s existing zoning, that is, without any other spot rezonings anywhere in the city. And they have also admitted that their housing need projections, which are 2-1/2 times more than population growth statistics suggest, are aspirational rather than being based in fact.”

“So all those numbers that we see for the Broadway Plan, the Vancouver Plan, the Streamlining Rental plan, are all made up?” He sounded incredulous.

“You got it in one!” I answered.

“So what makes sense as compared to rezoning almost everything?” (I know he’s worried that his older, existing walk-up affordable rental studio may be lost to him—the building is up for sale and is not too far from a proposed Broadway SkyTrain station).

“Well,” I responded, looking at my scrappy napkin notes made while he was fetching lunch. “Let’s start with the Mayor’s 68,000 single family home lots, and subtract the 4,000 already developed with a laneway home, and the 450 duplexed lots in the last three years. Allowing for the lack of data, let’s assume conservatively that 60,000 single family homes in Vancouver are available for further development.” He nodded.

“A CBC report in 2015 suggested up to 40% of BC homes have a secondary suite or similar—sorry, that’s the best stat I can find. So let’s take, say, 24,000 suites out of those 60,000, leaving us with 36,000 homes that could be duplexed and/or have a laneway home.” He grimaced at “and/or” but is used to me talking that way.

“Here’s where it gets interesting and exciting,” I continued. “Although I first introduced the laneway concept as a single home, one-storey, 50 square meters, basically “delete garage, substitute home,” the city has allowed 2-storey laneway homes almost from the beginning.” He nodded. “In response to the Streamlining Rental rezoning proposal, I spent 1/2 hour a few evenings ago designing 2 one-bedroom apartments in the laneway space, each 60 square meters.” I smiled and he asked, “How did you turn one 50 square meter home into two 60 square meter homes?”

“I simply eliminated the need for off street parking and went up two storeys instead of one.”

“The city would never let you do that!” he answered, thinking about my years of griping.

“As I said when I first introduced the laneway concept, what’s more important? Housing cars or housing people?” He had no answer to that, nodded slowly instead.

“Cities in places like Japan won’t allow you to buy a car unless you can prove you have a place to park it.” He raised his eyebrows at that. “In a city like Vancouver, with all the great transit that exists and is being built, do we really need one car per unit? The city has already reduced parking requirements in larger rental projects to as little as one car for 10 homes.”

I zeroed in for the kill: “Your mother and I have one car between us and manage just fine with that and public transit. That car is parked on the street in front of the house.” He nodded again. “If we were going to tear down our character home and rebuild, we could duplex its replacement, add two secondary suites and, in my scenario, 2 one-bedroom rental homes on the lane. That’s six homes instead of one, or 36,000 time five new units, makes 180,000 new homes, of which 2/3, or 120,000, would be rental. And I almost forgot, the one on-street parking space would be more than the one for ten that is being allowed for new high-rise, even where only some of it is rental. So we’re better than that.”

“Hasn’t the Mayor already proposed up to six homes on a 10 meter (33’) lot?” he asked. I was pleased he was reading more widely about civic affairs.

“Yes, he has,” I answered, “however his proposal requires building an underground garage, many of the resulting homes are tiny and the back yard, which Vancouverites love, is pretty much entirely lost. It makes no economic or urban design sense. At all.”

After a moment to take this in, he asked: “What about folks who don’t want to tear down and rebuild, like you and Mom? You’ve always said the greenest house is the one that already exists.” He looked pleased to remember my mantra.

“Well, we already have a legal secondary suite in our home—you know, you’ve lived there from time to time.” He grinned, adding, “It’s actually bigger than my studio, but my studio’s not underneath you and Mom!”

I continued: “Let’s assume we keep our character home, with its rental suite, and build two laneway rental homes. For the 36,000 homes that we estimate are currently single family without any additional homes, that’s a net increase of three homes—36,000 times three is 108,000 new homes, all rental.”

“So then,” he had been keeping his own notes. “You’re telling me that without any rezoning, the single family homes in the city could add at least 108,000 and up to 180,000 new homes, of which 108,000 to 120,000 would be rental?”

“Exactly,” I replied with a smile. “And those 100,000+ new rental homes would be way more affordable than the same homes crammed into mid-rise or high-rise forms.” He continued my sentence, “And nicer to live in, with yards and trees to share.”

“How does this compare with the Streamlining Rental and Broadway Plan proposals?” he asked.

Streamlining Rental looks to add 4,700 rental homes over ten years. The Broadway Plan talks about 30,000 additional homes[1]. So my “6 is easy, 4 is easier” approach would provide three or more times as many homes. In fact, this approach could provide all the homes the Broadway Plan says are needed by Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster and UBC/UEL.”

“So why are we even talking about these mega plans?” he asked hesitantly.

“That, my son,” I answered with a note of sadness, “is because a plan like this puts income and profit into the hands of all of Vancouver’s homeowners, and the smaller builders who serve them, rather than a select few.”

He gave me a slightly sad look, then a hug—he is a big hugger. “I hope we can make something closer to your vision work. I already share my studio’s front yard with the city’s passersby. I would be happy to share a back yard, if I had one, with a few friends.”

Brian Palmquist is a fully vaccinated Vancouver-based architect, building envelope and building code consultant and LEED Accredited Professional (the first green building system). He is semi-retired, so not beholden to any client or city hall. These conversations mix real discussion with research and observations based on a 40+ year career including the planning, design and construction of almost every type and scale of project. He is the author of the Amazon best seller “An Architect’s Guide to Construction.” He is also a member of team for a livable Vancouver, a new political party dedicated to restoring a livable Vancouver starting with the 2022 civic election.

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