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Report finds 'missing middle' solution to Metro Vancouver's housing crisis

A new report says row housing, six- to 12-unit multiplexes and co-op housing would be more energy-efficient, would face less local opposition, and could be replicated across huge swaths of Metro Vancouver currently zoned for single-family detached homes.
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A new report recommends "upzoning" as a potential solution to Metro Vancouver's housing crisis; in other words, doubling or tripling density in neighbourhoods dominated by detached housing.

Detached homes and soaring condo towers won’t solve Metro Vancouver’s housing crisis — what’s absent, according to a new report, is a “missing middle,” including everything from row housing and multiplexes to co-op housing. 

In a report released Wednesday from the think tank the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, senior economist Marc Lee lays out how the region could transform itself by doubling or tripling density in neighbourhoods dominated by detached housing.

Roughly 80 per cent of Metro Vancouver’s land base is dominated by 35 per cent of its housing. “Upzoning” those neighbourhoods could create a mix of small-lot development far from either giant homes or a skyline filled with box-sized condos.

“When we think about where we've put density in recent decades, for the most part it's been on large main streets or around transit hubs like SkyTrain stations,” said Lee. “But then we've kind of left all of the detached housing.”

Single-family houses across much of Metro Vancouver are unaffordable to the vast majority of people: in the City of Vancouver, a household needs a $300,000 yearly income to be able to afford a traditional single-family house, notes Lee.

There are few signs that trend is slowing. Last week, the British Columbia Real Estate Association (BCREA) said prices are expected to climb 8.5 per cent in 2022, with the steepest increases occurring over the first six months of the year.

Still, the region's population continues to grow.

The report comes a day after Statistics Canada released census data on how the country's population has grown over the past five years. Across Metro Vancouver, some of the most expensive municipalities in the country have seen a significant boost in residents since 2016, climbing 4.9 per cent in Vancouver, seven per cent in Burnaby and 9.7 per cent in Surrey. In the Township of Langley, the population has surged over 13 per cent. 

Where are all these people living? For many, it’s in one of the tall condo towers climbing into new suburban skylines. But while large land assemblies and the resulting towers have helped create density in parts of Metro Vancouver, Lee says much of the wealth generated through the increase in land value has flowed to developers. 

To keep prices down on new developments, the report recommends one of two paths: require that one-third to half of all units in a market development get designated rental or affordable to buy, or require developers pay an affordable housing levy to fund housing elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the report says rental protections, such as rights of first refusal, temporary accommodation, and buyouts, should be offered to protect residents. 

The high home prices inevitably come back to a lack of supply — there just aren’t enough empty and affordable homes available to keep up with demand.

In a recent blog post, data analyst Jens von Bergmann and University of British Columbia sociologist Nathanael Lauster showed that, compared to the 2010s, the 1970s saw 66 per cent more housing completions per 1,000 people.

Lee’s solution: build a modern version of the old six- to eight-unit buildings making up much of downtown New Westminster or the neighbourhoods of Kitsilano and Mount Pleasant in Vancouver.

“Fundamentally, the look and feel of a neighbourhood wouldn't necessarily change a whole lot,” said Lee. “We're looking at things where an elderly couple could age in place. They could redevelop the land that they've lived on for maybe decades, get a unit that's going to work for them and then perhaps have a unit for one of their kids or other family members — or that they could just rent out.”

Such units would help accommodate the region's aging population, and help accommodate the additional one million people expected to call Metro Vancouver home by 2040.

Upzoning could also have the benefit of getting people out of old housing units, where poor ventilation and a lack of heat pumps — which act to both heat and cool a home — contributed to the deaths of nearly 600 people during last June’s heat dome

Following the record heat, BC Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said many seniors had no one to check on them and died alone in their apartments. Live in a smaller building, the higher chance you’ll get to know your neighbours, and they’ll be there when you need them most.

Multi-unit buildings are also more efficient than detached housing, partly because households sharing interior walls are less exposed to outside temperatures. 

Like some European cities, more dense housing close to shopping, public services and jobs mean people don't need to get into a car as much. That’s all a big deal in a city where just under 40 per cent of its emissions come from transportation and 60 per cent come from burning natural gas to heat buildings and tap water.

Some municipalities already have a legal framework in place. As of Jan. 1, 2022, Vancouver began enforcing a bylaw that requires all new low-rise residential buildings to have zero-emission heat and hot water infrastructure, and more roof insulation. And on Jan. 26, council passed a plan to allow for the development of up to six homes on 2,000 lots now occupied by single-detached homes or duplexes.

To reduce red tape and building times, Lee recommends creating stock blueprint templates for a six-unit building that could be replicated across the region in the same way Vancouver specials were in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Another barrier is the kind of not-in-my-backyard (or NIMBY) perspectives that have shut down or delayed a long list of proposed housing developments across the region.

Backed by an affordable housing developer, Lee says one- or two-lot proposals would do a lot to sidestep opposition from residents opposed to neighbourhood change. 

“By having more of this missing middle stuff, it blends into the neighbourhood much better. You’re probably looking at fairly modest increases in maximum height,” said Lee. 

Still, with housing costs spiralling out of control, Lee says deep structural changes are required. His report recommends increasing taxes for owners of multiple properties, which in turn, would fund the purchase of public land for affordable housing.

“It’s time to build the housing we need for the future,” he writes.

It’s time, he tells Glacier Media, for the provincial government to break municipal impasse and rezone neighbourhoods dominated by detached housing. 

“The cities are just preachers of the province,” said Lee. “If local governments aren't willing to step in and make these types of changes themselves… the B.C. government can actually create a zoning mandate that would enable this.”