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Vancouver city council unanimously approved a proposal Thursday to allow what staff call “multiplexes” throughout most of the city’s lowest-density neighbourhoods.
After the vote, Mayor Ken Sim heralded the move as a “bold action,” calling it “a huge step forward to increase housing attainability and build more homes faster.”
But some described the zoning changes as too little too late. By city staff’s own estimation, these multiplexes are unlikely to produce many rental homes, a type of housing in especially short supply in Vancouver.
The council vote came late Thursday following an eight-hour public hearing, the culmination of several years of Vancouver city staff and politicians discussing how to add so-called “missing middle” housing to residential neighbourhoods. Council approved a series of zoning and bylaw amendments that will enable up to six strata units per lot, depending on size, or as many as eight secured rental homes.
Rendering from the City of Vancouver showing a crosssection of multiplex housing.Although the plan allows for rental apartments, builders and city planners agree that, as it’s currently designed, it’s unlikely to produce many. They say that’s because rental projects just wouldn’t be financially viable as presented in this proposal — even after the federal government’s announcement Thursday about removing GST on new rental-housing construction.
The home-building industry has long called for the removal of GST on new rental construction, and the federal government said this move will mean more apartment buildings, student housing and senior’s residences are built.
City of Vancouver renderings show what multiplexes might look like in low-density neighbourhoods.”The GST news is good news,” said Bryn Davidson of Lanefab Design/Build, a Vancouver company specializing in laneway houses and duplexes. While this change will help rental projects in general, Davidson said he expects that the eight-unit rental projects allowed in Vancouver’s proposal will not be financially viable.
“I do hope that some can get built as we really need more of that housing,” he said, but he expects the strata multiplexes will be more viable.
Davidson said the multiplex proposal is “a profoundly important step forward in terms of moving beyond the exclusionary ‘single-family’ zoning that has defined city planning in Vancouver for a century.”
Monte Paulsen, whose company Climate Ready Buildings Group consults with developers, said rental multiplexes “are so far from pencilling for a commercial developer that it’s hard to imagine GST will close that gap.”
The city’s staff agreed. Responding to questions from council at Thursday’s public hearing, city planner Graham Anderson said the city’s internal calculations suggest that if these three-storey multiplex proposals are approved, then “rental (units) would be a very minor part of the uptake.”
Handout supporting illustrations of streetscapes for multiplex debate and decision at Vancouver City Hall on Sept. 14.Anderson said the city’s analysis suggests that for market rental buildings to be viable in these neighbourhoods, they would need to be “apartment-scale buildings, generally, of five storeys and up.”
Helen Lui, a development manager who works on market and non-market housing in Vancouver, said that in general, removing GST will help rental developments, but she doesn’t expect that rental multiplexes will work.
City of Vancouver renderings showing what multiplexes might look like in low-density neighbourhoods.”Ultimately though, this policy won’t result in any real significant addition of units, rental or strata,” Lui told Postmedia News. “The issue is less whether it’s better for rental or strata, but more the fact that we’re spending a lot of time and resources on a policy that won’t make any real dents in terms of adding new housing.”
Lui addressed council Thursday to encourage support for the multiplex policy, although she expressed frustration that it didn’t go far enough.
The sentiment was echoed by several speakers who were disappointed that the plan wasn’t ambitious or transformative enough to meet the scale of the housing shortage, especially rental housing.
Almost 60 people signed up to address council on the multiplex proposal. Opponents of the multiplex proposal raised concerns about increased pressure on infrastructure and parking. Representatives of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation expressed worry about older houses being demolished to be replaced with new multi-unit buildings.
On the other side, many supporters encouraged council to approve the proposal, but urged them to go further, saying they wanted to see mid-rise apartment buildings allowed everywhere. Like Lui, many other speakers expressed frustration that these changes didn’t go further, and said the city should have moved in this direction a decade or more earlier.
In an emailed statement Thursday night, OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle said the zoning changes were “better than doing nothing,” which is why she supported them.
But, she said, with only 200 multiplexes per year expected, or fewer if borrowing and building costs keep rising, “this is not the serious response that our housing crisis requires.”
“This is the biggest land use change that Vancouver has made in decades. That, alone, made this policy a must-pass,” Boyle said. “But that also points to the problem. City staff have worked hard on this for years, but the simple fact is that this change should have been made 10 years ago. The scale of the housing crisis today requires much bolder action.”
In his closing remarks Thursday night to council, Sim said: “There’s a saying: ‘Perfect is the enemy of the good.’ And while every plan will have its detractors, I think this plan hits a lot of really good points and it’s a big step in addressing the missing middle.
“I will enthusiastically support this plan,” Sim said. “And, echoing the comments of all the councillors here, this is just the beginning. We’re not stopping with this, we’re going to be driving ahead with more initiatives to build even more housing faster.”
Said ABC Coun. Mike Klassen: “While this may not be a massive shift in the amount of development that happens in response right away, it is a very distinct change in philosophy in terms of how we deal with this three-quarters of our land mass within the boundaries of the city of Vancouver.”
‘Plex appeal: Vancouver eyeing six-unit housing in low-density neighbourhoods
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