As land prices spike, the num­ber of de­mo­li­tions is ris­ing

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - REAL ESTATE - KERRY GOLD

It’s es­ti­mated al­most half of all ex­ist­ing de­tached houses in Vancouver will be torn down by 2050

As sky-high hous­ing prices and rents in Vancouver con­tinue to make life mis­er­able for many res­i­dents, the idea that the city should re­zone ar­eas cur­rently re­served for de­tached hous­ing has con­tin­ued to gain trac­tion.

It came up re­peat­edly at a re­cent Ur­ban Development In­sti­tute (UDI) de­bate, where aca­demic John Rose called it “the big­gest sup­ply ques­tion” and “the most con­tro­ver­sial.” And it is in­cluded in a fright­en­ing new Uni­ver­sity of Bri­tish Columbia study on Vancouver’s un­healthy con­struc­tion frenzy, co-au­thored by ar­chi­tec­ture pro­fes­sor Joe Dah­men.

The study shows the waste­ful­ness of Vancouver’s ram­pant house de­mo­li­tions. It points out that it would take an average of 168 years for the en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency gains of a newly con­structed sin­gle-fam­ily house to make up for the neg­a­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of the ma­te­ri­als used in con­struc­tion.

De­spite rad­i­cal ef­forts to build homes to a more ef­fi­cient stan­dard, the tear­down cy­cle means we’re adding, not re­duc­ing, green­house gas emis­sions. The de­mo­li­tion craze is fu­elled by ris­ing prop­erty val­ues, with peo­ple tear­ing down homes and build­ing big­ger ones, of­ten to house fewer peo­ple.

Mr. Dah­men says that if we’re throw­ing so many per­fectly good houses into the land­fill and in­creas­ing over­all green­house gas emis­sions in the process, then we might as well re­place them with row­houses, town­houses and con­dos to house more peo­ple. He’s not say­ing to tear down all houses, be­cause it’s not a sin­gle so­lu­tion prob­lem, he says. But the higher the land price rel­a­tive to the build­ing on it, then the higher the prob­a­bil­ity of de­mo­li­tion.

A mul­tiu­nit build­ing would be more fi­nan­cially valu­able, and there­fore less likely to be de­mol­ished, he says.

“This is a com­plex is­sue and we don’t want to elim­i­nate zon­ing for sin­gle-fam­ily houses and go row-hous­ing ev­ery­where. It needs to be done care­fully, ju­di­ciously, with great re­gard for de­sign goals, “Mr. Dah­men says.

“The ques­tion is, can we af­ford to have the at­ti­tude that ev­ery­where there is a sin­gle-fam­ily house we only want an­other sin­gle-fam­ily house? We have to think about what we want to pro­tect and what is off lim­its.

“Let’s not for­get that one in four houses be­ing bought and sold right now in Vancouver is be­ing torn down and re­placed with some­thing new.”

Misha Das, an ar­chi­tec­ture stu­dent who co-au­thored the study, which was funded by the Peter Wall In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Stud­ies (an­a­lyst and sup­ply ad­vo­cate Jens von Bergmann also col­lab­o­rated), es­ti­mates that about 32,000 de­tached houses in Vancouver will be torn down by 2050.

“It’s mind bog­gling,” Mr. Das says, es­pe­cially be­cause that num­ber rep­re­sents al­most half the de­tached hous­ing stock. Clearly, we’re not do­ing enough to pre­serve the his­toric homes, he says.

“For me, it’s very im­por­tant we con­sider all the costs as­so­ci­ated with re­build­ing the city – be­cause the city is be­ing re­built whether we like it or not,” he says. “It will be a very dif­fer­ent place 20 years from now.

“Growth, for the most part, isn’t a very green process.”

A greater se­lec­tion of hous­ing makes sense in a city where res­i­dents need to earn about 35 times the average house­hold in­come to af­ford the bench­mark price of a de­tached house.

But if the city fol­lowed through and blan­ket re­zoned sin­gle-fam­ily for denser hous­ing, would it ac­tu­ally trans­late into af­ford­able hous­ing? And would we end up with a liv­able city – or a city be­set by over­crowd­ing and never-end­ing grid­lock?

These were the ques­tions posed at the UDI de­bate by Josh Gor­don, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Si­mon Fraser Uni­ver­sity’s School of Pub­lic Pol­icy, and John Rose, in­struc­tor at Kwantlen Polytech­nic Uni­ver­sity’s depart­ment of ge­og­ra­phy. Mr. Gor­don and Mr. Rose ar­gued that spec­u­la­tive de­mand, driven by global wealth slosh­ing into the Vancouver re­gion’s hous­ing mar­ket in the past sev­eral years, had cre­ated a cri­sis.

They ar­gued that merely re­zon­ing ar­eas and build­ing more mar­ket sup­ply won’t solve the prob­lem, and could end up ex­ac­er­bat­ing the cri­sis. Mr. Rose ques­tioned why com­mu­ni­ties would buy into the idea.

“I highly doubt you will find neigh­bour­hoods will­ing to em­brace den­si­fi­ca­tion if they do not see the an­tic­i­pated ben­e­fits and af­ford­abil­ity,” he said. “[Peo­ple will ask] ‘Why are we den­si­fy­ing if this is just go­ing to be pur­chased by spec­u­la­tive in­vestors and prices are go­ing to be jacked up so lo­cal res­i­dents can’t live in any of it?’ ”

“It’s not about ‘anti-sup­ply’ or ‘anti-den­si­fi­ca­tion.’ In the con­text of where you have spec­u­la­tive in­vest­ment, it is, ‘How do you sell this?’

But pro-sup­ply groups say land-con­sum­ing de­tached hous­ing is a ma­jor bar­rier to af­ford­abil­ity. Fifty-seven per cent of the city’s land mass is zoned for one­fam­ily dwellings, ac­cord­ing to hous­ing an­a­lyst Andy Yan (it should be noted that the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of houses are used to house more than fam­ily, so “sin­gle fam­ily” is a mis­nomer).

Even UBC econ­o­mist Tom David­off, who sup­ports re­zon­ing, didn’t sound con­fi­dent at the de­bate that af­ford­abil­ity for the average-in­come earner would be on the menu.

In­stead, Mr. David­off saw for­eign wealth, when it was at its peak, as a boon for the econ­omy and a way to get money out of the land and sub­si­dize hous­ing for lo­cals. He also said a mar­ket flooded with mul­ti­fam­ily hous­ing would re­sult in lower prices, and even if only high-in­come earn­ers could af­ford it, that’s bet­ter than no­body.

And be­cause of the NDP gov­ern­ment’s new tax mea­sures, which were partly based on a pro­posal put for­ward by a large group of lo­cal econ­o­mists, in­clud­ing Mr. David­off, there’s now more money on the ta­ble for lo­cals.

“If some­body from over­seas wants to buy a condo and leave it empty, good for them,” he told the au­di­ence, made up of young peo­ple in the development in­dus­try. “They are go­ing to pay 20 per cent up front in [for­eign buyer] tax, 1 per cent for the city’s empty homes tax and 2 per cent for the pro­vin­cial spec­u­la­tion tax, so on a $1-mil­lion condo, they are go­ing to pay $200,000 up­front and $30,000 a year for an empty box. That’s a great deal for the city. … So the beauty of the new tax regime is, re­gard­less of what was driv­ing things, what’s the ob­jec­tion now to get­ting more af­ford­able stuff built? If peo­ple want to pay us taxes for noth­ing, great.

“I just don’t see a loss in adding mul­ti­fam­ily, es­pe­cially if the city [in­creases] com­mu­nity amenity con­tri­bu­tions while do­ing ap­provals.”

Mr. Rose asked: “Is the pur­pose of den­si­fi­ca­tion to in­crease tax rev­enue or to pro­vide af­ford­able hous­ing to lo­cal res­i­dents?”

And Mr. Gor­don later said: “You can sell off Vancouver and all the land to wealthy buy­ers – but will you get af­ford­abil­ity?”

In a fol­low-up in­ter­view, Mr. Gor­don said we would need a pol­icy frame­work that cap­tures some of the prof­its (“land lift”) that would re­sult from blan­ket re­zon­ing – in the form of com­mu­nity amenity con­tri­bu­tions, for ex­am­ple. Other­wise, land own­ers, real­tors and de­vel­op­ers would sim­ply pocket the sub­stan­tial gains and cre­ate hous­ing that re­mains out of reach for lo­cals.

He cites re­de­vel­op­ment of de­tached houses into ma­jor projects along Cam­bie Street, which are un­af­ford­able for most lo­cals.

“There are peo­ple who own 20 de­tached houses on the west side who are tap­ping their fin­gers, wait­ing for mu­nic­i­pal govern­ments to [re­zone de­tached houses], on the ba­sis of af­ford­abil­ity, when it won’t gen­er­ate that,” Mr. Gor­don said. “We need to be very, very cau­tious about re­zon­ing sin­gle-fam­ily de­tached ar­eas.”

Mr. Gor­don sus­pects that the development in­dus­try is be­hind a lot of the talk for more sup­ply. Last fall, UDI chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer Anne McMullin called for mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in the re­gion to re­move sin­gle-fam­ily re­stric­tions, for con­sumers and de­vel­op­ers.

And Mr. Gor­don notes that there is a civic elec­tion com­ing up, and peo­ple are push­ing their agen­das.

“They are try­ing to re­zone Vancouver and they are try­ing to do it with­out the proper mech­a­nisms for land lift in place, and it will not gen­er­ally de­liver af­ford­abil­ity as they main­tain it will,” he says. “This is a con­certed ef­fort on the part of the development in­dus­try and as­so­ci­ated in­dus­tries and spec­u­la­tors, to try to make a big wind­fall profit.

“There needs to be a big­ger con­ver­sa­tion about what kind of a city do we want to be. Do we want to be a highly dense city like Sin­ga­pore or Hong Kong? Or do we want to pre­serve the liv­abil­ity of the city and not try to cram tens of thou­sands of peo­ple into a small amount of space? For ob­vi­ous rea­sons, the development in­dus­try wants the high­rise strat­egy.”

For me, it’s very im­por­tant we con­sider all the costs as­so­ci­ated with re­build­ing the city – be­cause the city is be­ing re­built whether we like it or not. It will be a very dif­fer­ent place 20 years from now. MISHA DAS AR­CHI­TEC­TURE STU­DENT AND CO-AU­THOR OF UBC HOUS­ING STUDY


A house waits to be de­mol­ished in East Vancouver in Novem­ber, 2015. A UBC study sug­gests it would take 168 years for the en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency gains of a newly con­structed sin­gle-fam­ily house to make up for the neg­a­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of the ma­te­ri­als used in con­struc­tion.

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