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Bobo Eyrich: Don't look to multiplexes to resolve Vancouver's housing shortage
A profound disappointment, adding less than 300 homes per year
As someone who hoped that Vancouver’s recently adopted multiplex plan would be a significant part of resolving the city’s critical housing shortage and help provide more housing options, I was profoundly disappointed. Vancouver’s Housing Needs Report and local academics estimate that a net increase of about 130,000 new homes are needed by 2030 to resolve the shortage. The zoning rules that were amended as part of the multiplex plan covers 55% of Vancouver’s residential land. How many additional homes do the new land use regulations allow? Not a lot.
The city staff report that accompanied the multiplex proposal predicted that the city will receive about 150 multiplex applications per year. An external review of the proposal found in Appendix R states that rental multiplexes are not viable, a four-unit multiplex is marginally viable on a standard 33’ wide lot, and multiplexes on wide frontage lots are viable everywhere. The following table taken from Appendix R sets out the recommended amenity share rate for each multiplex option relative to lot size and geography. A higher rate indicates that building a multiplex is more lucrative.
The nominal fee for multiplexes on a standard lot indicates that fewer will be built. As a case study, support that of the 150 multiplex applications per year, one-third are on standard lots and two-thirds are on wide lots. In this case, how many new homes are added?
Gross number of new multiplex homes per year = 100*6 + 50*4 = 800
The net increase in housing per year depends greatly on the homes that were redeveloped. The analysis of the multiplex plan estimated that most of what would be redeveloped are old homes where most of the value is in the land and not in the building. A lot of the old homes are tenanted and some holding more than one household. The best case scenario for the multiplex plan is: 150 single family homes are replaced by multiplexes for a net increase of 650 homes per year.
Despite the glacial pace of change in Vancouver’s land use rules, there have been some changes in the last 40 years. It is legal to build a duplex with two suites for a total of four units or a single family home with a basement suite and laneway for a total of three units on residential land in Vancouver. Some of the multiplexes would have been redeveloped into these other built forms but staff predict that redevelopments would follow a one-third, one-third, one-third split between single family homes, duplexes, and multiplexes.
It is simple enough to calculate the maximum number of new homes that are allowed under the new rules relative to the previous maximums. If 50 standard lots are redeveloped into multiplexes where half would have been a single family home with a basement and laneway and the other half would have been duplexes with basements, these redevelopments allow 25 additional homes. Redeveloping 100 wide lots into six-unit multiplexes instead of single family homes with basements and laneways and duplexes with laneways, provides for a net increase of 250 homes.
Three years of effort from Vancouver city staff has produced a plan that could add around 275 additional homes more than previous rules. Compare this to the 18,500 that the city says are needed annually. There are several assumptions in this analysis that could be wrong. Even if they are, the number of additional homes is so small that these estimates have to be off by a factor of 34 for multiplexes to provide half of the city’s annual housing need.
Theresa O’Donnell, Vancouver’s Director of Planning during the crafting of the multiplex plan, offered this quote after the plan was approved: “We are in a housing crisis, and having half the city’s land base inaccessible to the majority of residents just doesn’t make sense.” She is absolutely right, and in light of this opinion, she should recognize that the proposal that went in front of Vancouver City Council perpetuates the exclusivity of Vancouver’s low density neighbourhoods without tackling the housing shortage in any meaningful way.
City staff noted that rentals were not financially viable, and that increasing the allowable building area to 2 FSR for rentals would have made them viable. Given the housing shortage, the same limit could have been allowed for strata multiplexes, with the fee structure adjusted to ensure that rental and strata construction could bid the same amount for a lot.
This multiplex policy could have been the turning point on tackling the housing shortage, but it isn’t. That’s very disappointing.