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Why "gentle density" in residential neighbourhoods is so important
In the city of Vancouver, at the council meeting on Tuesday, item B3 on the agenda is a "gentle density" proposal from Kennedy Stewart to allow four-plexes and six-plexes in low-density residential areas ("Making Home"). He's trying to get council to approve asking staff for a detailed plan. If you'd like to submit a message in support (subject: "Making Home"), to counterbalance opposition, it takes literally 60 seconds.
In the city of Vancouver, single-family and duplex properties take up about 80% of all residential land (source). We're adding more high-rises to rapid transit corridors, and city council has just legalized six-storey rental buildings near local shopping areas. But we also need to add "gentle density" to low-density residential neighbourhoods, because they make up so much of Vancouver's residential land, and because not everyone wants to live in an apartment. There's a lot of people making good salaries who still feel poor in Vancouver, because they can't afford to own.
The idea with "gentle density" is that it adds more housing and more ownership options, but without a major impact on the neighbourhood. The cost of owning is still going to be high: in the city of Vancouver, the cost of a new home is about $1000 per square foot, so the market price for a new 1000-square-foot home is going to be about $1 million. (The price of a standard 33-foot lot in East Van is around $1.2 million to $1.5 million, just for the land.)
A roundup of gentle-density ideas, from Michael Geller:
Make smaller lots legal. The standard lot size is 33 feet wide, and there's lots which are 50 feet wide; make it legal to divide them into two 25-feet lots. Large minimum lot sizes make owning very expensive.
Rowhouses. These look similar to townhouses, with a shared wall, but a townhouse complex is managed by a strata council representing all the owners, with the strata owning the land. When you own a rowhouse, you own the land yourself ("fee simple"), much more like owning a detached house. For a lot of people, this would be more attractive than having to deal with strata. It's up to you to decide when to repair or replace things, and you don't have to deal with strata fees and special assessments - you're paying for things yourself. Michael Geller and Richard Wittstock have been talking about this for a while.
Four-plexes and six-plexes ("small-plexes") - this is basically what's coming up on Tuesday. There's builders in Vancouver who specialize in building smaller homes, like laneway houses. They say that you can take a 33-foot lot and put four homes on it, or six homes on a 50-foot lot, each with its own exterior door, without looking very different from a single-detached house. They'd be about 1000 square feet each, so they're pretty sizable. An example of what this would look like.
Stacked townhouses, meaning that homes are above one another rather than side-by-side. Each home has its own front door at the street.
Small three-storey, eight-unit rental apartment buildings on 50-foot lots. Many of these were built in the 1950s and 1960s. These fit into residential neighbourhoods (where there's often three-storey houses) while providing a way for renters to live in these neighbourhoods.
"Gentle density" doesn't seem to incur much opposition, compared to high-rises. A 2019 poll found that 70% of Vancouverites support four-plexes on their street, with less than 10% opposed. I think of the #VanPoli Facebook group as dominated by Colleen Hardwick supporters who want to limit growth, but when someone posted Michael Geller's article about gentle density to the group, it got a surprisingly positive response.
This is actually the second time the six-plex proposal is coming to city council. The first time, council rejected it, with only Stewart and Christine Boyle supporting it.
In the first version of the proposal, the idea was that one or two of the homes in each four-plex or six-plex would be required to be permanently affordable, i.e. someone could buy it at a steep discount from market value, but that discount would be permanent - they couldn't turn around and sell it again at market value, ever. In the latest version there's two options: the builder can either provide one or two permanently affordable homes with this steep discount, or they can just provide a fixed fee ("CAC") to the city which the city then puts into non-market housing (which seems simpler).
Item B3, the motion to ask staff to prepare a detailed plan
Michael Andersen at Sightline on the feasibility of the proposal
Report from Small Housing BC that appears to be the basis of the proposal; includes floor plans and cost estimates
Letter to council from Tom Davidoff, supporting the proposal