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Board of Trade issues report endorsing “missing middle” forms of housing and alternatives to home ownership

April 19th, 2017 · 5 Comments

I have to say, it’s a sign of the times that 350 people, many from the business and development community, would turn out to a five-hour session on housing policy. But that’s what they did yesterday, when the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade organized a set of panels to go along with a report they issued on housing solutions.

My story in the Globe that condenses it all is here, plus I tweeted throughout yesterday, for those who missed it.

As I noted a couple of times, the report is exclusively focused on supply, to the dismay of those who believe that demand controls are part of the solution. And there were some people talking about the need for local residents to alter their expectations, which produced some scathing pushback on Twitter.

But the report showed there is a slightly different approach to supply these days. It’s not just build more condos. There’s a big emphasis on rental, a form that does help keep some housing out of the speculative-investor market. And there were even references to alternative models of home ownership, the kind usually espoused by small housing collectives or non-profit groups. Things like shared-equity ownership models, cohousing, and more.

 

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A rare housing choice: Living in a rowhouse without having to be in a strata

April 19th, 2017 · 2 Comments

For almost as long as I’ve covered the urban-issues beat in Vancouver, people have talked about how great it would be if we had fee-simple townhouses — that is, townhouses where the owners don’t have to belong to a strata. They just own their particular row/townhouse individually, with some agreement about how to handle common walls — just as many Ontario and Quebec owners do.

I thought the dream was still unrealized when Michael Geller tweeted out a picture of some fee-simple townhouses in Coquitlam. There was an ensuing Twitter discussion, with me expressing surprise. Then Surrey’s city manager, Jean Lamontagne, contacted me by email to tell me that such rare things were starting to appear in Surrey.

Hence, my story in the Globe, which took a look at the little shoots of experimentation happening in various places, including Nanaimo, on this issue. (Thanks to whomever tweeted about Nanaimo, which also prompted me to call there.)

So why care about this form of housing? As more than one person has told me over the years, a lot of older couples don’t want to move to condos because they don’t want to have to have their lives governed by a committee. As a result, they stay parked in their four-bedroom homes all over the city, which is an inefficient use of housing. If this could catch on, it might encourage more of those people to pass on their homes to people who actually need four bedrooms.

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Will putting social-housing buildings in the hands of non-profits save them? Or doom them?

April 6th, 2017 · No Comments

B.C.’s auditor general came out with a quietly scathing report on BC Housing’s move to transfer its remaining social-housing assets — about 9,000 units of housing when they started — into the hands of non-profits.

That process, when it started a couple of years ago, sparked fears that private developers would be gobbling up these buildings. But they are all going to non-profits, it turns out.

In spite of that, AG Carol Bellringer said the selection process is murky; there doesn’t seem to be any assessment or requirement of the non-profits that they expand the social housing they’re inheriting. And, she said, the province really didn’t come up with any good argument about how this was going to ensure that social housing remains affordable and continues to be a part of the services in a community.

I started getting calls from non-profits after that, saying her report was somewhat unfair. In the story I wrote later, they said that they will likely be better protectors of social housing. They, for instance, won’t sell off a massive site to a private developer, as the province did with Little Mountain. (That happened 10 years ago today, something that housing advocates are marking with a ceremony Saturday.) That sale turned into a bit of a mess after the developer, Holborn Group, first insisted that everyone be cleared out of the existing 224 units, then demolished the units, and then did nothing. Today, only one new social-housing building has been erected on the otherwise vacant site, where the developer is required to eventually replace all 224 of the former units.

Kishone Roy of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association said, for sure, there are real threats of losses of social housing. But, he said, that is a threat that applies to all of it — the 60,000 units already owned and run by non-profits, as well as the 9,000 units that were still being run by BC Housing. He expanded on that in a story by my colleague, Jen St. Denis at Metro, saying that groups are constantly being squeezed by the government and its payment system to reduce the number of subsidized units.

That’s been happening for years already. At BCNPHA conferences I’ve gone to in the past, non-profit operators have fretted that they have to shift the ratios of subsidized vs. unsubsidized units in their buildings to keep paying the bills. The AG said about two-thirds of all social housing in the province is subsidized. But it’s actually less than that in the non-profit sector, whereas most of the BC Housing units, inherited from the federal government, charge rents that are geared to income so that people only pay 30 per cent of their income or the shelter portion of welfare.

But tenants elsewhere, like those at Stamps Place, one of the complexes that was sold, worry that there is nothing to ensure that non-profits won’t, at some point, reduce subsidies or re-develop with a private partner as a way of trying to generate some cash to expand. (In fairness, that’s what the province said it was doing with the Little Mountain sale: selling for $300-million so that it would have more money to put into social housing elsewhere.)

I guess the question is: Who do you trust more to protect it? Provincial governments now and in the future? Or non-profits whose mission it is to try to provide affordable housing?

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Infill housing could be part of solution to shortages — if cities would approve more of it, say home builders

April 6th, 2017 · 1 Comment

Infill housing is what many politicians and housing advocates are chatting up these days as a way to inject a little density into single-family neighbourhoods, some of which are managing to lose population even while the region expands by 30,000 a year.

The Greater Vancouver Home Builders’ Association commissioned some special research from Landcor, which has provided a valuable resource now on some key housing statistics, to show how slow the infill-construction business is actually going.

Vancouver is doing the best, largely because it outright approved laneway houses in all RS-1 (standard single-family housing) zones in the city. But even Vancouver takes a long time to give out approvals and charges a lot of money for permits.

Some other cities are even worse, because almost every infill has to go through an individual rezoning process, along with the lengthy approval time and the money for permits.

Here’s my story on all of this and a link to the association’s report. (It has an interactive component. Go play!)

 

 

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Someone is happy about seeing the river of Chinese capital coming to Canada: the hotel industry

April 6th, 2017 · 1 Comment

Just got this news release from Colliers International about how thrilled everyone is about the volume and prices of hotel sales. Foreign capital account for 67 per cent of total transaction volume.

2016 a Record-Breaking Year for the Canadian Hotel Real Estate Market; 2017 Poised for Continued Robust Activity

— Canadian hotel industry capped off 2016 with $4.1 billion in transaction volume, with 2017 expected to see over $3 billion in overall transaction activity —

Toronto, April 6, 2017 – The Canadian hotel real estate industry posted record performance in 2016, making it the best year for transaction volume in the current cycle, according to Colliers International Hotels’ 2017 Canadian Hotel Investment Report that released today.

2016 saw the hotel real estate market complete $4.1 billion in transaction volume, the second- highest amount on record, and almost 70% higher on a year-over-year basis. The year also set a new high for traditional price per room metrics ($99,000) and cross-border investments. In fact, foreign capital accounted for 67% ($2.75 billion) of total transaction volume, and 100% of strategic transaction activity; strategic transactions, in turn, represented 62% ($2.54 billion) of the year’s total transaction volume.

“The low Canadian dollar, the outflow of Chinese capital, hospitality assets’ generally higher yield, and hotels’ strong operating performance are increasing liquidity in the market,” said Alam Pirani, Executive Managing Director, Hotels. “A weaker loonie offers investors greater purchasing power. Canada’s stable economic and political environment is an ideal destination for capital flight from China. Hotels deliver returns that averaged 210 basis points higher than those of other real estate investments in 2016. And the industry continually exhibits strong operating performance, with demand outpacing new supply over the past decade. All these aspects are driving the industry to fire on all cylinders, and deliver the level of results we saw in 2016,” he stated.

2016 likewise witnessed rapid growth in key markets, with the report citing the fastest-growing areas in Canada, in terms of revenue per available room: Windsor, ON; Toronto Downtown, ON; Vancouver/South Surrey, BC; Vancouver Airport, BC; and Banff, AB according to Smith Travel Research.

The industry’s upward trend is expected to continue through 2017, which is poised to see over $3 billion in sales volume – Q1 already saw the completion of a $1 billion portfolio transaction.

“2017 is shaping up to be another banner one for the hotel industry,” said Robin McLuskie, Vice President, Hotels. “We expect foreign capital to keep flowing into our borders. We anticipate annualized supply growth to reach between 1.5% and 2% in the next two to three years. Hard-hit energy markets are rebounding, setting up these regions for increased activity. Plus the combination of Canada’s weak dollar and significant promotion around the country’s

150th anniversary should make 2017 a peak year for travel into Canada. These factors put the hotel real estate market on track towards yet another banner year.”

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The biggest housing challenge of all: affordable apartments for the developmentally disabled

March 28th, 2017 · No Comments

This story came my way in the most random way. I was at the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association dinner last fall and talking to the man across the table who, it turned out to be the CEO of the Community Living Society.

So what, I asked Ross Chilton, is the big story in your world? He said: the problem of finding housing for people with developmental disabilities.

As I started on this story, I was surprised to discover that those with developmental disabilities don’t get any kind of priority status for subsidized units — in fact, they get fewer “points” because they’re not at risk of homelessness (since their parents are usually heavily involved in helping them out). And they don’t get any kind of extra subsidy for housing — just the standard $375 a month that is the allowance for anyone on disability or welfare.

My story is here, with some really compelling stories from parents about what they have gone through to try to ensure that their adult children get set on the path to independent living.

 

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Surrey: It’s harder to build a suburban downtown than it looks

March 28th, 2017 · 3 Comments

I’ve been curious about how Surrey will evolve ever since former mayor Dianne Watts set out to transform the city’s image and its reality.

Besides the music festivals and the beautification and the stunning new pools and other facilities built in the city, Watts also promised to create a downtown for Surrey out of almost literally nothing.

It’s been 10 years since she started talking about that. I took a closer look at what kind of development there has been — and what hasn’t arrived yet.

There are towers here and there, none of them yet forming a critical mass that feels urban. And there seems to have been a pause in development.

Some of that delay is because certain property owners are waiting to see exactly what the alignment of the new light-rail transit line will be.

But one Surrey watcher wrote to me afterwards with these observations.

Besides, as the story noted, a certain drop-off in energy and boosterism characteristic of the Watts noted, this writer said:

The other problem with slow growth in the City Centre is the lack of focus and the fact that this Council seems more concerned about courting political favour in neighbourhoods and with developers who want to build elsewhere. Also, the City Centre Plan covers too large an area. Even the Anthem property, across King George Boulevard, seems like it is in an area too distant from where development should be concentrated.

Finally, a lot of developers are waiting to learn what will happen with transit in Surrey City Centre. Everyone seems confident that LRT is coming, but station locations have shifted a few times and I believe the reason was that they were trying to accommodate larger station platforms to show that they can have longer trains and compete with SkyTrain, likely in response to some in Victoria who are pushing to replace the LRT plan with SkyTrain. This uncertainty, I believe, may have delayed some development.

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Community pools in Paris, Madrid, Lyon, San Francisco — a great way to get away from tourists

March 17th, 2017 · No Comments

I love community pools, as I think many of you know. I mourn the loss of the Mount Pleasant pool near me and I’m an ardent fan of New Brighton. The NPA campaign promise that got me the most excited was the one to build three new outdoor pools.

As a result of all that, when I travel, I’m a sucker for any hotel, agriturismo, resort, or Airbnb listing with a pool involved.

But what I love the most is not those private pools (though I do have a particular fondness for the one on the rooftop of the hotel I stayed at in Montevideo). It’s the local city pools wherever I go.

Here’s my Globe travel story on same.

I didn’t get to mention a few other anomalies I’ve discovered as I’ve swum my way through various cities

  • We in Vancouver don’t realize how lucky we are in how many pools we have and how much they are open. In Minneapolis, I could not find a community pool in the middle of summer. The Y was closed, the city pool was open only to members. I guess that’s a function of the fact that they have multiple lakes in the city that are open for swimming, which is where I ended up going, but still. Not a single pool in a building for visitors? In Seattle, many of the pools are closed on Sundays — can you imagine anyone going for that here? And in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the lovely local pool in a gorgeous old building was only available to members who paid a hefty sum per year — more than was worthwhile even for a week of swims there.
  • Pools show you the hidden side and the changes going on in a city. In Portland, the pool on the far east side of the city took me through areas where there was very little sign of the Portlandia hipsters who have become the caricatured symbol of the place At the pool in the Mississippi district, an area that has been undergoing a transformation from predominantly black area to hispter haven, it was obvious in the aquafit class, where there was a  mix of both demographics in the pool.

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BC Hydro backs away from its rushed offer to build substations under Vancouver parks

March 17th, 2017 · 1 Comment

This was a strange one that no one could understand the timing of.

BC Hydro, in the last week of January, suddenly announced it wanted to build new electrical substations under a couple of downtown Vancouver parks — but it needed an agreement from parks, school board, and the city by March 31.

CEO Jessica McDonald said that it was because Hydro would have its unused capital money taken away by the provincial government at the end of the year if it wasn’t spent. It just didn’t make any sense.

The only explanation I’ve heard that does make any sense was that they wanted the deal in time for the election — something that could be shown off during the campaign as an innovative way the province was working to save money and build schools. (Hydro had offered to build two new schools downtown as part of the offer.)

Anyway, after some rushed public hearings and a quick online survey, it was raring to go. But the city, which had been pretty enthusiastic about the idea, calling it innovative and potentially rewarding for citizens, said it just couldn’t meet that deadline and wanted more time.

Council members voted in camera on that. There was also some initial skirmishing over the price. Hydro claimed Vancouver wanted the same value as buying the surface land, so then there would be no savings and no money available for building schools and refurbishing pars.

City manager Sadhu Johnston said there had been nothing beyond an opening offer and response, which, as anyone dealing with land knows, was not necessarily where they would end up.

So Hydro announced last week it was ceasing negotiations and rescinding the offer.

But I’m wondering if it might not come back next year.

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Vancouver eliminates the idea of ‘downzoning’ single-family house size as a strategy for prevention demolition

March 17th, 2017 · No Comments

This was a surprise move by the city’s new director of planning.

Gil Kelley, who was supposed to be just giving an update on feedback to the city’s proposals for ways to protect “character houses,” also announced last week that it was removing one city tool from the package — the proposal to drastically limit the size a new house could be if the owner had torn down a pre-1940s house on the lot.

My Globe story on same is here. My colleague Kerry Gold did another one that has more details on people who think that was a bad move. The issue also came up at the Urbanarium debate last week, where there was a really interesting back and forth about the merits and challenges of saving character homes.

Michael Kluckner, arguing for the pro side, made what I thought was a really valid proposal — that, if the city wants more density, it should stop just stringing it along arterials or allowing gentle density throughout the whole area. Instead, it should create more Kerrisdale-like villages that allow people to form more of a sense of community, which won’t happen among apartment dwellers lined up on busy streets.

He had a post on Gordon Price’s blog re this.

Javier Campos from Heritage Vancouver, on the other hand, raised some eyebrows with his statements that the emphasis on preserving homes only pre-1940 was a sign of Vancouver “anglo-colonial bias” when it comes to housing.

The video of the debate is here.

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