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Vancouver continues to “solve” its affordability problem by going littler and littler

January 4th, 2013 · 67 Comments

The little house, the little apartment — they’re all I’m hearing about these days.

Laneway houses continue to be popular. At last count, there were 600 that had been processed at city hall. Micro-suites have come to Surrey. Coquitlam is letting people build multiple-units on single-family lots.

Some of this is welcomed, I think. We’ve come to realize we don’t all need to maintain personal park spaces next to our houses.

But I do hear people worrying about how much little stuff is being built. Because little usually means that the housing is restricted to a single, a couple or at most a couple with a dog or youngster. And having such narrowcast communities is a worry. (Of course, suburbs and downtowns used to be, by definition, narrowcast. All families here. All singles, young and old, there. But that’s been changing slowly.)

That’s how I got onto this story about the shrinking condos and houses — councillors from Coquitlam worrying aloud about the impact of, for instance, the Fraser Mills development asking for an extra 1,000 units in the same four million square feet they’d already been allowed.

My Globe story here and below.

Rise of the incredible shrinking home


Published Thursday, Jan. 03, 2013 08:46PM EST

Last updated Thursday, Jan. 03, 2013 08:51PM EST

As the economy and changing mortgage rules squeeze Vancouver buyers, developers – and the municipalities that regulate them – are responding with shrinking homes.

The whole region, not just downtown Vancouver, is seeing experiments with smaller housing: everything from laneway houses to small houses packed onto a former single-family lot to ever-tinier condos.

“We have seen that trend the last 10 years to try to make housing affordable,” said Anne McMullin, CEO of the Urban Development Institute.

The trend accelerated last year in particular as the federal government changed mortgage-loan policy to make it harder for first-time buyers to get into the market.

The results of that policy have been evident, with house sales slowing and the assessed values for Lower Mainland properties dropping for the first time in years.

The drive to smaller and smaller is making housing more affordable. But it also sometimes worries neighbours and politicians, who wonder about the way massive complexes of small units are changing their communities.

Coquitlam, once a bedroom suburb of single-family houses, has seen that impact directly.

“We’re hearing this all the time now, that developers want to build more single-bedroom units, more small two-bedrooms,” Coquitlam Councillor Terry O’Neill said.

Last month, the Beedie Group, which is developing the Fraser Mills megaproject on Coquitlam’s Fraser River shore, asked to increase the number of units in its proposed development to 4,700 from 3,700 without changing the overall four million square feet of allowed building space.

That would mean shrinking the average size of the project’s units to 865 square feet from 1,100. It worried many Coquitlam councillors.

“The concern we heard was not about parking, not about extra population. It was about ‘What’s this going to do to the nature of the city?’” Mr. O’Neill said. “If it’s all small units, you’re just going to end up getting couples. We want to make sure there are a substantial number of units that will attract families.”

The city is holding public sessions later this month to gauge public reaction to the change.

That’s not the only shrinkage Coquitlam is seeing.

The municipality has also introduced a new “housing choices” policy that lets people build duplexes, carriage houses, or clusters of small houses on single-family lots in designated neighbourhoods.

One proposal that came before council recently had four small houses proposed for one lot. It was turned down because of concerns about lack of parking space, but Coquitlam is increasingly open to that kind of thing, Mr. O’Neill said.

So are other municipalities, which are increasingly experimenting with zones where they allow laneway houses and townhouses in single-family zones, along with permitting condo towers with smaller units.

That used to be the kind of development that was mainly seen in Vancouver.

The city still leads the way in smallness. Last year, developer Jon Stovell restored the Burns Block in the Downtown Eastside, once a residential hotel, to 270-square-foot micro-lofts.

At Intracorp’s MC2 project at the south end of Cambie Street, the one-bedroom units were scaled down to 462 square feet – the size of a large hotel room.

That shows that buyers are no longer looking at housing as the place where they want to sink a lot of money for space and status, said the project’s marketer, Bob Rennie.

“They’re buying more utilitarian,” he said.

Developers say new kinds of amenities are a trend along with the move to small.

Peter Webb, an Urban Development Institute board member, said places like MC2 include built-in headboards and side tables for beds.

Although his company, Concord Pacific, isn’t moving into micro-units, it has seen its average condo size come down in the 20 years it that has been building on the north shore of False Creek.

When the Concord project began, the average size of the condos was 1,200 square feet. That’s now considered luxuriously large in many Lower Mainland condo developments.

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  • boohoo

    I’m a thirty something, I got an apartment, now I have a house–and I’m finding it’s too big. I have rooms I barely ever go in. We’re looking to downsize now.

    I agree, and I know I’m not alone that the ‘whoever dies with the most stuff wins’ bumper sticker lifestyle is diminishing (no, that doesn’t mean everyone nor am I saying it is better or worse) and the housing is a reflection of that.

    But a more basic fact is we’re running out of room. Yes, there’s plenty of room in Chilliwack or Prince George, but we’re running out of room where people want to live. The only options are stop people from coming here (not possible) or build smaller spaces to house people. I don’t think this is as catastrophic as people make it out to be. We are a looooooooong way away from any dystopian 200 storey 100 sqft apartments that some people try to scare us with.

  • Higgins

    “But a more basic fact is we’re running out of room. ”
    By far the stupidest line I read this first week of 2013. Where, Boohoo? Here in Vancouver? Helloooo, we are not in Lichtenstein or Monaco!
    We barely populate the stretch bordering the US. Cut the spin, will you?

  • boohoo

    Ok Higgins, assuming you’re not planning on building housing in the ALR, you fill up the valley with tacky boxes, and then what? Build islands in the ocean?

    Besides, the vast majority of people don’t want to live in Whonnock or Hope, they want to live in Metro Vancouver. So assuming you have to accommodate these people in Metro Vancouver, where do you put them?

  • boohoo

    Just to follow on this–I don’t understand this line of thinking…that because there’s ‘developable land’ we should cover every square inch of it before we do something different. Not to mention the millions upon millions required to service it initially, and then maintain it.

    Do we really have to go all the way down that path before we do something different?

  • Frank Ducote

    Mark@46 – couldn’t agree more. The typical post -WWII “starter home” was about 800sf, good enough to start and raise a family, plus add onto or convert the basement when and if needed and afforded. Today, in the hinterland of Metro Vancouver the “typical” sfr is over 2000 sf. That, plus parking for 3 cars.

    Is that need or greed talking? I’m personally happy to hear that a generational shift is underway if it means less space or land consumption per person on the planet in general and Metro in particular. (Agreeing with Boohoo here.)

  • PW

    To think I thought homes were being shrunk because it was more profitable. I stand corrected. It was pure urbanist altruism. The millions they stuffed in their pocket was purely incidental.

  • Bill Lee

    Selling Laneway rabbit warrens!?

    See Melbourne’s “granny flats”/”granny cottages’ for sale such as

    They’ve had them (in a horrendously tight rental market) for years.
    Prices are much cheaper than the Dunbarites want for theirs (selling in two years to escape the real estate capital gains tax?)

    “Given a lack of affordable housing in Melbourne, Mr Elsom said more and more renters tended to lock into another 12-month lease rather than go month to month at the end of their first year in a property to secure their home.
    “It’s nothing like it was a year ago where people lined up around the block, but there is still demand,’’ he said.
    “There is not as much turnover in properties, people are signing 18-month to 2½ -year leases.’’
    “In regional Victoria State, Bendigo is one of the toughest places to find a rental home in the state, with only a 0.6 per cent vacancy rate.”

    Australian Financial Review (daily compact-sized major biz paper)

  • Frank Ducote

    Frances – the title of your piece could more accurately be “The Rise of the Incredible Shrinking Suite (not home)”. Are there stats to show that suburban sfr homes are shrinking? Maybe the lots are getting smaller – as at Imperial Landing in Steveston and elsehwere – but not the floor space, I think. I stand to be corrected, if someone has more up to date facts about sfr house sizes.

    PW@56 – if sfr houses are getting bigger, which they have been for decades in Vancouver and the burbs (aka McMansions and monster houses), is there no profit in that? I don’t get your point, if there is one. If they are declining in size, isn’t it about time?

  • boohoo


    Certainly true in some areas of Metro–check out Surrey’s RF-9C zone. The lot is 9m wide by 30m deep, with a principle dwelling of almost 1900 sq ft (with secondary suite of course) and a coach house up to 500 sq ft.

    So at least 6 people if not more on a lot smaller than your typical urban Vancouver lot.

  • boohoo

    Google map 69A Ave and 191 St or around that neighbourhood to see what that looks like on the ground. You’re lucky if you can see a blade of grass much less any trees!

  • Kenji

    When I was in a loft — hipster douche! — one of our neighbours had an approx 300 sq foot cube, but because of the high ceilings, he could build all sorts of niches, platforms and cubbies into it, so that it was liveable, even desireable.

    So I think that tiny square footage, in itself, could work for some people, particularly if they are like IanS and micronize their entertainment media.

    What truly bothers me is not that people live small but that they live in the sky.

    The ladder on a fire truck is about a hundred feet long. I searched “fire safety” and “apartment tower” and that merely affirmed my skepticism about the inherent risk of living in tall structures. Frankly I’m not that trusting in the technology. It’s one thing to work 8 hours in a glass spire but quite another to bed my family down for the night in one.

    Accordingly, I’d like to see more mid-rise developments, say five to eight stories. Put them in places that need a visual/economic refresh, I think they would do well.

    Now, how to get the developers to want to do it? One thought is that smart developers should be seeking good relationships with the City, relationships of years and years not project by project. Maybe the developer is not as jazzed by getting to build a hundred units instead of two hundred, but what if that hundred unit project was not just a one shot but a contract for, I dunno, ten years worth of projects?

  • teririch

    There was a report on Global BC during the holidays – a young woman had (blog site)compiled the worst properties for 2012 (Vancouver) and their price tags.

    I couldn’t believe how some houses even passed any type of inspection – there were ‘shacks’ built on top of flat roofs and honestly, kindergarten kids could have done a better job with lego.

    Then there was a pretty little house in the West Side priced at $650K…. which sounded reasonable, until they mentioned that the $650K was the cost of the basement suite only.

  • Boohoo

    Hmmm I’m not sure how you purchase a basement suite?

  • There’s a number of houses that have been split up into Strata titled suites- one I can think of (a friend used to own the bottom suite) was a typical Kits Bungalow split into 3 strata units on 3 levels. Not sure when that was approved, or if you could do that now.

  • Cheezwiz

    @Kenji : Yes! Yes! a thousand times YES!

    I’m not necessarily opposed to new development, but I hate the stack ’em and pack ’em high-rise model the city seems intent on following. It only benefits developers and no one else.

    What we need is more variety in the types of developments that are being built: low-rise, mid-rise, townhouses, rowhouses, coops etc. There have to be ways to incentivize this. If I had a choice, I’d much prefer a Paris cityscape to Hong Kong.

  • boohoo

    Guess not hey higgins?

  • Bill Lee

    Map of laneway houses, built as well as permits for 2012, a few months ago on Page 47 of this housing report.