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Idea camp for rental housing prompts many suggestions and many questions

April 26th, 2009 · 22 Comments

It was quite the scene at the stunning new Celebration Hall in Mountain View cemetery Saturday — I definitely want to be buried there now with the great views and lovely, modernist new hall for all my friends to party at when they send me on my way — as developers, architects, and housing advocates gathered to hear what the city’s plans are for creating rental housing and to put out their own.

It was a sunny afternoon, but the who’s who of the development scene was there (I kept saying that if a bomb fell on the place, the industry would be wiped out) along with the most battle-hardened of the housing advocates. And people came with lots to say. Rob MacArthur from Polygon brought along a three-page single-spaced list of suggestions and background — just a sign of the level of detail people were willing to get into.

After a little speech from housing planner Jill Davidson on what the city is hoping to do (create some short-term incentives for rental to be in place by the summer break! kiss your family goodbye, staffers!!) and some anxious questions from developers on what the city might impose, everyone broke into small groups to bat around ideas. It was fascinating to see the groups at work: Brent Granby from the West End Residents Association at a table with Bob Rennie, Andrew Grant of PCI, and architect Gregory Henriquez while city planner Chris Warren took notes; in another corner, the city’s head planner at the whiteboard with developer Bruno Wall, community activist Ned Jacobs, architect Walter Francl and real-estate analyst Jay Wollenberg of Coriolus. Mayor Gregor Robertson hovered here and there, leading two groups to claim that they were his “favourites.”

It’s impossible to capture all the suggestions everyone made — or to imagine what staff are going to do with them, especially since a few of them directly contradicted each other. A and it wasn’t just the developers disagreeing with the advocates, by the way.

There were also some important questions raised, especially about whether the point is to create just any old rental housing or affordable rental housing. The city can probably tinker with things enough to make rental housing projects feasible.  A little graph in the initial presentation showed how the city could tinker a bit — reduce parking, give a little density, reduce fees — to shave $2 million off the cost of a four-storey wood-frame building in East Vancouver, and that would be enough to tip from not worth doing to viable. But is just creating more supply the point? Many people raised the issue (a disgruntled Wendy Pedersen sitting beside me being one of them) that increasing that kind of supply doesn’t really bring on the kinds of apartments that are really lacking in the city: places that rent for less than $1,000.

Real-estate services director Michael Flanigan said obviously the city wants to do both, but the first wave of incentives is probably going to encourage just regular supply through quick and fast regulation and fee changes, while a second wave, which can be done on sites where the city gets into a negotiation with developers, could produce deeper discounts on the cost (along with agreements to specify who will get those cheaper units). He didn’t mention it, but obviously a theme throughout the afternoon was that, if the city were willing to give its own land at a discount, that could create rental at prices that would get down to the lower rates.

Okay, all of that being said, here were some of the suggestions that came up . This is only a partial list, which doesn’t get into the technicalities that some people brought up, like CMHC financing.

– consider allowing smaller units, 275 or 325 sq ft

– allow developers who are willing to create rental in one building to transfer the bonus density they get for doing that to another building

– give an additional FSR to all existing zoning, if the extra space is used for rental only. (Planning speak for newbies: FSR is floor-space ratio and it’s how the city decides how much building you can put on a lot. Most single-family lots are .6 FSR, which means the number of square feet in your house must equal 60 per cent of the square footage of the lot. A small commercial building might be 2 FSR. The Shangri La tower is 13 FSR.)

– don’t insist that building projects be 100 per cent rental. Allow a mix of owned condo and rental.

– shorten up the time for a rezoning (lots of agreement on that one)

– rents for anynew building should match the demographics of the neighbourhood

– let investors be allowed to put a covenant on their title promising to keep the unit as a rental unit for at least 10 years (this crafty suggestion from Bob Rennie, as an answer to something the city is worried about — what if all those individual condo investors currently renting their units all decide to sell when the market improves. Could be a renters’ disaster scenario)

– don’t encourage property-tax exemptions as this could result in inequality and would get murky very quickly

– consider allowing the six-storey wood-frame buildings that the province has been proposing (this came up several times)

– allow building condo apartments that have internal, locked-off parts that owners can rent out, so that apartment owners have the same kind of potential for mortgage help as homeowners do with basement suites

– look at other types of rental forms than the tower and podium or 3/4-storey low-rise.

– city should not allow strata councils to restrict rental

I’m sure I’m missing a lot that was interesting here, so I’ll turn the blog over to the commenters for their additions and analysis.

As I said up above, I’m not sure what staff is going to do all of this. There were so many suggestions and many of them, I have to say, can’t be totally new to anyone. You almost didn’t need everybody there to come up with much of this list, though I have to say, it was fascinating to me to hear developers presenting their ideas with such passion and specificity. And it was also an interesting exercise to get housing advocates, architects and developers to debate the ideas together.

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