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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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