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Experimental city zoning shows how to trim housing costs

Amanda George was pregnant with her second child when she and her husband began looking for a three-bedroom home four…

By mmast , in City , on October 17, 2012 Tags: , , , , ,

Amanda George was pregnant with her second child when she and her husband began looking for a three-bedroom home four years ago. After searching for over a year, George was ready to give up. The houses they wanted were priced at $800,000, significantly beyond their budget.

Then her realtor found a $650,000 home, part of a seven-unit strata-housing complex in Vancouver’s Cedar Cottage neighbourhood. Stratas such as that one were built after the city created a unique zone seven years ago in the Cedar Cottage pocket near Kingsway and Victoria. The new zone, called RT-10 allowed multi-unit properties to be built on one single-family-sized lot.

“There wasn’t a lot to choose from in the price bracket that we were looking in,” said George, recalling the time before she found the strata. “And the things that were out there had either been on the market for a long time or they needed a lot of work.”

City focuses on affordable housing

Those RT-10 homes are an example of the kind of affordable housing the Vision Vancouver council has said it wants to create much more of. The city’s affordable housing report, approved two weeks ago, opens the door to small houses, duplexes, rowhouses and stacked townhouses throughout the city on the streets next to arterials. The report aims to ensure that the housing remains affordable by introducing new criteria for developers. But experts disagree about whether the plan will work.

Tom Davidoff, a professor at the Sauder School of Business, says in order for density to lower housing prices, a lot of new units would need to be built very quickly and Vancouver’s population would need to stay the same. Even then, affordability would not last because lower housing prices would attract more people.

“If you make Vancouver more attractive, people who were sort of on the fence about whether or not to move to Vancouver, they might think, ‘Oh yeah, you know what, I will move in,’” says Davidoff. “And that is going to mute the effect of adding supply. In the long run, you just can’t make an attractive city cheap, you just can’t do it.”

But city Coun. Geoff Meggs says the city has several strategies to ensure the new housing forms being allowed remain affordable. In order to get permission to build, developers will need to follow certain guidelines such as maintaining a certain amount of rental property, or selling homes for 80 per cent of their market value.

Pat St. Michel, a senior city planner, admits the selling price of RT-10 can’t be controlled, but, even without the restrictions the city will put on the new forms of similar housing, says multiple units on one lot will likely be more affordable since people are sharing land. She says there are about 1,300 properties zoned as RT-10.

“The objective was to create greater housing variety that had many of the desirable features of a single family home, while providing a more affordable alternative,” wrote St. Michel in an email.

“People are able to buy or rent smaller ‘right-sized’ homes without having to carry the cost of a larger home and the larger land cost associated with it.”

A good fit for families

Mid-sized units in Vancouver also give buyers a choice between expensive single-family homes and tiny condos and suites in the city or less expensive homes in the suburbs.

Carla Endrizzi and her family live a few streets away from the Georges in another RT-10 strata. “When we were looking to buy,” she said, “it was dumps or duplexes that were 1,200 square feet, whereas this is 1,800. We don’t have our private yard, but we have a nice home.” Before moving, the Endrizzis lived in a condo.

The George family had a similar experience. They were able to move out of their two-bedroom townhouse and into an affordable three-bedroom space because they were willing to share a yard and attend semi-annual strata meetings.

George recognizes though, not everyone would want to live in such close quarters.

“It’s not for everybody,” she said. “I think it depends what you want. This type of living, you are pretty close. This type of living is comfortable to me.”

Sitting in her living room, George reflected on the last two years. “I’m happy with it,” she said. “I like the social part of it and [my husband] likes the fact that you feel a little safer. I think we’ll be here for quite a while.”