by Carol Volkart
On the surface, Vancouver’s Missing Middle Housing strategy makes sense. Who wouldn’t agree that more types of less costly housing are needed in low-density areas of the city? Seventy-seven per cent of the 1,895 people who took the city’s survey this spring agreed it was a good idea.
But how many knew about the downsides? They’re spelled out surprisingly clearly in a July 25 staff report to council: lack of parking, tree loss, strain on infrastructure, and higher land values, all in return for minimal affordability.
Now that a public hearing for the plan has been set for Sept. 14, we should be deciding whether the positives outweigh the negatives, and whether modifications are essential. As it stands, the plan will mean a massive transformation of Vancouver.
Up to six housing units per lot will be allowed throughout the vast areas of the city once called single-family residential zones. No on-site vehicle parking will be required. Among other changes, laneway houses will be bigger, and single detached houses smaller.
This fall’s public hearing is the public’s last chance to weigh in before the plan gets final approval. Here are some of the staff report’s less rosy points that residents may want to consider:
Parking strife: The report acknowledges that each new multiplex household is likely to have one car, so not requiring on-site parking could lead to problems. But it predicts multiplex development will be gradual throughout the city and says “staff do not expect significant impacts to street parking at this time.”
However, it goes on, “demand for street parking will gradually result in an interest in residential permit parking zones and fees to manage the street space.” Remember the outrage over the previous council’s residential pay-parking scheme? It was dumped because of the furor, but apparently it’s not dead; it’s only resting. In the meantime, any number of multiplexes can go up on any block, and residents may find themselves spending a lot of time finding a place to park.
Vanishing trees: When the priority is building as much as possible on every lot, trees don’t have a chance.
“It is important to note that larger building footprints and increased hard surfacing will result in more trees being removed on individual lots,” the report says. “Similarly, city street trees will frequently need to be removed to provide new utility connections.” To compensate for the lost canopy, multiplexes will either have to retain trees in the front yard or replace them — one (1!) tree for standard lots and two (2!) for larger lots. Curiously for a city that declared a climate emergency in 2019, there is no mention of the impact of tree loss on climate change or heat domes, or any promise that the impact will be tracked or compensated for.
Strained utilities: Nobody cares about sewers and electricity until they don’t work. This plan will stress both, with the solutions adding to the cost of housing.
“The increase in the number of units and impermeable surface will put pressure on the already strained sewer system as additional rainwater run-off volume and additional sewage discharge enters the system,” the report warns.” The solution? Rainwater retention tanks on most multiplex lots.
Most multiplexes will also require an electrical upgrade and a pad mounted transformer (PMT), gobbling up space and money. A city FAQ says transformers will need a 12-by-12-foot space and cost $70,000 to $150,000. The city and B.C. Hydro are trying to find ways of distributing that cost “more equitably,” potentially through a fixed surcharge on all new and upgrade connections. More costs, no matter how they’re spread around.
Higher land values: Adding density adds land value; staff admit multiplexes could lead to land speculation. To counter this, there’ll be density bonus contributions based on location, lot size and number of units, ranging from $3 to $140 per square foot, with large lots on the west side paying most. Alternatively, builders could provide one below-market home ownership unit, or make all units permanently market rental.
No trial period: Staff have recommended against any pilot project, despite the plan’s potential impact. Even former Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart suggested a pilot project of 100 lots when he proposed an initial version of the plan in 2020. The staff report notes that a 2022 council motion proposed a pilot of 2,000 lots, and the Vancouver Plan referred to a pilot project on multiplexes.
While staff will “monitor” the first 100 multiplexes, they ruled out a pilot project because it would “require individual site rezoning, adding lengthy processing time, uncertainty and significant cost for the applicant.” Which raises the question: What is more important: avoiding major startup problems for the public, or inconveniencing applicants?
Lack of affordability: Even the staff report sounds underwhelmed about the affordability of this new housing. “While the cost of new multiplex units will still be out of reach of many households, these new options will cost less than the ownership housing options available in these neighbourhoods today,” it says.
“Staff anticipate that a new multiplex unit will be priced at 50 per cent of the cost of a new single-detached house, and about 75 per cent of the cost of a new duplex in a similar location.”
Politicians and advocates have been pushing the benefits of densification for years, with the negatives getting little attention. Now that staff have spelled them out, residents have a chance to consider what they’ll mean to their neighbourhoods.
Do we want an untested citywide plan that will diminish the tree canopy, cause parking problems, boost land values and strain the infrastructure, all for limited affordability? While nobody can halt the densification train barrelling toward us, perhaps there are more moderate, more thoughtful ways of bringing it into the station. We should all be ready to weigh in on Sept. 14.