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Can Vancouver avoid empty neighbourhood ‘death’ with gentle density?

Experts praise mayor’s intention to encourage more infill development in single-family neighbourhoods

Houses in Vancouver's Dunbar neighbourhood, an area of the city that saw population decline between 2011 and 2016 as house prices climbed into the multi-millions

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

Houses in Vancouver's Dunbar neighbourhood, an area of the city that saw population decline between 2011 and 2016 as house prices climbed into the multi-millions

It’s still an outline rather than a fully fleshed-out plan, but housing experts are cautiously optimistic about an updated housing “reset” floated by Vancouver’s mayor in a March 1 speech.

“He said it was important to look at rezoning single-family neighbourhoods, because single-family homes that sell for $5 million are not suitable for young families,” said Tom Davidoff, a professor of economics at the University of British Columbia who specializes in real estate. Davidoff has been a critic of the lower-density single-family zoning in place across much of the city.

“I don’t know how easy the politics will be, but he seemed to be more willing to go there than in the past.”

During the address to the Urban Land Institute, Robertson suggested the city would put more city land on the market; focus on building rental near near transit; allow owners of low-rise apartment buildings to add additional storeys; and encouraging more infill development in single-family neighbourhoods.

Robertson said the city would try to add more supply in a way that won’t result in the rampant speculation that has led to enormous price increases in both residential and commercial real estate.

Population increase and decrease in the City of Vancouver, 2011-2016, based on Statistics Canada's 2016 Census

Andy Yan, Simon Fraser University

Population increase and decrease in the City of Vancouver, 2011-2016, based on Statistics Canada's 2016 Census

“The city’s facing this blue screen of death and if it’s not careful they won’t be able to engage this issue of housing for local incomes,” said Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, referring to a map he created based on census data showing where Vancouver gained and lost people between 2011 and 2016.

On Yan’s map, several of the very pricy single-family neighbourhoods in Vancouver’s Westside are coloured blue, meaning they lost hundreds of residents between 2011 and 2016. In his speech, Robertson warned the emptying neighbourhoods are the sign of a “failing city.”

Yan also praised Robertson’s focus on renters, who make up over 50 per cent of Vancouver residents.

Robertson said that single-family neighbourhoods can be densified in a way that doesn’t compromise their current character, with infill such as duplexes, townhouses and laneway homes. He emphasized that this can be done without assembling land, where developers buy several lots on a street in order to build multi-family housing.

Davidoff said land assembly can be effective, because “within four or five years you can get a lot built. I don’t think that’s something they should be worrying about, but I think they like infill as a way to keep it both at density and keep neighbourhoods feeling low-scale.”

Of the proposal to add storeys to older low-rise apartment buildings, David Hutniak, CEO of the Landlord BC, said the city would have to develop a “template” that would give property owners certainty that projects would be approved and the process would be relatively straightforward.

Houses on Vancouver's pricy Westside

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

Houses on Vancouver's pricy Westside

“Today the challenge is initially the zoning and then, if an owner gets to proceed, an endless stream of new and shifting requirements that cause delays and significant additional cost.”

Adding an additional storeys to a three-storey walkup, as the mayor suggests, would displace tenants — but, Hutniak said, the life of the renovated building would be extended 60 to 70 years.

When it comes to single family neighbourhoods which have traditionally opposed denser development, Yan emphasized that density shouldn’t be imposed from the “top down.”

“Planning and engagement in Vancouver needs to move away from being the sell job to the teaching moment,” he said.

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