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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Zoning and the missing middle

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What’s wrong with row houses, exactly?

The missing middle is a newish expression that refers to housing in Vancouver: the middle in question being  something that has a higher density than single-family houses, but not towers.  Think row-houses, low-rise walk-up appartment buildings.  There are good environmental reasons to wish for that type of housing: it decreases the environmental footprint per capita by enabling effective public transit, reducing heating costs, etc.

The missing middle is also touted as a solution to affordability: more homes per area should mean cheaper homes, everything else being equal.  Unfortunately the housing market is anything but a rational market, and simply increasing the supply may not be enough to address the problem.  This has become an election issue, with each party jokeying for solutions (Sam Cooper provided a nice summary in today’s Sun).  Here’s a quote:




NDP housing critic David Eby says B.C.’s next government must get directly involved in building large projects that would produce an “expansion of affordable housing not just for the very poor, but for the middle class in Metro Vancouver.”

Eby points to Asian city-states Singapore and Hong Kong that have faced greater affordability problems than Vancouver, and have responded by building homes only meant for workers.

European economies have also come up with their own approaches; I recently wrote about Mitte Altona in Hamburg, Germany, as an example.  But much as I think that these approaches have a lot of merit, this certainly does not discount that providing more supply is part of the solution.  And the current zoning approach is a problem.

There are actually three forms of missing middle: there is the lack of mid-rise denser housing that we’ve discussed, but there is also the strange hollowing effect that the current zoning produces: an empty middle of single-family houses in Vancouver surrounded by denser development in the suburbs (at the expense of decent transit), as well as the smaller-scale doughnut effect of higher density along the arterial streets but single family houses in between.

The problem is further compounded by the perceived need to preserve heritage values, and by homes left either empty for speculation or used for short-term rental.  Patrick Condon and others have proposed good architectural examples of “middle” architecture that address fears of loss of neighbourhood character.

But not all neighbourhoods have heritage values or character that need to be preserved.  My own neighbourhood, Hastings-Sunrise, is a case in point: there are a few neat buildings, but it’s mostly a fairly bland, if very liveable, area.  My immediate neighbourhood is likely to become an instance of a local doughnut if the development planned along Broadway, Nanaimo, First Avenue, and Renfrew goes ahead.

It’s a shame, and a missed opportunity.  I noticed a new development on 7th: three large houses with three laneway houses in the back.  (The whole thing is ugly as sin but that’s just my opinion.)  They sit on standard 33 foot lots, and will likely sell for at least million and a half, probably more; the developper likely paid at least three million for the three lots.

Three new houses in progress…

…three laneway houses in a row








Needless to say, these will not be affordable to young families, even with the rental income from the laneway home.  And the laneway houses are also problematic.  Yes they should contribute to the supply of rental housing.  But what if the owner, rich enough to afford the property, cannot be bothered with the trouble of finding renters?  Are they liable to be hit with the surtax that owners of emply homes face, in Vancouver?  This may be unlikely, despite the fact that is the spirit of the law.  Nor could they sell the laneway home by itself. Chalk that problem to inflexible zoning, again.

But what if the contractor had been allowed to build row houses?  Depending on the design, this could have made for between six and eight homes.  Add to that the separate laneway houses, and we have, say, ten homes instead of three, well below the million and a half plus asked price.  As a neighbourhood homeowner, I would welcome that on my block.

And if let architects get a bit creative, it would make for a cool neighbourhood.  Below is the video that features Patrick Condon and Scot Hein of UBC giving examples; well worth a look.


Written by enviropaul

April 22, 2017 at 1:30 pm

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