Sunday, February 5, 2017

In the newspaper: Malcolm Parry Vancouver Sun Saturday February 4th, 2017

     I woke up Saturday morning to find a photo of myself in Mac Parry's column on page B2 of the Vancouver Sun. Malcolm had kindly included it along with an item about the SFU talk I am presenting on February 15 which will look at European examples of higher density living.
     If I look a bit younger, that's because it wasn't a recent photo. It was taken at the 2008 Arts Umbrella Splash when I was running for Vancouver City Council.
     With me are two Arts Umbrella students and Margot Paris, my campaign manager who was wearing a pair of scissors as a necklace. At the time she told anyone who asked it was to highlight the fact that if elected, I would cut red tape at city hall. Subsequently she told me it was her woeful lack of fancy jewelry that necessitated a rummage in her sewing box for the perfect sea aqua accessory.           Those who know Margot will tell you that's typical Margot. Thinking outside the box. Those who don't know Margot are missing one of the most creative minds in the city. Married to another creative soul, Chuck Brook. They now live in the south of France half the year.
     Often when my photo appears in the newspaper I'm reminded of the early 1990s when I was managing the rezoning of Langara Gardens for Morris Wosk of blessed memory. Council had approved 83 new rental apartments in Tower 4 but with staff support, we were then seeking approval for three more rental towers.
     Unfortunately, one of the new towers would block the bedroom view of Mount Baker for one of the senior city planners, who helped organize neighourhood opposition to the project. Really!
     Eventually Gordon Campbell (wrongly I might add) announced he would not even allow the project to go to Public Hearing.
     I have never quite forgiven Gordon for that, especially since I subsequently learned at Jack Poole's funeral it wasn't the neighbourhood outburst that killed the project, but rather something entirely different. Jack's VLC Properties was in negotiation with the city on leasing city lands to build rental housing, since no private developer would build rental units. And here was Morris Wosk offering to build 350 apartments without any government subsidies. It didn't look good.
At any rate, after the Council decision, one of the neighbours wrote a letter to the editor who included my photo. Sally was upset since normally letters to the editor do not include photos.
      "Did they have to use your photo?" she asked in front of our daughter Georgia.
     From then on, every time my photo appeared in subsequent newspapers, young Georgia would ask "Is it bad again, daddy?"

Friday, February 3, 2017

Opinion: Are the City of Vancouver’s character home initiatives at odds? Vancouver Courier February 2, 2017

After writing the column set out below, about100 architects, designers, planners and builders attended a City of Vancouver planning department workshop. Following staff presentations on the carrots and sticks being proposed to encourage conservation of character homes, most of the audience was united in the opinion that the city's approach was wrong-headed, especially the proposal to downzone many single family neighbourhoods from approximately 0.7 FSR to 0.5 FSR, (and even less on larger lots).

The city's justification was a report by Coriolis Consulting advising that simply offering carrots to encourage character home conservation (eg: some extra density; opportunity to create separate strata lot) was not enough. There had to be a greater incentive, hence the city proposal to reduce allowable density. Staff added that this was also intended to ensure new houses were more in scale with the character houses.

I was subsequently contacted by some builders and architects who were very concerned since they had been advised the city is not proposing to reduce the density just on lots with character houses. It is proposing a blanket downzoning of many single family neighbourhoods! 

This seems very wrong at a time when the city should instead be rezoning single family neighbourhoods to encourage greater densities, and more duplex homes, row houses, basement suites in duplexes and rowhouses, smaller homes for sale, etc. 
Based on what we all heard, it is time for all Vancouver residents to pay attention to the Character Home Zoning Review. If the zoning changes being proposed are approved, the maximum above grade home on a 33' lot will be 1400 sq.ft.

The following is this week's Courier column:

     The City of Vancouver is currently undertaking what might seem to many observers as two contradictory programs. One is the Character Home Zoning Review; the other is the Thermal Imaging Program
     The purpose of the Character Home Zoning Review is to look at options to encourage retention of heritage and character homes in single-family (RS) zoning districts. It was initiated in response to community concerns about the many demolitions of high-quality older homes, mostly built before 1940, and the size and scale of the new homes being built in established single family neighbourhoods.
     The Thermal Imaging Pilot Program was launched in January to help homeowners identify energy loss in single-family homes and to share information on energy saving incentives that are available.
In Vancouver, 55 per cent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from buildings, and detached homes account for 31 per cent of these emissions.
     The city has identified five neighbourhoods to participate in the pilot, including Dunbar-Southlands, Riley Park, Strathcona, Victoria-Fraserview and Hastings-Sunrise. Thermal images of the fronts of houses in these neighbourhoods will be taken using a special camera mounted on a car driving along the streets.
     A thermal image is a picture of the heat that comes off an object. When something is hot, the image is bright yellow; if cold, it shows up as dark blue, with varying degrees of colour in between.
The images will be taken throughout the month of January and staff will follow-up with homeowners later this spring.
     It should be noted that these pictures only show the fronts of houses. To get a more detailed assessment, it will be necessary to hire a private contractor who will often pressurize a house to see where leaks occur. I am told the cost for this starts at about $600, but it can be well worth the money.
     So why will many think these programs are contradictory?
     Anyone who has lived in a pre-1940 character home can tell you. As a rule, the walls have little or no insulation and they leak air like a sieve. Even when renovated, it is often difficult to make older homes as energy efficient as new homes, without a loss of exterior or interior character.
For these reasons, it is not surprising that both programs are promoting Heritage Energy Retrofit Grants, being offered by the Vancouver Heritage Foundation in partnership with the City of Vancouver.
     The Heritage Energy Retrofit Grant program covers heating, fuel-switching, insulation and air sealing, and has recently been expanded to include wood storm windows and water conservation measures.
     Grants are available for owners of homes built before 1940, as well as homes listed on the Vancouver Heritage Register.
     However, they are not likely to cover all the cost of renovations. A maximum of $3,000 is available per home towards qualifying retrofits; or a maximum of $6,000 per home if fuel is switching from gas (or oil) to an electric air source heat pump, including other retrofits.
     The Home Energy Retrofit Grant program is open from September 2016 to Aug. 31, 2018 or until all grant funds are allocated — whichever occurs sooner. Applicants are encouraged to apply early and hire an Energy Advisor to conduct a pre-retrofit evaluation.
     In addition to this program, Fortis and B.C. Hydro are also offering grants to offset energy retrofits costs. They apply to both new and older buildings.
     A detailed schedule can be found online. Grants can be used to offset the costs of insulating attics, which often offers the greatest payback, and improving wall insulation, heating systems, hot water, windows and ventilation.
     As I wrote in an earlier column, I am very much in favour of trying to preserve Vancouver’s character homes. However, my initial review of the Character Home Zoning Review caused concerns.
     The city had not determined many important program details, and while offering some carrots, it was also wielding a big stick by reducing the permitted size of any new houses replacing pre-1940s homes.
     I will soon be meeting with the city to discuss how it might make this program more equitable and effective. But in the meanwhile, if you have an older home that you want to conserve, apply for some of the grants before all the money is gone.
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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Media interviews on Housing Affordability December/January 2017

Over the past few weeks I have participated in a number of media interviews and discussions on the topic of housing affordability. Some have appeared in the newspaper, dealing with Homeowners Grants, deferring property taxes, and how to create affordable housing. Others have been on radio and TV.

Years from now, it might be interesting to see whether any of my observations were even close. So for the record here are links to some recent interviews:

Vancouver Sun on the new Homeowner Loan program (December 15)

Dinner with Kirk Lapointe (December 5, 2016)

Global TV Vancouver shouldn't boast about rental housing  (January 4)

Conversations that Matter with Stu McNish (January 6, 2017)

Global News Land Assembly along East Broadway

Martin Strong on Roundhouse Radio (January 11, 2017)

The Real Estate Therapist January 28, 2017 (

I welcome your comments! :-) 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

For Robbie Burns Day: The Haggis Poem by Monty Python.

Much to his dad and mum's dismay 
Horace ate himself one day 
He didn't stop to say his grace 
He just sat down and ate his face 
 "We can't have this!" his dad declared 
"If that lad's ate he should be shared" 
But even as he spoke they saw 
Horace eating more and more: 
 First his legs and then his thighs, 
His arms, his nose, his hair, his eyes 
"Stop him someone!" Mother cried 
"Those eyeballs would be better fried!" 
 But all too late for they were gone, 
And he had started on his dong... 
"Oh foolish child!" the father mourned 
"You could have deep-fried those with prawns, 
 Some parsely and some tartar sauce..." 
But H was on his second course; 
His liver and his lights and lung, 
His ears, his neck, his chin, his tongue 
 "To think I raised him from the cot 
And now he's gone to scoff the lot!" 
His mother cried what shall we do? 
What's left won't even make a stew..."

 And as she wept her son was seen 
To eat his head his heart his spleen 
And there he lay, a boy no more 
Just a stomach on the floor... 
None the less since it was his 
They ate it - and that's what haggis is 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Another West Vancouver heritage house saved from the wrecking ball

Now that construction on Vinson House Cottages is underway, and about to go to market, I am pleased to report on another piece of West Vancouver's history.
The Vinson House Cottages development conserves a 1913 house by moving it forward on the lot to create garages along the lane, and adding a Garden Suite below and two cottages on the grounds. I will be proposing a similar approach for the Major Rush house, which has the added benefits of being on a slightly larger corner lot.
The Major Rush house, built in 1923 was once situated on a two-acre parcel of land on Inglewood Ave. In subsequent years, the property was subdivided and today it sits on a 11,800+ sq.ft. lot at the corner of Jefferson and 12th Street. But it's a beautiful corner lot and I'm pleased to report that I have been able to purchase it with the intention of undertaking another heritage revitalization project/
The Major Rush house is sited along the norther portion of this double-sized lot. The plan is to replace the artist studio with a laneway cottage, add another cottage at the south-east corner of the property, and create a single-level garden suite in the basement of the house. Additional on-site parking will be created, along with private patios. and shared gardens.
I am now in the process of preparing plans that will conserve the house, add a garden suite below, and two cottages along the lane. Hopefully I'll have something to show the neighbourhood and District planners in the coming weeks.  But I do want to thank Mike Kemble, a former planner at the City of Vancouver, with whom I once worked on the planning of the Bayshore community, for apprising me of this property during the Public Hearing for the Vinson House.

I also want to thank Tom Hassan, a realtor at Royal LePage Sussex, who appreciates the importance of saving West Vancouver's history, for showing me the property, and Elaine Biggan, the realtor who has worked with me over the past few years, for doing everything she could to encourage me to buy it!

I'll have much more to write about this shortly, but in the meanwhile, here is a link that describes this beautiful house and property.

Opinion Homeowner's grant program and property tax system due for overhaul Vancouver Courier January 19, 2017

Michael Geller: "Yes, some [British Columbians] may be losing their homeowner grants. But when you stop and think about it, given the number of renters who can’t find an affordable home, why is the provincial government still offering $800 million in grants to 91 per cent of BC homeowners?" Photo Dan Toulgoet
      I have been both amused, and disturbed, by homeowners’ responses to the 2017 B.C. property assessments. I am sure I am not alone.
     I can’t help but wonder what those struggling to afford a one-bedroom apartment must be thinking when they read about homeowners complaining that their homes increased in value by hundreds of thousands of dollars last year.
     Yes, some may be losing their homeowner grants. But when you stop and think about it, given the number of renters who can’t find an affordable home, why is the provincial government still offering $800 million in grants to 91 per cent of BC homeowners?
      Many homeowners are concerned because they cannot afford to pay their property taxes. But they refuse to avail themselves of the Property Tax Deferral Program, which was created precisely to help people like them.
      Which brings me to another complaint. Why does this program offer extremely low interest rate loans to anyone 55+, regardless of their financial situation? Surely the program should be means-tested, as it is in most other jurisdictions.
     The property assessment notices raise some other issues.
     Our property taxation system is based on the market value of a property, considering its location, size, zoning, and improvements. Other jurisdictions use different approaches.
     In Vietnam, I was surprised to see many tall, skinny buildings, often in the middle of nowhere. I was told this was because property taxes were not based on value, but rather on the quality of a street and the width of the property. Since narrow properties required shorter roads and services, they were taxed less.
     I think it is time for our governments to reconsider how they calculate property taxes.
I first thought about this 20 years ago when I owned a suburban house on a large lot and a Coal Harbour condominium apartment assessed at a similar value. My house, on the southern boundary of the city, required significantly longer roads, sewers and water pipes, compared to the downtown apartment.
     There were also more children in my single-family neighbourhood compared to Coal Harbour.
However, I paid a similar amount of taxes on each property.
     At a time when governments are encouraging us to live more sustainable lifestyles in multi-family housing, why aren’t there separate assessment classes and mill rates for single-family and multi-family properties?
     Some of you will respond that most apartments are less valuable than houses, and consequently owners pay lower taxes. This is true.
      However, owners of high-density apartments and low-density houses of the same value, pay the same taxes.
     Why doesn’t our property tax system better reflect the cost of providing services, and reward apartment owners with lower taxes?
     The dramatic increase in some single-family property assessments highlights another issue that needs to be addressed.
     These properties increased in value because the neighbourhood Official Community Plan (OCP) or zoning was changed to allow multi-family development.
     Some might say, “aren’t these people lucky?” Yes, they are, especially if they are ready to sell to a developer and move away.
     However, if they want to remain in their house for the foreseeable future, they will be forced to pay much higher taxes, and many will not be eligible for the Tax Deferral Program.
     As a planner who would like to see large swaths of single-family zoned land designated for multi-family development, I am more sympathetic to their plight.Why? I know that neighbourhood residents will forcefully oppose any density increases if they will result in higher taxes for those who don’t want to move. Consequently, politicians will be less likely to approve OCP and zoning changes.
     One solution could be to modify the way properties are assessed and taxed. The goal would be to allow single-family properties designated multi-family in an OCP, or zoned for higher density, to continue to pay lower taxes until a development permit is taken out for a new development.
     This would likely result in more land zoned for affordable, multi-family housing, without penalizing those owners who want to remain in their homes.
      While this column looks at residential properties, there is another important taxation issue that needs further discussion, namely the unfair taxation of non-residential properties. But that is another topic for another day.

© 2017 Vancouver Courier
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