Saturday, May 20, 2017

House out of Factory: Making a home for manufactured housing Vancouver Sun May 20th, 2017

Sage Creek in Kelowna is a good example of the use of modular homes

Imagine if cars were built like houses.
     One day, sheets of steel arrive on site for metal workers to cut and weld in the rain. Wheels show up, but unfortunately, the axle installer is sick so they are left lying around. Rolls of vinyl for the seats are delivered, but that installer is delayed because of an accident on the Second Narrows Bridge. You get the picture.
     I thought about the differences between building cars and houses on a recent tour of a Kelowna manufactured housing factory organized as part of the 2017 Manufactured Housing Association of British Columbia’s annual conference. I was invited to offer the perspective of an architect and developer on factory-built housing to an audience comprising manufacturers, dealers, transporters and government officials.
     I have had a longstanding interest in manufactured housing dating back to 1970 when I was one of seven architectural students from across Canada to win a CMHC travelling scholarship. Our travels took us across the U.S. with guide Warren Chalk, one of the founding members of Archigram, an avant-garde 1960s British architectural group, with projects that included Plug-in-City, a massive framework into which modular dwellings could be slotted and removed.
     For six weeks, we toured mobile home parks and housing factories on a government initiative to promote manufactured housing on a major scale.
      In my university thesis, I focused on a factory-produced relocatable housing system, and proposed that just as schools set up portable classrooms, governments could install modular housing on vacant lots. This could then be relocated when the property was needed for redevelopment, effectively eliminating the cost of land.
   That interest continued after I joined CMHC in Vancouver as assistant architect/planner. In the mid Seventies, CMHC was building seniors’ housing around the province and I proposed factory-production for smaller communities. Soon, modular housing was delivered and assembled in Keremeos and Chase.
     Today, BC Housing continues to build seniors’ housing projects in smaller communities using factory-built modular housing.
     In recent years, BC Housing and the City of Vancouver undertook a feasibility study of a concept to promote relocatable modular housing as an alternative to housing people in shelters. A team led by NSDA Architects and housing manufacturers Britco and Shelter Industries examined technical issues and costs associated with building, setting up and relocating private sleeping rooms and bathrooms.
Recently, the Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency, with financial support from CMHC, completed a factory-built modular housing demonstration project at Main Street and Terminal. The modules will be relocated in a few years when the site is ready for redevelopment. Hopefully, other vacant sites around the region will be similarly used.
     Throughout B.C. today, thousands of attractive permanent homes are being built in factories. Companies such as Triple M, Moduline, SRI and many other manufacturing plants are constantly improving assembly-line procedures to build complete homes in days, rather than weeks or months.
By building in climate-controlled settings, workers are not dealing with rain or snow. Waste is considerably reduced, and consequently factory-built homes are cost-effective, environmentally smart, and able to be customized as on-site construction. For this reason, many of the PNE show homes have been built using modular construction.
     At the Kelowna conference, I learned there are two basic types of factory-built housing: manufactured homes and modular-built homes.
     Manufactured homes are typically constructed on a steel frame in one or two sections and are virtually complete when they leave the factory. Thus, they are ready for move-in the same day or a few days after arriving on the site. These homes can be installed on simple foundations and even relocated, although most are never moved from their original site.
     Modular-built homes do not have a steel frame. A typical bungalow consists of one or two modules, while multi-storey homes or buildings are created with multiple modules. These homes are typically set on full-perimeter foundations with a crawl space or even a full basement.
Insulation, air/vapour barrier, plumbing, wiring, exterior siding and other construction details are largely completed in the factory. Interior work, including drywall, trim, flooring, cabinets and bathroom fixtures, is usually well advanced. Finishing the home on site can include adding pitched roofs, and an attached garage or stone facing. This generally takes a couple of weeks.
     While I am surprised that factory-produced housing is not more popular in Canada, expect this to change, since it is cost-effective, energy- and resource-efficient, and well suited to a variety of housing forms. It could be an affordable solution for infill and laneway housing, and multi-storey apartments.
     Imagine if houses were built like cars.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Opinion: Promises, promises....What happens if provincial parties keep their word? Vancouver Courier May 8, 2017

     Well, the election is over.
     As I write this column, the outcome is not known. However, whichever party has won will have significant challenges ahead when it comes to addressing housing affordability and transportation issues across the Lower Mainland.
     Let’s look at promises from the three major parties.
     Prior to the election, the Liberals announced a number of new housing programs, but made no further promises during the campaign. Programs included a 15-per-cent foreign buyers’ tax on housing purchases; interest-free loans of up to $37,500 for first-time home buyers of properties below $750,000, and a commitment of approximately $1-billion towards building affordable social housing around the province.
     The province also adjusted the Property Transfer Tax (PTT), reducing it for lower priced homes, and increasing it for homes priced over $2 million.
     What the Liberals should have promised was to revise the provincial Homeowner Grant program so that money goes to those in greatest need. After all, does the owner of a $1.6 million home in Castlegar or Merritt really need a provincial subsidy?
     The Liberals should have also promised to improve the Property Tax Deferral Program. While I, and many others who can well afford to pay property taxes happily take advantage of the program’s extremely low interest rates, this money could be much better spent if the program was means-tested.
     Regardless of who won the election, I hope these programs will be reconsidered.
     Over the past few years, Christy Clark and her ministers repeatedly said they wanted municipalities to improve their project approval systems to speed up supply, and increase development densities around transit stations.
     While some mayors told the province to get out of their sandbox, I hope the province does follow through since development approval delays add significantly to housing costs.

     During the election campaign, the NDP said it would fund 114,000 new units of affordable housing a year over 10 years, to be developed in partnership with municipalities and non-profits. At an average cost of $300,000 per unit, this equates to $34.2 billion.
     If the NDP has won, while some of this cost can be covered by mortgages, depending on the rents to be charged this could be an extremely expensive proposition. It needs to be rethought.
     The NDP also promised a $400-a-year grant to renters to give them something akin to a homeowner grant.  As noted above, the homeowner grant is not means-tested, and if this grant program proceeds, hopefully the grant money will go to those who are truly in need.
     The NDP also promised more protections for renters, including removal of the current “fixed-term lease” provision. Regardless of who has won, I hope this loophole will be addressed.
     The NDP also said it would introduce a “yearly absentee speculators’ tax” of two per cent of assessed property value. While few details were offered, if the NDP has won and this tax proceeds, I hope it will be better designed than the City of Vancouver’s Empty Home Tax, which unfairly penalizes those owning second homes in Vancouver, and not likely to produce the results promised.
     The Green Party proposed numerous measures to eliminate money laundering and international property speculation in the BC residential real estate market. These included a sliding scale of Property Transfer Tax rates from 0% on properties under $200,000 to 12% on properties over $3.0 million.
     It also proposed a “speculation” PTT to discourage flipping of property; expanding the foreign buyers tax to apply across the province, and increasing the rate to 30% in addition to the PTT payable.
     In what would have been a hugely unpopular move, it wanted to introduce measures to tax lifetime capital gains in excess of $750,000 on principal residences.
     While I am quite sure the Green Party did not win the election, and question many of its promises, I do agree that those who assign pre-sale purchase contracts, or flip properties for a profit, should be paying their fair share of tax.
      When it comes to public transportation, the NDP said there would not need to be another transit referendum. The Liberals promised another Referendum for any funding mechanisms other than property taxes.
     If the Liberals have won, I do hope this is one promise they don’t keep.
Twitter @michaelgeller

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Opinion: Is the empty homes tax based on jealousy? Vancouver Courier April 27, 2017

     Last week I made a terrible mistake. I decided to follow up on a message from a concerned Courier reader regarding a recent City of Vancouver policy.
     This time it wasn’t about two suites in a small duplex building that the city had determined were illegal following a complaint from a neighbour.
      Nor was it a complaint from the builder who had been previously told to add a larger bathroom on the main floor of a laneway house since the upstairs bathroom was not accessible to someone in a wheelchair.
      Nor was it from the Dunbar resident who was told by city officials that she could not build the size of house she had hoped to build because of new city zoning regulations.
      This reader’s concern had to do with the city’s new empty homes tax and its unfair application for those who chose to keep a second home in Vancouver.  Like most Vancouver homeowners, she had received a flyer from the city asking, “Do you own an empty or occasionally-used home in Vancouver?”  It added, “If your property is not a principal residence, eligible for an exemption, or rented out for at least six months, it will be subject to the Empty Homes Tax.”
     This reader had owned a small, second home in Vancouver for years. She and her husband used it whenever they came into the city for a night out or to visit children and grandchildren. They also stayed there whenever they came into Vancouver for medical reasons. They also made the apartment available to family and friends visiting Vancouver.
     She told me she had contacted me because of an earlier Courier column I had written about the plight of a well-to-do Florida resident who complained that because he only used his apartment five months a year, he might have to pay an ‘Empty Homes Tax equal to one per cent of the assessed value. This was more than three times his annual property taxes that he happily paid even though he didn’t send children to our schools or place demands on municipal services.
     However, he was not at all happy about this tax. Nor was this other reader. She wondered why the city would impose a penalty on someone who owns a home which was not vacant, and impossible to rent on those days and weeks when it was not being used. How was this going to add to the available rental stock, she wanted to know.
      I told her to contact the city and she said she did. However, the only person who responded was Elizabeth Ball who told her she didn’t vote in favour of the tax. She also told me she was not alone. She was aware of many others who had kept second homes in Vancouver for years, so they could continue to enjoy the city after moving away to the interior, or in her case Tsawwassen.
     I had to agree with her concerns. While I have publicly questioned the appropriateness and likely effectiveness of this tax as it related to truly empty accommodations, for the life of me I couldn’t understand why the city would tax a home that is being used.
     Unless of course it wanted to show some empathy with those who are struggling to afford to buy or rent just one home.
     I decided to go to bat for her and everyone else who owned a second home in Vancouver and was troubled by this very unfair tax by writing an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun. I also linked it to my Facebook and Twitter accounts. What a mistake.
     While I did receive some thanks and compliments on the column, they were grossly outnumbered by those who wondered why I would side with those who owned two homes in a city with a severe housing crisis.  Did I not care about them? Who paid me to write this?
      The fact is, no one paid me to write the column. I just thought it was important to speak out against a tax that seems to be based more on jealousy, as one of my Facebook friends put it, than a genuine attempt to increase the supply of rental housing.

To those who don’t own a second home, let me conclude by asking, do you have an unoccupied suite in your house, or an empty bedroom?

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