Scrapping Robertson's duplex plan will do nothing to make Vancouver more affordable

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Appeared in the Vancouver Province, December 11, 2018
Scrapping Robertson’s duplex plan will do nothing to make Vancouver more affordable

On the campaign trail, every member of Vancouver’s newly-minted city council promised to tackle housing affordability in Canada’s most expensive city. It’s curious, therefore, that later this month council may scrap the significant—if controversial—decision by former mayor Gregor Robertson (pictured above) and his council to allow the construction of duplexes on most of the city’s single-family lots, citing a lack of “meaningful public consultation” on the issue.

Whether the city’s multi-year consultation process, which led to allowing duplex construction in single-family neighbourhoods, was adequate remains an important question. But equally (if not more) important, is to consider public input in the latest largest consultation of Vancouverites—October’s municipal election.

Housing affordability was easily the top issue on the campaign trail. As such, every candidate and slate promised to improve affordability for Vancouverites by, for example, accelerating building permit approvals or building more social housing. No candidate—including every sitting councillor—campaigned to reduce the housing supply. And yet, reversing the previous council’s duplex decision will do just that, exacerbating Vancouver’s housing shortage—a key driver of affordability woes.

According to recent research on homebuilding in the Lower Mainland, Vancouver building permit approval timelines—the amount of time it takes before homebuilders can break ground on new housing projects—are the longest in the region—at almost two years—and among the least-predictable. This process is also expensive, with tens of thousands of dollars (per unit) in fees required to obtain permits (also the highest regionwide). Both timelines and costs are exacerbated by city hall’s rezoning process, a necessary step for the vast majority of building projects in Vancouver. By rezoning large swaths of the city to allow duplexes, city council removed one major hurdle (of many) to growing Vancouver’s housing stock.

Of course, the duplex plan—part of the city’s Making Room Housing Program—was not ideal. Far from it. For example, under the new rules duplexes can only replace single detached homes as a result of reconstruction. In other words, homeowners or developers can’t transform existing structures into duplexes. This makes building duplexes in Vancouver more expensive. And the new rules will likely displace some secondary suite residents (all of whom are renters) in existing houses as rents increase in the newer units.

By contrast, consider Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is currently considering the far more ambitious permission of triplexes for both new and remodeled buildings on single-family lots. And this is only one tenet of the city’s draft long-term plan to accommodate future growth.

Simply put, it’s puzzling why an affordability-minded city council in Vancouver would want to scrap the last council’s duplex plan, which will likely grow the housing supply and play a role (however small) in reducing chronically high prices.

Again, Mayor Kennedy Stewart and council are scheduled to vote Dec. 18 on whether they want another public hearing on the issue or whether they will cancel the previous council’s decision. It’s unclear which path council will take—to retain a plan that will provide more housing, or go backwards while Vancouverites continue to face sky-high housing prices.