Density, Development Patterns, Infill, Missing Middle Housing, Zoning

Housing Belongs on Housing Lands

To be responsible, you must support the gradual addition of new housing units on the lands that we have currently decided are suitable places to build neighbourhoods in regions where housing demand is high. The unintentional consequence of various iterations of the “not in my backyard movements” has been the intensification of development pressures on our fringes and transition zones. It should be obvious that the communities of Mission, Hope, and even Chilliwack would not be growing as they are were it not for the well-meaning but counter-productive efforts of single family neighbourhood preservationists. This point was driven home to me when I made a couple of trips to Metro Vancouver’s regional parks in Maple Ridge and Langley and saw the stunning scale of the destruction of semi-rural forested areas in order to build more auto-oriented developments there.

The City of Delta has decided for decades now that over 80% of its housing lands will be exclusively used for single detached homes. This yellow blob of RS zoning is strangling our city and driving residents out of the city by constraining housing supply.

The City of Delta’s environmental committees, public reports about tackling the climate emergency, and readiness to ‘go green’ are fully undermined by the chronic dismissal of attempts to revise our land use practices. The result? While we ‘go green’ in Delta, thousands of people are displaced or deterred from remaining in Delta because it is so hard to find housing here. They end up finding housing in edge communities like Maple Ridge, Mission, Agassiz, Harrison, and Hope or moving away completely in order to find somewhere to live. The previously undeveloped areas in those cities? The forests, fields, and floodplains are cleared, rezoned, and sold to the highest bidder who is ready for a longer commute and the heartache of leaving family, friends, and the neighbourhood that shaped them behind.

Housing Belongs on Housing Lands …

The City of Delta’s Official Community Plan (OCP) does one thing really well in a helpful way: it tells us where not to build housing.

Environmentally sensitive areas are well marked and Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) lands are also clearly marked. Heavy industrial areas that involve hazardous materials or excessive noise are also segregated from housing lands. Major transportation corridors, the landfill, and sewage treatment facilities are also identified and certain buffers are established between these features and the housing lands nearby. I’m glad we don’t (usually) build housing in our environmentally sensitive areas, farmlands, and heavy industrial areas. Kudos to the OCP for getting this right (usually)!

But…

The Official Community Plan (OCP), last updated over 16 years ago, does another thing really well in a really destructive way: it has made it nearly impossible to add new housing units within the leafy, lovely, and wonderful neighbourhoods that Delta prides itself on. The OCP makes it extremely nerve wracking and challenging to bring forward townhouse projects and makes a modest apartment block of 4-6 units a rarity in Delta – even though these types of apartments are an amazing way to provide “missing middle” housing. Only one type of accessory dwelling unit (ADU) is allowed in most areas of the city (basement suites) and the carriage houses that can be found in certain parts of Ladner are there only because a very specific type of zone (RSC) was introduced to allow them.

Adding Housing Units on Housing Lands Should Be Easy So That It Happens Gradually and As Necessary

By freezing entire neighbourhoods with the yellow paint of the RS zone (single detached dwellings), the City has made it extremely difficult, dicey, and expensive to provide new housing units on the housing lands found in our city. The result? Stagnating neighbourhoods – skyrocketing prices – economic hardships for renters, newcomers, and the young – and a cultural bias that now sees change within the neighbourhood as a betrayal of the future they’ve envisioned for themselves.

The trouble with resisting gradual change is that it results in intensifying pressures to change until the change happens quickly and without much room for the fine-tuning and attention to detail that characterizes gradual processes of development.

Strong Towns has a simple, two-part rule that needs to be part of the conversation:

1. No neighborhood can be exempt from change.

2. No neighborhood should experience sudden, radical change.

What happens when we rule most neighborhoods off limits to even the kind of gradual changes that would have been common in another era, such as the addition of a granny flat or corner store, or conversion of a home to a duplex? We end up funneling a whole region’s worth of demand for new buildings to the handful of neighborhoods where that demand is permitted to be met.

If you’ve ever slightly cracked the lid on a boiling pot of water and watched the steam rush out, then you can understand what this funnel effect does to land prices and housing markets. It should be no surprise that what we do see built is often a) huge and b) expensive. This in turn fuels the perception that “developers only want to build luxury housing.”

The Status Quo Asks: You Want to Do What?

Want to tear down a house and replace it with a large single detached residence for you and your household of 3? Sure! Just get your demolition permit – check your zone… oh wait, who are we kidding, it’s almost always RS1-7 in Delta! – and build yourself a big ‘ol house.

Want to add a couple of doors and a shared staircase and turn that big ‘ol house into 4-5 units where 4-5 households can live? Now what did you say? You want to tear down a house and destroy the neighbourhood? You want to collapse our community? You want to create fear, uncertainty, and doubt in the hearts of all who live nearby? You want to put housing on lands set aside for housing? Get your head checked!

This is an actual current listing in Delta (Pebble Hill): There’s no way this thing couldn’t house 4-5 families, right? How would you decide who got the putting green at the top left? Also, notice the small homes next door and across the street. This is not a coincidence. Houses of this size (so long as they’re only for one wealthy household to live in) are rubber stamped while 4-5 unit apartments of this size would never stand a chance of being approved. Yet this is housing land – why wouldn’t we admit that we should be opening the gates to putting more housing on housing land?

Arbitrary and self-defeating restraints on neighbourhood densification have left us with a dilemma: only some can afford to own homes here and it’s now to their one-sided financial advantage to fight against the changes their neighbours and neighbourhood need. This self-interest is only occasionally expressed in public hearings opposing multi-unit construction but it is alive and well-fed in Delta.

The surge in home and land values will only make this dilemma more pronounced. The effect of suppressing supply for several decades has meant that the City of Delta has officially made it extremely difficult to address the housing needs it freely admits are real in its own reports on the issue. Instead of the gradual adaptation of existing buildings to house more family members, take on a boarder, or provide space for a co-worker, cities have stopped the dynamic adjustment of neighbourhoods through zoning and now face a whole host of ills because of this decision.

Image by Opticos Design

We’ve Got This, Right?

Thankfully, there are ways to avoid making the problem worse and eventually begin to see better outcomes.

  1. Build subsidized and co-op housing on city land and on land owned by non-profit organizations through generous capital funding and generous policies toward the rent-burdened.
    1. The municipality and the non-profit sector are not pressed to squeeze out profit and can afford to build units that will rent at non-market-based rates. Currently, getting into BC Housing or finding a place in a co-op is harder than winning the lottery. We’ve been put on a lot of waiting lists and haven’t heard back from anyone and we’re not alone in this experience.
  2. Take all necessary actions to amend the city’s OCP and Zoning bylaw to remove the subcategories that currently exist within low & medium density zones so that 3-4 storey townhouses can coexist on the same block as a walk-up apartment and a 1940s era cottage. That’s how we used to allow cities to organically develop before we decided to get into the habit of excluding “The Poors” and “Others” through residential zoning codes.
    1. There is a growing number of cities in the United States and Canada removing the restrictions on multi-unit developments in single-family neighbourhoods. Let’s catch up and use housing lands to provide houses for people.
    2. Let’s also demonstrate to the rest of the Lower Mainland that we can create lively neighbourhoods without (too many) towers. It’s possible to add housing units without having the “high cost of entry that comes with building around large towers on huge lots.”
  3. Allow tiny homes to be parked in driveways or backyards and permit attic conversions and backyard cottages to be built with a building permit. Ask people to be neighbourly and say hi to the folks who move in! Embrace them – especially if it’s your mother or your housekeeper or your uncle or your boss! After all, you’ll need to move to a smaller place eventually, right?
  4. Get serious about infill development. Make it easier to add housing units than it is to add exclusivity. We know our neighbourhoods are changing: the choice we need to make is whether we want our neighbourhoods to be more exclusive and expensive or more inclusive and diverse.
  5. Read this brilliant article by Michel Durand-Wood of Dear Winnipeg about the limits that car-dependency imposes on neighbourhood infill and the dilemma faced by the car-dependent whenever they see a new housing unit being added to their street. Address car-dependency by providing ways for more people to ditch their cars. Stop making it so easy to build single household homes on transit-adjacent streets and in amenity-rich neighbourhoods. At minimum, make it as easy to build multi-unit buildings as it currently is to construct a single-unit building.
  6. Get serious about car-lite or car-free options. Try allowing several small-to-mid-sized apartment buildings to be built in Ladner, Tsawwassen and North Delta that are transit-adjacent and deliberately designed to have no car parking available. Make that a feature – not a bug! Tell everyone in the lower mainland that they can live in Ladner Village and never worry about a car payment or a $65,000 hike in the cost of their unit’s construction because of the inclusion of a parking space.
  7. Ditch parking minimums and let builders and property owners decide how much parking they think they will need.
  8. If you’re read this far and you live in Delta, join Del-POP (Deltans for People-Oriented Places) and we’ll talk about better land use and more housing.
  9. After joining Del-POP, head over to the Incremental Development Alliance for a look at the vibrant world of retrofitting, repurposing, and revitalizing that comes through small, local building trades and the little developer-builders who have been squeezed to the margins by regulations, financial pressures, and pushback.
  10. Share this post (if you please) with our councillors, friends, and acquaintances. Please don’t drop it in the mailbox of the putting green house though – the occupants are probably not interested in hearing that I think a house like that should (hypothetically) be allowed to be turned into a number of apartments as housing for several households.

Next up: While I have several posts percolating in my head, the one that I hope to write soon is one that unpacks the following conclusion: focusing on building strong cities is a valuable part of the environmental conservation effort.

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