Buildings, Regulations

Let’s Embrace (most) of our Non-Conforming Grandpas

One summer, my Opa and Oma came from the Netherlands to visit us on our farm. They stayed in an RV trailer that we parked near our house. Shortly after their arrival, I discovered something that was fiendishly wonderful for a six or seven-year-old.

Soon after sunrise, I knocked on the door of the trailer to say hi to my Opa and Oma. But my Oma didn’t want to be seen by anyone at that hour because she wasn’t in her day clothes. So my Oma frantically scurried out of bed and rummaged through her things. Then, the door opened a crack and Oma stretched her hand out of the door. Without a word, she dropped a Dutch candy into my outstretched hand. Brilliant!

After enjoying the candy, I knocked again. Just like before, my Oma launched into action and another candy was dispensed from the trailer door. Awesome!

I lost count of how many times and how many mornings I and my two siblings did this before my parents discovered what we were doing and put a stop to it.

It turns out that my Oma was unhappy about this. Imagine that! Yet she was unable to tell us this in English and not once did it cross my mind that I should ask if she enjoyed our morning exchanges.

My Oma was plainly not ready for scrutiny of any kind as she didn’t feel like she should be seen in what she was wearing. She wanted us to go away.

Grandfathered (Grandparented?) In

This episode of summer sweetness came to mind as I was thinking about the idea of a property being “grandfathered” in. We have many properties in our city with owners who do not want city inspectors to come by because there’s no end to the list of infractions that they might come up with. In some cases, these are properties that probably should be checked out and made safer. But in many other cases, we’re talking about perfectly fine buildings that were built in a prior era and built to simpler standards.

Lawful Prior Non-Conforming Use

As one smart lawyer explains it,

“If you’ve previously bought an older home or cottage, or have renovated in the past, you’ve likely come across the term ‘lawful prior non-conforming use’, but frankly, most people know it more informally as ‘grandfathered’.  The term ‘grandfathered’ is used rather often when it comes to real estate and property ownership when issues arise with the existing property that no longer conform to by-laws, ordinances, or construction standards.”

Ares Law, “Grandfathered Clauses and Your Property”

In cities, towns, and villages in BC, we say that properties are “grandfathered” when they do not conform to the current standards for building. This is a situation that numerous heritage buildings, farm buildings, and interesting spaces built in a previous era find themselves in. I’ll bet you a nickel that our best buildings in Delta have features about them that are non-conforming to current codes.

“For example, you may be dealing with an electrical, plumbing or construction issue in an older home that doesn’t meet the current building codes. Or, perhaps your shed was built too close to the neighbour’s yard long before you moved in. As long as your building is safe, it may not have to be upgraded, relocated or torn down to meet the more current requirements – it’s been ‘grandfathered in’. However, any new construction, additions or renovations must meet the new building code or other by-law requirements.” (Ares Law)

The Problem

Our expectation of sites being brought up to code means that many property owners are stuck with a dilemma when they want to modify their buildings: either bite the bullet and undertake a much larger project than you first intended to bring the building up to code OR ignore the upgrade that is needed and affordable because you can’t stomach the prospect of addressing all of the non-conforming areas in the building.

The new storefront looks great and soon Britannia Brewing will open its doors here. Pity no one lives upstairs…

I’ll give you an example. The former Ladner Village Hardware store on Delta Street was renovated by its new owners after a long and convoluted process during which the property sat unused.

While I’ll have more to say about such processes, the thing that stuck out to me, in this case, was the decision that the owners made to not add any residential units on the top of this building when they got started with construction.

Why? Under the parking requirements in the Village core (another subject we need to talk about), they would be opening up a giant can of worms if they changed the use of the building in any way because they would need to find alley parking spaces on a site that didn’t have room for them.

Yet, by keeping it as it was, the building was ‘grandfathered in’ under the original parking requirements and they avoided the financial and logistical nightmare of trying to squeeze parking onto the site. The result? A missed opportunity to put a few residential units on the second story of an exciting renewed space in Ladner.

The Delta Optimist quotes former Delta Councillor Heather King lamenting that “it is unfortunate a redevelopment isn’t going to take place that would see residential units added above, [because this is] something the city is hoping will occur in that Ladner business district.” Have we considered that our excessive parking regulations are the reason why this isn’t happening? I’d live above Britannia Brewing’s new location in Ladner! Wouldn’t you?

Another example. A friend of mine inherited a home that has been in their family for over a century in Vancouver. This little old stone home has become dilapidated over the last decade and it has sat empty for a long time because any and all upgrades to the home were cost-prohibitive. The reason for this? The house sits at the back of the lot and the city’s zoning bylaws now require a considerable setback from the back alley. So this little house, vacant in the midst of a housing crisis, sits in limbo and declines by the day because it is unfixable. The only option? Tear it down and scrape away every sign of the offending back alley hugger! Tsk tsk. Houses should know better than to be hanging out in the backyard.

We are not alone. This piece in the New York Times demonstrates that 40 percent of the buildings in Manhattan could not be built today. The article quotes an analyst named Stephen Smith who explains, “Look at the beautiful New York City neighborhoods we could never build again. It’s ridiculous that we have these hundred-year-old buildings that everyone loves, and none of them ‘should’ be the way they are.”

The solution of grandfathered properties makes sense at first glance because it allows properties to exist as they are. That’s a good thing – to leave well enough alone! However, we are shooting ourselves in the foot when we make it impossible for buildings to be modified in small and various ways to suit the needs of residents and users. We make building upgrades of classic buildings into an all or nothing proposition that few can afford. When we make it difficult to make small changes, all we will be left with are big disruptive ones.

When we make it difficult to make small changes, all we will be left with are big disruptive ones.

I wonder if you also know of stories of the many non-profits who are stuck with poorly-performing buildings because they can’t make the small, viable, changes to their properties that would a) add accessibility for disabled clients, congregants, or visitors, b) expand washroom facilities, c) add functionality, etc.

Churches, halls, farm buildings, volunteer-run stores, and even our publicly owned facilities get stuck in this cycle of declining buildings requiring major upgrades in order to bring them into conformity.

Grandfathered Property Owners Proposal

Delta City Council can create a program that lets property owners choose, in all but the most essential categories of accessibility/disability upgrades and toxin containment, to be under the code of past (grandfather) or present.

I know this would be unsettling to the planners and lawyers but I’ll bet there’s a way to make this happen. There’s a squad of city building inspectors who must be sick of having to write up code violations in our old buildings when they know full well that these buildings were built right the first time. We instinctively know that our building codes are better suited to new construction and much harder to rationalize with older stock. So let’s open up the doors to the renovators, restorers, and modifiers of modest means who can give our ‘grandpas’ some love and care.

The Rationale

If the insurance industry is willing to insure it as is, why couldn’t a modification be covered by the most risk-averse people as well? Cities don’t need to be more risk-averse than property insurers. If they’re ‘fine’ with it – as proven in the annual policies they grant to owners – shouldn’t the city get out of the way and remove the obstacles which our heritage buildings and other significant buildings face?

While I’m sure Delta planning staff could regale me with descriptions of hare-brained renovation schemes that they’ve had to nix, I am certain that they’ve sat across the table from non-profit volunteers, heritage home-owners, and others like them and hated having to deliver the news that the planned upgrade was not allowed or would be financially prohibitive. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The Consequences

Seriously, what’s the worst that could happen? A fire? There’s a number to call for that! (and we have conveniently placed facilities called fire stations with incredibly trained staff called fire-fighters who are at the ready)

A collapse? Well, yes, that is the worst that could happen but it’s arguably something that could happen right now without any modifications in our buildings. In fact, the barriers to upgrading old buildings have made it more likely that structural issues have gone unaddressed.

Complaints from the neighbours? Well, perhaps we would have fewer if we allowed more modest, gradual changes instead of forcing everything through the viability squeeze. After all, a major step up in intensity of use is usually required to match the financial outlay required for everything that occurs. Gradual change through modest modifications will unsettle the neighbours a lot less than big, sudden, expensive projects.

But what about the worst possible consequence? What if owners really do prefer the old code? Well, then, maybe that tells us a thing or two about all of our arbitrary requirements concerning setbacks, building placement, ventilation standards, etc.

If it hasn’t fallen down, burned down, or damaged the neighbourhood for this long, maybe we can learn a thing or two from these buildings. They have stood for so long without harming anyone.

The Benefits

Who would this benefit?

Not big builders of new construction projects – they want it to be cost-prohibitive and frustrating to renovate and upgrade old buildings! They don’t want little houses to be modified even if their backstair exits the house a little too close to the alley. They don’t want small change if they can hold out for bigger contracts for bigger, more expensive changes.

Non-profits would benefit if they own buildings that are not optimized for their uses.

Handy folks with tools would benefit if they were allowed to work in their homes and shops more easily.

Farmers would benefit because their various outbuildings could be modified as needed without the imposition of new restrictions.

Elderly home-owners would benefit because they could more easily build onto their homes or upgrade existing features in the home to serve them better.

Families would benefit because the option to modify their homes would be more feasible without all of the extra expenses from bringing homes into full conformity.

Heritage building owners would benefit because they could ‘unfreeze’ their buildings and come up with new ways to use their buildings more effectively.

Commercial store owners would benefit because they would have access to more renovation options.

Can It Be Done?

So you say this can’t be done? Well, have you met a few non-conforming grandfathers? They’d tell you there’s always a way – even if it makes you stick out like a sore thumb and brings a few sideways glances in your direction. Let’s hike up our pants – endure the discomfort – and pioneer a new approach to property improvements.

Or we can tell our grandfathered properties to be like my Oma – hiding away from scrutiny and trying to make everyone just leave them alone for just a while longer.

Obviously, this is a large topic for smarter people than I to mull over but, in the meantime, I think we can at least look more closely around us for examples of other non-conforming buildings in Ladner that might be worth investing in – warts and all.

Think I’m crazy? Or naive?

Interested in Reading More on this Topic of Issues Related to Grandfathered Properties?

Make life easier for small landlords … Aggressive code enforcement can be a barrier to renovating old buildings that need it; they may be out of compliance with zoning or building codes in ways that have been “grandfathered in,” but a renovation can cause that grandfathering to lapse. Sensible code enforcement should involve a simple set of rules and procedures, and should prioritize actual pressing health and safety issues over things that are more cosmetic or can safely be deferred for later.” (Daniel Herriges, “Localizing Affordable Housing”)

“I’ve spent over two-thirds of my life so far living in anarchic environments where the rule of law did not prevail. It’s a wonder I survived at all.” (Daniel Herriges, “Making Normal Neighborhoods Legal Again”)

“The only legal option was to renovate the existing shack within the original envelope. But the cost of bringing this sad little one bedroom, one bath shotgun up to code – forget about making it the kind of place that middle class tenants would want to live in – far exceeded the likely low rental income. The only way the numbers would add up is if we did a half-assed patch job. Get the lights to come on. See that the toilet flushes properly. Make sure the furnace works. Replace the broken windows with cheap vinyl units. Slap some paint on the walls. Cover the floors with bargain carpeting and linoleum. In the end, I’d be a slum lord.” (Johnny Sanphillippo, “Lessons Learned”)

Never mind me – it’s my home and I like it like this. It’s a shame I can’t add a mudroom though.

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