Opinion: Geller's Affordable Housing Solutions #1 – Better Use of Lots

The following article is an extract from the transcript of "Twelve More Affordable Housing Ideas" – a presentation by local architect and planner Michael Geller to a sold-out audience at SFU's downtown campus on 
Michael Geller
April 28, 2016

April 6, 2016, and reproduced here with his permission. The lecture was the second of his SFU presentations on the topic, and many of Geller's ideas from the first talk can be found in "Related to this Story" below.

One of the things I hear all the time is, “The problem with Vancouver is that we’re running out of land.”


Sure, we’re constrained. By the mountains, and the ocean, and the Agricultural Land Reserve, and the US border. But I would suggest that we’re not running out of land – we’re just not making very good use of the land we already have.

How might we make more efficient use of our land?

How about taking a corner lot and splitting it? And instead of having a yard with a fence that fronts onto the street, why not subdivide it into another smaller lot? And it has happened, in some cases, lots have been laid out that way, and you can even put a little townhouse or row home development on a corner lot (see images above).

A very simple idea, but a way to begin to increase density – and also create some smaller houses, which many people would like.

One of the opportunities that I’ve become aware of recently is this whole notion of converting heritage houses and character houses. There’s a mansion near where I live, on South-West Marine Drive in Vancouver, which I drive past all the time. For the past four years I’ve been wondering what is going to happen there, because that’s how long it has taken the plans to go through City Hall to renovate this house, to subdivide it and to add five infill units. Over those years there has been a debate over whether the infill units should be Frank Lloyd Wright style, whether more modern style but complement the façade, whether they should be Tudor style and mimic the mansion.

And that’s one of the problems in this City. At a certain point, we have to rethink whether this level of bureaucracy is necessarily producing better solutions.

But one thing we can all agree on is that it’s a tragedy to keep losing these older houses. One of the ways I think we can solve this quite easily would be if the City just said that if you have a character house, you may create a separate house for sale, in the back. You wouldn’t even necessarily have to restore the original house, maybe just promise to keep it for a certain period of time. This way, we could begin to do two things: preserve houses and protect them, while also creating new housing choices.

There’s a development I’m getting involved in right now in West Vancouver (pictured above). This is a heritage house, it was likely going to be destroyed, but the West Vancouver planners were willing to allow some increase in density to about 0.6 (which is only like Vancouver single-family density) to allow a laneway house along the back, and a cottage with a suite underneath.

I see this as a real model of gentle densification – not just for West Vancouver or the West Side, but a model for the whole region.

Next time: More on what we could do with laneways

Michael Geller
Michael is an architect, planner, real estate consultant and developer with more than four decades of experience in the public, private and institutional sectors. Some of his notable projects include the redevelopment of the South Shore False Creek, Bayshore in Coal Harbour and UniverCity at SFU. He is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and is an affiliate of the UBC Masters in Urban Design program. Michael is a well-known commentator on real estate and housing and an adviser to the City of Vancouver's Affordable Housing Task Force. He is also a past president of UDI Pacific and UDI Canada, and has been honoured as a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners and a Life Member of the Architectural Institute of BC.