We Need Density Sweeteners for Single-Family Neighbourhoods

Vancouver’s low density is too “vanilla” – let’s emulate great cities and bring in more housing flavours 
Anne McMullin
October 10, 2017

You don’t see single family homes in world-class European and North American cities that are centuries old. Think Paris, London or New York. You will see a blend of rowhomes, townhomes, duplexes and high- and low-rise apartments, with many a short walk to the local Metro station. That’s because integrated transit, housing and commercial/retail space has more economic benefit to a city than simply adding more highways, which create urban sprawl and congestion. 

Our Metro Vancouver region’s homogenous, restrictive single-family home area occupies 85% of our residential land base. Imagine what life would be like with no other flavour besides vanilla? Truly vibrant communities offer choice in housing options with a blend of retail for young and old alike. Some hard work will be involved convincing single-family areas of the merits of additional housing options. If we want people to like something, we should also offer them a “sweetener”, such as a desired amenity, maybe a new community centre, public park or daycare centre. 


Communities are often opposed to density because they believe they’re being saddled with added parking problems, congestion and competition for those existing amenities, described above. Meanwhile, communities like Dunbar and West Vancouver see declining populations because the average person can’t afford to buy a single-family home there anymore.

Municipalities and developers are often the only ones to share the profit in the land value financial boost caused by rezoning for more density and multi-family dwellings. Sometimes, local single family homeowners band together as part of a one-off “land assembly” and sell to a developer as a block to get that additional land value profit. Then comes the long, contentious public hearing process before the land is rezoned, which can take years to complete and adds to the developer’s carrying and construction costs, eventually passed on to homebuyers.

Some municipalities, such as Burnaby and Coquitlam, avoid NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) opposition to density by pre-zoning, which ensures a fixed land value profit from rezoning is shared among the city, developer and the resident homeowner, getting those multi-family residences built more quickly at less cost.

The benefits are profound. The homeowner gets additional cash for their property for supporting multi-family rezoning. They can downsize – called aging in place - to a brand new apartment in their neighbourhood. Plus, the area receives more amenities, such as pools or daycares, through a fair and transparent bargain, often enshrined in Official Community Plans so no one gets too greedy.

Even a local municipal planning consultant, Jay Wollenberg, FCIP, RPP, says successful density plans must “work in the interest of all participants in the development process.” A Plan Canada Summer 2016 article quotes Wollenberg as saying:

“Find the win-win-win where rezoning gives land owners incentives to sell their property into the development market, developers see benefits in increased density and the local government achieves amenities that meet the needs of new residents and address community concerns without loading all of the cost onto taxpayers.”

This isn’t a social experiment but a tried-and-tested approach to housing affordability challenges. Our entire region could see a multi-family makeover with a financial incentive and a community benefit.

Maybe the next Paris, West Coast-style? 


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