It’s not far-fetched to imagine a future where several homes occupy the same residential plot. In fact, it’s happening now across North America.
Gentle density and small housing were centre stage at the Small Housing Summit in Vancouver on Nov. 22. Three U.S-based experts discussed the importance of housing variety for affordability, the difficulties they faced in making accessory dwelling units a reality and how gentle density can be better brought to B.C.
The event was hosted by Small Housing BC.
Small housing and accessory dwelling units are becoming more popular in British Columbia as housing prices continue to rise.
“There’s probably close to six or 7,000 (laneway) units built now across the city which has added a lot of meaningful housing to a city that’s really challenged and a population that’s desperate to find appropriate housing,” said Jake Fry, director of Small Housing BC.
For Fry and the panellists, small housing is seen as one solution to the housing crisis.
“Some of our population are suffering from austerity, others consolidations of wealth. We have limited land and limited type of access to resources.”
Fry said Canadians need to start getting creative with residential development.
“It’s a time for us to become much more dynamic with land use, much more dynamic with different types of housing but all the while really focusing on how we’re going to strengthen our communities.”
“One of the pieces that we see as a big opportunity to start with is allowing the strata title and accessory dwelling units,” said Small Housing BC vice-chair Akua Schatz.
Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are secondary living spaces on residential property. They come in many forms such as converted garages, separate small buildings like laneway homes and basement apartments.
“This is an area that will be really important to not only unlock ownership potential but still be able to retain rental housing stock,” said Schatz.
She said it is also a focus to develop a provincewide gentle density initiative that would enable ADUs instead of leaving it up to municipalities.
An overarching provincial approach was supported by the panellists, who noted ADUs started to boom when statewide legislation was introduced.
When it comes to developing legislation on a provincial level, Tyler Bump, a project developer with ECONorthwest and a consultant on housing initiatives, said collaboration across the political, public and private spheres is essential.
“We saw an unlikely coalition (in Oregon) built that included homebuilders, that included future growth management, farm and forest preservation organizations, that included affordable housing groups, that included diversity and equity groups across the state,” Bump said.
“So, we had this like big tent of a coalition group that was really effective in building support at the state level.”
Bump said the city of Portland implemented special development charge waivers to promote ADU construction: up to $10,000 could be waived on developments.
Renée Schomp, a lawyer and director of the Napa Sonoma ADU Centre in California, said hard technical documents on the implementation of ADUs is as important as the provincial laws which allow them.
“I think where California fell short is that the technical assistance memo that the state issued to explain the poorly written and very complex state law (on ADUs) came out nine months after the state laws went into effect,” said Schomp.
“That resulted in a huge waste of public funds because every individual city was left to their own devices to interpret and understand the state laws. I hope British Columbia can learn from that.”
While provincewide legislation is seen as an essential piece in the development of small housing, Ethan Stuckmayer, senior planner of housing programs with the State of Oregon, said municipalities still need room to regulate small housing around local needs.
He said Oregon strictly legislated minimum compliance to facilitate small and middle housing development on a municipal level.
Schomp pointed out ADUs started booming in California after statewide legislation was introduced in 2016, creating new housing and economic opportunities for builders.
“Los Angeles is the largest city in California and ADUs make up 26 per cent of all new housing permits,” said Schomp.
She said prior to statewide legislation there was only 80 permitted in 2016. In 2021, 5,000 ADUs were permitted.
In a direct recommendation to B.C.’s policy-makers, Stuckmayer said it is essential that legislation around ADUs is developed with affordability as the key driver and not an arbitrary focus on volume.
“Those targets should be tied to the affordability of units and not just the number of units,” Stuckmayer said.
“You should be targeting the type of production that you actually need in your community or your province and less on the number of units.”
When the number of ADUs is focused on affordability, “It really doesn’t help get us the financial resources and the regulatory tools to actually make that housing relative to income levels,” Bump said.
“Focusing in on that income level and not just resting on, ‘We have a zoning capacity for this type of housing,’ is really important.”
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