Sep. 6, 2019

It's time to think small on affordable housing

Please note additional new information at the end of this column

When it comes to affordable housing, a lot of people talk a good story but lack in positive action. Affordability is a problem all over North America, including in our city. It’s a hot topic, but is anyone really seriously trying to find solutions? Before we can find solutions we have to overcome the obstacles that are the cause. 

We have to be open to, and welcome new ideas. Written-in-stone ways of doing things have to make way for new innovations. “But that’s the way we have always done it”, is not a solution. As it is now, most communities are locked into a comfortable template adhered to by their over-regulated development services departments.

There was a proposal a couple of years ago for the old hospital site with about 32 senior-oriented single-family and duplex homes. It required a little outside-the-box thinking, so it got the cold shoulder from the planning gurus at the city. It did not fit the narrow interpretation of how Nanaimo should develop. (Disclosure, I have ties with that developer).

 That proposal died, and has been replaced by plans for a major apartment-type development which has the surrounding neighbourhood riled up. 

The latest proponent proposed a project in March with 160 units. By the end of August, that had swelled to 175-units consisting of 15 townhouse units and three rental buildings – containing micro, studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units – ranging from four to five storeys.

That’s the way housing is going nowadays, more units on fewer square feet of land. The earlier proposal included smaller-than-normal lot sizes which makes a lot of sense for a seniors single-family development.

A number of years ago Winnipeg had built what were termed “war-time” homes, with 33-foot lots with smaller houses. That allowed many more people to own homes.

The idea of narrower lots could be expanded by additionally reducing the minimum depth of each parcel as well. It’s much like the urban planning concept which promotes laneway cottages – smaller housing on existing properties, but not on smaller single lots.

In a time when we have a housing crisis, this would be worth serious study, especially when land value on assessments now exceeds building value, as it has for many in Nanaimo. 

The idea of multi-family projects is to get as much out of each square foot of land as possible, but that limits the type of housing. Simply stacking people up higher and higher is not the be-all and end-all of housing. Single-family housing is still needed, but only if it can be made affordable.

By reducing the minimum lot width by one third, and shortening the depth, you get a lot more housing for less money – lower prices, lower mortgages, lower down payments, lower monthly payments and consequently, lower taxes and less upkeep. 

If those in elected positions are serious about a housing “crisis” they must take some definitive action. Doing it the way we have always done it hasn’t got the job done.

F0LLOW UP: I have received a communication from Dale Lindsay, General Manager of Development Services for the City of Nanaimo.

"With respect to the 33-foot lots it is worth noting that under the R1 zone (the most common zoning for single detached lots covering large portions of the City) that 10m (32’9”) is the minimum lot frontage when the lot backs onto a lane. 

"This zoning has been in place for a number of years and is intended to encourage infill consistent with older established neighbourhoods and the development of new subdivisions with lane access. There are a number of subdivisions that have been constructed under this standard and have resulted in new 33-foot lots in the City."