The city of Vancouver is reviewing its current character housing zone policy to see how it can save character houses through better incentives. The aim is to retain these homes while accommodating growth in a more sustainable way.
The city defines a character home as anything built before 1940 that isn’t in the heritage register and meets several criteria defined by the city such as look and design.
Character homes are, of course, important and should be saved. However, at the moment, the city has made permits and bylaws too complicated and cost prohibited. For example, you can’t just fix electrical wiring in one room; you need to bring the electrical in the entire house up to code. This is obviously expensive and inefficient. It’s no wonder that over 650 homes built before 1940 are destroyed each year. It’s much easier to knock everything down and start from scratch, even if these houses are perfectly livable and structurally sound.
Even if you want to save a character home and repair it instead of demolishing it, the city takes forever to approve the necessary permits. It can take as much as 20 months for even a small interior renovation. This is obviously problematic to designers, trades people and home owners.
Another problem is if you want to repurpose the character building, it can be difficult if not impossible. The city should cut the red tape and make changes to the code allowing for more of the original housing to be converted for multi-family dwellings.
The city is cracking down on unauthorized suites. There are many existing character homes that were converted years ago and recently the city has ordered the owners to revert them back. Many of these are multi-suite buildings from the 1940s when the War Measure Act overruled municipal housing bylaws to encourage the creation of additional suites to relieve housing shortages. As we are a present-day housing shortage, it would be logical to encourage these multi-suite homes.
A separate approval system with dedicated staff should be set up to fast-track these renovations. This would shorten the 20-month wait period and make it more convenient for owners of character homes to make the changes they want.
In the latest proposal, Vancouver Councillors were pondering a concept called “downzoning.” The idea would have given homeowners incentive to preserve character homes. Any new replacement home would have to be smaller than what was previously allowed. However there was backlash against this proposal over fears it would unnecessarily restrict housing supply and affect land values for single family homes. Because of this backlash, the city decided not to carry the motion forward.