Stay in touch with NIHO!

Opinion: ‘Gentle density’ can help increase Metro Vancouver’s supply of affordable housing

Robert (Bob) de Wit, Vancouver Province, April 07, 2017

When it comes to building new homes, many people are surprised to learn that it takes far longer to make it through city hall than it does to build the house.

To put it in context, a ‘typical’ two-level, 2500-square-foot home takes 16-18 weeks to build, however getting to the stage where the shovel hits the ground can take several months, and in many cases longer.

Why does it take so long?

The recent Housing Approvals Study (HAS) prepared by the Greater Vancouver Home Builders Association, with support by the Landcor Data Corp., indicates high volume and backlogs due to housing demand and variations in builder applications, coupled with resistance to change within a neighbourhood as main factors in causing delays.

Looking at the current building-approvals process, the system is based on a first-come-first-served basis, allowing for incomplete building submissions to clog the system.

A best practice recommended by the HAS report is to process on a risk-based permitting and inspection-policy basis, also referred to as a ‘Nexus Lane,’ rewarding professional applicants with accelerated processing. 

The concept appears to have legs with government taking notice, as noted in Rob Shaw’s March 5 Postmedia News story, “Finance minister wants reasonable deadline for municipal housing approvals,” quoting, “a better solution would be to fast-track developers with proven records, argues the Greater Vancouver Homebuilders Association. (Mike) de Jong expressed support for that idea as well.”

However, the most impactful solution to help improve the supply of affordable housing is to use our limited land base more efficiently by encouraging “gentle density.”

By subdividing, or stratifying current single-family lots into duplex, triplex and quadplex houses, affordable ground-oriented, infill-housing options will be available in communities currently out of reach for many homeowners. This type of gentle density also minimizes the impact on existing communities from an esthetic point of view.

However, change such as this won’t come easy. It’s in people’s nature to protect their neighbourhoods, where one of their greatest emotional and financial investments is located, their home. But in many ways, protecting homeowners today, without consideration for the growth of future homeowners of tomorrow, can result in the very thing people are resisting.

Case in point: Policy No. 702 that restricts subdivisions on an area-by-area basis was set in place in Richmond in 1990 as residents of mature, large-lot properties felt that subdivision applications were negatively impacting neighbourhood character. As land values have increased in those communities, so have the size of newly built homes on the affected properties. Where originally the homes were 2,000-sq.-ft. bungalows, the replacements have often been 5,000-sq.-ft. ‘mini-mansions,’ and a new neighbourhood concern was born, worse than the first.

Currently, achieving gentle densification in Metro Vancouver is nearly impossible because of the lengthy, project-by-project rezoning application process, so many homeowners don’t bother and they’ll replace one housing unit for another, instead of increasing density.

A better way would be to move the zoning process from a project-by-project basis to the official community planning stage, where municipalities can strategically plan by neighbourhood. By enabling this type of “pre-zoning,” communities can then expedite applications, and property owners can be assured of what they’re allowed to build before they begin the lengthy process.

At present, 64 per cent of Metro’s residential land is covered by single-family homes, with many of these lot sizes ranging from 50 to 80 feet in width; significantly larger than a standard city lot width of 33 feet. Opportunity knocks.

As Metro continues to show a shortfall in the Regional Growth Strategy by over 4,400 housing units per year and as the growth rate continues to increase by 3,000 new residents per month, efficient use of land is critical to providing a complete mix of housing choices.

Pre-zoning for infill housing will help to address housing supply and affordability issues through gentle densification and the support for ‘complete livable communities,’ while maintaining and enhancing the integrity of existing neighbourhoods.

To access the HAS report, complete with interactive Metro-wide and municipal data, visit

Robert (Bob) de Wit is CEO of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders Association.