A Fraseropolis report for 2016

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South arm of the Fraser River at the Derwent Way Bridge, Delta

Fraseropolis is a one-editor operation, with input from our co-tourists. We launched the site out of personal interest in the summer of 2011 to explore communities in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, and to post notes on the functions and dysfunctions of local institutions.

In both 2015 and 2016 we had about 10,000 visitors, an average of close to 30 per day. About 82 per cent of visitors in 2016 came from inside Canada, 10 per cent from the United States, and the rest from elsewhere.

The most-visited post on this site by far is a June 2015 item called “Best places, taxes and crime in the Lower Mainland”. This piece summarizes and comments on research developed for the Money Sense website, and draws a steady nine or 10 views per day.

Posts based on visits to rapid transit corridors — the new Evergreen Line, the proposed Arbutus SkyTrain extension, and the proposed light rail system for Surrey — were relatively popular in 2016. An item on the proposed Fraser Mills development called “Coquitlam’s waterfront plan” has had steady traffic since it was published in early 2014. We are hoping to have an update on the Fraser Mills project in early 2017, and to revisit some of the communities that have featured in previous posts.

Also coming up in 2017, we have a provincial election campaign, possibly to include an announcement or two on rapid transit. (The Georgia Straight has predicted a New Democratic Party election win, but given a string of upset wins in various recent elections, we will not venture a forecast.) A September 2017 start is scheduled for the TransMountain oil pipeline expansion, strongly opposed by city governments in Vancouver and Burnaby and by the provincial NDP. A committee of politicians in Metro Vancouver will make another attempt to build consensus around how to address the problem of homelessness. There will be continued (probably modest) fallout from federal and provincial attempts to cool the housing market; luxury home prices will flatline or drop slightly, but condo apartment construction is likely to continue. Underlying it all, the position of the City of Vancouver as the dominant economic partner within the Metro region will be further eroded as the balance of population and career-track jobs shifts to other cities.

A shift to apartment living

Joyce-Collingwood urban village, Vancouver

Joyce/Collingwood urban village, Vancouver

A couple of decades ago, half the private dwellings in Metro Vancouver were classified as detached homes. That share has dropped steadily, to one-third or less. A growing majority of private dwellings are apartments, townhomes or duplexes.

Post-2000 detached houses, Marpole, Vancouver

Post-2000 detached houses, Marpole, Vancouver

The trend is not news. Most of the available statistics, posted again in this month’s Metro Vancouver Housing Data Book,  date from 2011. Even so, the discourse around housing continues to highlight low-density, high-prestige home ownership, even when this housing type has moved beyond the reach of most working families. National media coverage of Vancouver-area real estate in 2015 and 2016 focused on the stunning rise in detached home prices, not on the more modest increases in townhome and apartment prices. Controversies around  residential development, from Marpole on Vancouver’s west side to Brookswood on the region’s eastern edge, are most often constructed around perceived injury to the interests of detached home owners. In a July 2016 legislative debate on measures designed to cool Metro Vancouver’s housing market, British Columbia’s finance minister noted that the absolute number of detached homes in the Metro region has dropped over the past 25 years despite the addition of more than a million people to the population. He called this data “fascinating”, as if he was coming across it for the first time.

Subdivided house, Grandview-Woodlands, Vancouver

Subdivided house, Grandview-Woodlands, Vancouver

To waffle a bit, the drop in single-detached-home numbers — 25 per cent off the peak, in the case of the City of Vancouver — is partly a matter of redefinition. Out of 900,000 homes in the region, an estimated 90,000 are now secondary suites, and this number grows in every decade. A homeowner creates a rental suite, and the detached homes becomes a duplex. The homeowner stays on much as before — although privacy and possibly prestige are affected, as is the character to the neighbourhood.

In terms of the balance of housing types, however, the biggest change has been the continued construction of stand-alone apartment buildings, which accounted for 40 per cent of all housing in 2011.

The figures from a different angle: as of 2011, there were more than 300,000 rental housing units in the Metro region. Ten per cent of these were detached homes, while 66 per cent were located in apartment complexes. In the same year, there were 580,000 owner-occupied units, with 46 per cent of these listed as single detached and 13 per cent as “apartment duplex”, mostly houses with secondary suites. The percentage of homeowners living in apartment buildings was 27 per cent, although these percentages range from 55 per cent in New Westminster down to less than 10 per cent in the outer suburbs. In the decade from 2001 to 2011, there were more homeowners moving into apartment buildings than into single detached homes.

The rise of apartment living creates opportunities for local governments to design urban villages that will support home-grown business, transit use, and independent living for seniors. Some communities do better than others in combining housing options with stores and services. The cities of Vancouver, North Vancouver and New Westminster have scored some notable successes in recent years.

On a final point: it’s sometimes suggested that there’s “no more space” for new detached houses in most Metro communities. This is not quite true. In rare cases, we’ve seen old houses on large lots replaced by half a dozen new houses. Areas such as Dunbar on the west side of Vancouver were laid out on spacious lots around 1900, and could easily take many more houses. Prominent urbanists such as Michael Geller and Patrick Condon have been advocating for small houses on small lots for a decade or more.

Detail from Metro Vancouver's December 2016 housing data book

Detail from Metro Vancouver’s December 2016 housing data book

A climate forecast for Metro Vancouver

crescent-beach-2-reducedThe Greater Vancouver regional authority has published a “Climate Projections” document that predicts a rise of 3 degrees Celsius in the local average temperature by the 2050s, within the working lifetime of people now in their twenties.

Mountainside reservoir; photo from

Mountainside reservoir; photo from “Climate Projections for Metro Vancouver”

Among other impacts, we can look forward to:

  • Reduced snowpack on the coastal mountains, hotter and drier summers, and lower summertime water levels in local reservoirs.
  • More very hot days and tropical nights, with demand for energy to run refrigerators and air conditioners forecast to increase to 6 times the current requirement.
  • A 45% increase in “growing degree days,” a measure of the warmth that grows crops.
  • Tough times for winter recreation operators.

Continue reading

A conversation about short-term rentals

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A hypothetical example:

A young working couple struggles to pay the mortgage on a high-priced Vancouver-area home. They build a basement apartment, to code. They find a tenant and declare their rental income to Canada Revenue. The tenant causes trouble, and the B.C. Rental Tenancy Act makes the eviction slow and stressful.

Vacancy rates in Metro Vancouver, fall 2015. This map was not provided

Vacancy rates in Metro Vancouver, fall 2015 (CMHC) with irrelevant census code numbers. This map was  not shown in the fall 2016 report but the numbers were almost unchanged.

So they think: why not rent our apartment to tourists or business people online, through Airbnb? We’d probably make more money, and the agency will pay for any damages if there’s trouble. Continue reading

Steveston village: this ain’t Manhattan

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The neighbourhood business association promotes Steveston as a place to visit, with its waterfront, cafes and gift shops. Co-tourist Robert Smarz and I walked the  ocean-facing pathway on the west side of the community and enjoyed lunch at the Shady Island pub on the boardwalk; we didn’t have time to stop at the Georgia Cannery National Historic Site, so there’s more to see.

development-reducedBut the designated core is attracting new residents as well as visitors, part of a general upscaling of Vancouver-area real estate. Postwar bungalows on the back streets are disappearing in favour of low-rise apartment buildings of three and four storeys. There are now enough essential services in place — such as food markets and professional offices — to make this a livable urban village with an affluent tinge. Rapid transit to downtown Vancouver is about 20 minutes away by bus, and bus service is frequent. Continue reading

The Evergreen Line and tower development

Skytrain-oriented development at Suter Brook, Port Moody, October 2016

SkyTrain-oriented development at Suter Brook, Port Moody, October 2016

A developer's rendering of the

Burnaby’s “City of Lougheed” project, captured from a real estate site. The Evergreen Line enters from the right to join the existing Millennium Line.

Metro Vancouver’s Evergreen rapid transit line is set to open before the end of 2016. Planning for this SkyTrain link to deep Coquitlam started almost 20 years ago, and residential towers sprang up almost immediately near the proposed route, beginning with Newport and Suter Brook in Port Moody. The Coquitlam Centre precinct was rapidly densified and complexified through the 2000s. We recently saw the astonishing announcement of a 23-tower project at Lougheed Town Centre site in Burnaby, rising to heights of 65 storeys, with a potential for 11,000 apartment units. And it ain’t over yet. Continue reading

Managing traffic through New Westminster

Pattullo Bridge, Saturday afternoon

Pattullo Bridge, Saturday afternoon

New Westminster within the region, from the New West Master Transportation Plan

New Westminster within the region, from the New West Master Transportation Plan

New Westminster is at the crossroads of Metro Vancouver, with commuter traffic  pouring through from all directions and industrial zones in neighbouring cities around more than half its perimeter

The city government’s 2014 Master Transportation Plan reports 75,000 vehicles per day on the Pattullo crossing of the Fraser River, and 80,000 on the Queensborough crossing. This compares with fewer than 63,000 on the Lions Gate Bridge and fewer than 45,000 at the north end of the Massey Tunnel (provincial estimates for the same year.) Continue reading