Duplexes are fine, but rowhouses are better says proponent

Fee-simple rowhouses are a better use of land and offer greater livability: Richard Wittstock

A city staff recommendation to allow duplexes in most single-family neighbourhoods, which goes to public hearing Sept. 18, has Richard Wittstock wondering why there isn’t more of a push for zero-lot-line, fee-simple rowhouses in those areas.

Wittstock, a principal at Domus Homes, wrote the city a letter in support of the duplex proposal, but he also makes a pitch for fee-simple rowhouses, arguing they offer greater livability and a better use of land than duplexes.

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His ideal model involves a 33-foot lot split into two 16.5-foot rowhouse lots to create two homes measuring 1,800 square feet or more each, possibly with basement suites to use as mortgage helpers.

“I‘ve been a big proponent of rowhouses for a long, long time. I spent a year post-university living in Europe and that’s the predominant form of family housing in a lot of places in Europe,” Wittstock told the Courier.

“It’s a much more efficient form of using land than a single-family detached house that we’re used to here. It’s something I’d really like to see happening more. We build a lot of townhouses, but we build very few of these freehold rowhouses that are not part of a strata and that are bigger than 1,300 square feet so [that] it’s a legitimate long-term alternative for a family.”

 

 

He maintains fee-simple rowhouses are an appropriate housing form for neighbourhoods — not just on arterial streets such as Cambie. Families, he said, don’t want to be on a busy street.

Wittstock has lived in the front half of a duplex he built, but when he was playing with his child in the front yard, he said it felt like a fishbowl because people were constantly walking by and there was no privacy.

“[Rowhouses are] just a nice urban form but you have something that feels like a proper house — good room sizes and lots of space for a family but it’s twice as efficient as a single-family house and it’s just a better configuration because you’ve got your own private backyard space… both units have front doors to the street, where they should be, as opposed to one being around the side or around the back,” he said. “… You feel like that back half [of a duplex] is a second-class citizen, whereas the front half doesn’t have any private outdoor living space.”

 

 

City of Vancouver planner Kirsten Behler said freehold rowhouses were added as a category to the zoning and development bylaw in 2013 after the development industry expressed interest in building them in Vancouver. They were first introduced in the RM-7 [multiple-dwelling] zone that the city was working on at the time in Norquay, and have since been added in RM-8 and RM-9.

Before 2013, the city’s legal services department interpreted the Land Title Act in a way that staff didn’t feel they could be done legally. After a change was made to the Act in 2012, legal services decided it was fine to go ahead.

“Although, they’re possible in these zones, no application has been made,” Behler said.

There are, however, some freehold rowhouses in Vancouver developed by Art Cowie at 33rd and Cambie, which pre-date the change in the bylaw. Behler said they were part of what the city calls a housing demonstration project.

There are also a handful of freehold rowhouses in the city that are much older, which pre-date the Strata Property Act.

So what’s the city’s view of them as a housing form? We asked Dan Garrison, Vancouver’s assistant director of housing policy.

“We like the idea of trying a new approach to row and townhouses that has a place in the market, and that buyers might be interested in and developers might be interested in. [But] our experience has been [that] we have introduced the opportunities to do it and the developers and the purchasers of the properties have still been more interested in rowhouse and townhouse forms that are strata-titled,” he said.

Garrison suspects that’s because builders, developers and purchasers understand the strata-titled townhouse form so it’s a case of familiarity. There are also additional costs that come with building fee-simple rowhouses — each unit must have individual utility hookups, which isn’t the same with strata-titled units, making the latter more cost-effective to build.

Wittstock said although the city zoned for rowhouses in Norquay, the fact it’s in the same zoning where townhouses are allowed means developers will always build townhouses.

“The townhouse zoning pushes the price of that land up too high where it doesn’t make sense to do rowhouses anymore,” he said. “It really needs to be permitted in a single-family or duplex zone. It can’t be in a townhouse zone.”

Wittstock is convinced there’s an appetite for fee-simple rowhouses. The problem with the Art Cowie development, he said, is the units were too big and ended up being priced the same as a detached house. He said if you’ve got an attached home priced the same as a detached one, detached will win every time.

But if they’re less expensive than detached homes and are around 1,800-square-feet in size, he thinks they’ll appeal to families.

Wittstock said he doesn’t have a vested interest in the idea, as he doesn’t own land where he wants to build rowhouses right now, but he thinks they’re a potential solution for families that want to stay in Vancouver.

It would also be something that a homeowner could do on their own if they wanted to replace their house, he said, because it wouldn’t require a land assembly.

Although they would still be pricey, Wittstock said they wouldn’t be as expensive as detached homes.

“I’m not saying it’s a perfect solution but certainly it’s a lot cheaper than a detached house. You’ve got half the land of a detached house with comparable square footage,” he said. “Anything new is going to be expensive. Anything in the city of Vancouver, regardless, is going to be expensive but don’t make perfect the enemy of the good. It’s a better solution than what we have now. It’s better than a single-family house, it’s better than a duplex. Pricewise, it’s probably comparable to a duplex but livability-wise is far superior.”

For his part, Garrison said various housing forms are up for discussion through the city’s Making Room program, which aims to increase the supply of the “missing middle” type of housing for families.

In coming months, staff will be evaluating the possibility of allowing housing forms such as triplexes, four-plexes, townhouses and apartments in low-density neighbourhoods. It will include public consultation.

“Freehold rowhousing, strata-titled rowhousing, a variety of townhouse forms, will absolutely be things that we’ll be considering how to encourage more of in the next phase of work," Garrison said.

That will start after the Sept. 18 public hearing, through into next spring or early summer, at which time city staff will report back to council with some more ideas about what kind of change people want to see in communities to allow more housing diversity.

“At some level, we would agree that just making the move to duplex isn’t going to enable enough diversity and different housing types to address the total need, but we’re doing it as a first step in the process. We’ll be thinking [about] and be able to do more analysis later when we look at the more intensive changes," Garrison said.

"One of the key things we’re trying not to do is create significant land-value increases through this early step in the process. When you start going from the ability to build a single-detached house with a suite and a laneway house to just allowing a duplex building in the principal dwelling, you’re not really talking about significant land-value changes. If we were to start introducing row and townhousing, there are significant increases, potentially, in land value and the city would want to look at how we could think about using those increases to secure some affordability or deliver other public benefits, deal with infrastructure — all those issues that come when you’re creating opportunities for growth.”

noconnor@vancourier.com

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