City of Vancouver Proposes Sweeping Changes For All Single Family Zoned Property

Starting in early February 2023, staff with the City of Vancouver will kick off public consultation on the most significant change to single-family residential zoning in the city in decades, exceeding the gravity of the introduction of laneway homes in 2009.

In a presentation to Vancouver City Council on Wednesday, City staff unveiled their preliminary proposal to allow increased density for all single-family neighbourhoods across Vancouver.What is being proposed for all single-family areas is considered gentle densification — not high density uses. Under the proposed changes, standard single-family lots could see up to four units per lot, while larger lots — mainly found within the Vancouver Westside — could see up to six units per lot.

The permitted calculated floor area ratio (FAR) density for each single-family lot would increase to 1.0 FAR, which means the total usable floor area inside the buildings on a lot can reach up to the same land area size of the lot.Under a 1.0 FAR, new multiplex structure options would be permitted, reaching a height of up to three storeys (36 ft). On-property vehicle parking, such as garages, would not be permitted, forcing residents with vehicles to depend on curbside street parking.

This density increase is up from the existing single-family zoning options of a house and laneway with three units and a 0.86 FAR, duplex and suites with four units and a 0.7 FAR, and multiplex and infill with six units and a 0.85 FAR. These FAR ratios translate to between 600 sq ft and 1,200 sq ft in added floor area density, depending on the typology and size of the lot.

By pursuing such gentle densification practically everywhere, this provides an added way for the municipal government to catalyze more housing ownership affordability, particular for middle-class families.Based on the City’s calculation using conventional input costs and average rates, a fourplex unit would carry a $1.1 million estimated purchase cost, with 39% of the house cost, $221,000 for the 20% down payment, and a combined household income requirement of $235,000 annually.

This fourplex unit scenario on a lot is comparatively more affordable than a duplex unit with an estimated $1.55 million purchase cost, and with 55% of the house cost per unit, $310,000 down payment, and an income requirement of $326,000. Single-family houses are, of course, even more out of reach, with an estimated $2.82 million estimated purchase cost, and 100% of the house cost per unit, $563,640 down payment, and $586,000 for income required.The household income required to buy a home will decrease as more units are added onto a lot.

The associated City fees for pursuing higher density could entail a density bonusing charge similar to the townhouses allowed within the Cambie Corridor Plan, but such fees could potentially be waived if some units are sold at a below-market price.

City staff explained they are pursuing gentle densification due to the capacity limits of expanding underground infrastructure, particularly sewers. A density increase to 1.0 FAR is deemed to be reasonable, and accounts for both the increase in sewage from the new homes and future added storm water runoff from climate change.

If a density of 2.0 FAR were permitted, such building forms would resemble townhouses, and overwhelm sewage infrastructure. City staff state the cost of replacing every one metre segment of underground pipe is between $4,000 and $10,000.The densification would apply to all single-family zoning across Vancouver to ensure the policy is simple to understand for both builders and City staff reviewing applications, eliminating a major source for confusion. This distribution also better enables building opportunities, and the management of the impacts to utilities.

It is anticipated small homebuilders currently specializing in constructing single-family houses would move on to the multiplex option given its financial viability and the streamlined permitting process.  City staff’s list of potential benefits from the proposed gentle densification to 1.0 FAR include the creation of complete neighbourhoods, less carbon pollution, diverse housing, and improved accessibility, while the negatives entail the loss of existing trees on lots, pressure on curbside street parking, building shadowing, and the pressure on utilities.

As part of this overhaul in the policy of what can be built on all single-family lots, City staff are also looking to combine the existing nine different types of “RS” zoning district schedules into possibly just one or two types. The City of Edmonton is also currently in the process of exploring a similar consolidation of its zoning types.  This consolidation in Vancouver would greatly reduce the complexity of the regulations, with discretionary design guidelines eliminated, and the possibility of overlapping some steps in the application process to reduce City staff’s processing time.

If Vancouver consolidates its RS” zoning district schedules, there could be changes to the allowable built form of single-family houses, including allowing the option of no basements, the reduction of the basement depth from 5.0 ft to 4.0 ft to enable gravity-fed sewer links, smaller total floor areas, an the added option for a larger laneway house. Such smaller house structures for just one household could potentially encourage more multiplex development.

According to City staff, the one-for-one replacement of single-family houses are currently occurring at a high rate, with such redevelopments conducted mainly due to the older age of the previous structures.  All of these proposed changes fall under the City’s approved Vancouver Plan, and the ongoing efforts to improve housing affordability, particularly for middle-class families, and simplifying permitting and regulations.  

Currently, 52% of the land zoned for residential uses in Vancouver supports just 15% of the number of homes found in the city. Ever since the last major policy change was made to the “RS” zoning district schedules in 2009, Vancouver has catalyzed the creation of about 5,000 laneway homes.  Public consultation on the preliminary directions of the policy changes will be conducted in February 2023.In Spring 2023, the proposal will be refined, and another round of public consultation will be held. 

This will lead to the final draft policy for City Council’s decision in Fall 2023, culminating with a public hearing. If approved, the 1.0 FAR gentle densification policy and changes to the buildable form of a single-family house would go into effect in early 2024.Such densification policies would help the City of Vancouver meet its obligations under the provincial government’s new Housing Supply Act, which requires municipal governments to meet new housing supply quotas.