Biblitz delivers advise

ASK Biblitz about Affordable Housing.

'... high-density housing need not be ... 14-storey ... apartment buildings ... since the same 500 units, on the same site, can be built in 2 1/2-storey buildings ... arranged along narrow lanes' - Christopher Alexander

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Dang! Leo, I've just been notified that landlord plans to redevelop the premises to create 'market housing.' Where to go? Why is it so hard to find/build quality, affordable housing?

See also renting versus condos - ugh! - and a guide to valuing various types of real estate - single-family, condo, co-op, highrise, low-rise - selecting the lesser evil in today's anti-consumer market.


2400 W. Broadway in Vancouver, B.C. - modest, no-nonsense veterans housing, where children play safely in a large, fenced, grassy yard away from offleash dogs - where toys and parenting may be shared. How civilized! ... How long before greedy-guts developers assisted by unprincipled planning authorities jump the few remaining hurdles and turn it into high-priced leaky condos?

Biblitz replies:

Planning authorities' short-term stinkin' thinkin' means either they can't read or interpret demographics and correlate findings with practical zoning and building regulations or there is an ethical issue or two creating willful blindness. Neighborhood community groups are certainly vocal and articulate. City council simply ignores their views. Developers and architects are only bound to follow the rules set by the city. They have no special obligations to subsequent purchaser consumers beyond those rules and the loose building codes and regulations that led to an ongoing 'leaky condo crisis.' Even the rules about how long a building should reasonably be expected to hold up without the need for major repairs are mere guidelines! They're not enforceable! All of this along with a bylaw shielding public building inspectors from all liability means that there are no more watchdogs anymore to ensure quality housing or reality-based quantity. With no affordable housing advocates on council or in the planning department, developers and architects are free to be as myopic about land use as they wish. Consider:

The concept of affordable, accessible housing is not rocket science:

The Nature of Order

An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe

Book 3
A Vision of the Living World
By Christopher Alexander

More of the book and examples of affordable, truly sustainable housing.

More on universal barrier-free designs, which do NOT cost more!

...In another part of the survey, Hosoi then asked the same questions again, though in a different form of words. He asked people to state independently what they want most in their living environment. He found out that what people want most in the qualities of their dwellings are the following eight things, listed here in importance as rated by the families:

1. Each house should have a private garden.
2. It should be low-rise.
3. The user must be able to design the dwelling - exterior and interior - for themselves, according to their desires, to make their own living space unique.
4. The has little traffic, so it becomes a place for play and chatter.
5. The amount of sunshine in the dwelling is more than we can typically get in a high-rise apartment.
6. It is possible to park very near the house.
7. It is possible to enter the house directly from the street.
8. There are small shops near the house.

(From A Vital Comment About People's Wishes, detailing a case study of a truly livable, multi-unit housing proposal, which eventually trumped the city's plan to build a series of highrises, in Nagoya, Japan in the late 1990s, at p. 312)

Low-rise actually provides for the same density as a highrise!

The new project ... showed that even in a big city like Nagoya, high-density housing need not be built in the 14-storey free-standing apartment buildings which are common today, since the same 500 units, on the same site, can be built in 2 1/2-storey buildings (2 stories plus an attic storey), arranged along narrow lanes. Even though housing officials at first told me that they felt such a thing to be physically impossible, I demonstrated to them that it can be done at the same cost and same density.

How does the "magic" come about? Two hundred apartments need a total floor area of about 14,400 m(squared). In the usual way of building high-rise apartments, these 14,400 m(squared) of built space are put in a tower, and occupy only 1,440 m(squared) of the land. The remaining 8,560 m(squared) of land is typically left as a large open area of dead space between buildings, good for parking, but so unpleasant that it is useless for human purposes. Emotionally it belongs to no one. But if we put the 14,400 m (squared) in low buildings, the buildings cover 4,800 m(squared) of the one hectare. This sounds more crowded, but what happens is that the remaining 5,200 m(squared) of land can now be divided into small areas which are beautiful and useful. Instead of being a desert of horrible space it becomes human because it can be composed of small gardens and narrow, winding, semi-pedestrian lanes. (From Shiratori: A New Form of High-Density Housing at 80 Families per Acre: Detailed Explanation, at pgs. 316-317.

Note: Photos of the case study resemble very closely the affordable veterans-style housing recently demolished at the University Endowment Lands (UEL) in favor of low-rise, wood-frame market condos, the same design that's become synonymous with B.C.'s decades old 'leaky condo crisis'. More on reisdents' typically well-reasoned objections, which fell on deaf ears.

What about prefab housing to reduce both price and human error, a significant factor in the wake of B.C.'s decases-old 'leaky condo crisis'?


The Future of Prefab

Joel Turkel, Principal, Turkel Design
February, 2009

Real development for the industry will come from young designers who are able to approach the problem from a more globalized vantage point. This group is able to think in terms of complete front-to-back business models. They are aware of the needs and limits of manufacturing processes but also are versed in new technologies, entrepreneurial methods, how capital works, strategic partnerships, and the importance of marketing and branding. This group will not design buildings but rather solutions for distributed delivery methods like those promoted by Kent Larson at MIT, who is leading the way toward rationalized industry-wide changes to benefit us all, rather than just promoting an individual vision or aesthetic. (-- p. 105)

Translation: I haven't got a clue and, frankly, there's no money for me in investigating prefab. Neither does my professional governing body nor the jurisdiction where I flog my designs require me to give a crap about the public interest.

Note: Biblitz visited Larson's experimental home. Ho hum. What is wrong with these 'highly-qualified,' self-congratulating design mo'feshunuls? In their strange, anti-social world, no one ever needs counter space in the kitchen or suitable places to efficiently store things! No, and what careth architects for a steadying rail to grasp on the way up their typically narrow, dangerously open stairs or - gasp! - any accommodation for mobility devices. Considering today's demographics, such glaring omissions should preclude membership in the profession!

The magazine then goes on to highlight some of the ugliest, most impractical ticky-tacky rectangles - horizontal and vertical - imaginable! Those few examples that seem superficially tolerable are single-family homes well beyond the bounds of affordability.


Signs of the times. A development application sign like this one warns renters and co-op residents if there was any doubt that market housing and developers - no matter how poorly their previous efforts have performed - rule. There is no one on Vancouver City Council today or in the planning department with a commitment to affordable, accessible housing based on demographics that are easily available at StatsCan. There is no point attending planning 'meetings' when voters hold no sway. The only recourse now is for renters and co-op residents to promote their own candidate for public office - if there is a suitable person willing to run!

Below is a typical tenants' response to a redevelopment application. The main objection is not to redevelopment per se, though no one enjoys moving, but b/c such applications rarely, if ever, include similarly affordable, accessible housing with the same great design amenities. Note how today's condo developers invariably replace large communal yards visible and available to all with more units - too many, really - and tiny private balconies or patios that prohibit children's play. Translation; Families aren't welcome here. Adults only - those with money!


Are there any affordable, accessible housing advocates out there willing to run for public office?
Affordable housing is not a priority either to developers or building designers. Multifamily highrise, low-rise market condos designed to fail predictably every five or 10 years requiring major costly reconstruction, is where the money is! A vicious cycle of repairs also creates an illusion of full employment, so there's little incentive for authorities to challenge or even examine properly the status quo. Whether techniques such as prefab would augment the supply of affordable housing is something only public planning authorities would be likely confirm, but developers and design mo'feshnuls have somehow silenced them.

Any ideas on how make affordable, accessible housing a priority wherever it's needed? All comments gratefully received. We'll post the best ones here. Please check back soon for updates!

How post-war activism prompted quality, affordable housing:

BC Business

Hunted House

Searching for affordability in a real estate market gone mad

By Frances Bula
October, 2008

At a time when Vancouver was crying out for affordable housing, there were 18,000 vacant condos. See Higher taxes for owners of vacant condos, NDP MLA proposes at June 18/08.

Little Mountain was built in 1954, the result of 50 years of agitation for affordable homes and the more immediate crisis of returning soldiers from the war, who were occupying buildings such as the Hotel Vancouver to protest the fact that they couldn't find anyplace to live. The benchmark project, by the then-new Central and Mortgage Corp. (now Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.), launched four decades of energetic government-supported construction in Vancouver - all of which disappeared in 1993, when the federal government decided to get out the business of building subsidized housing. The problem of finding low-cost homes for those who can't quite get a handhold in the strictly private market would not, however, go away.

Fifty years ago, it was veterans for whom everybody worried about housing, but today it's teachers, nurses - and even, in this new century, double-income university professor households. (-- p. 62)

What's affordable?

What does affordable housing for middle-income people really mean? ... in the Lower Mainland, the median income is $55,000. ... People who make less than 80 per cent of that $55,000 are typically too poor to buy in any market. They need to find places they can rent that cost no more than about 30 per cent of their gross income. That means rents from $500 for those coffee-shop clerks making $10 an hour, up to $1,125 a month for the police officers just out of training school making about $45,000 a year.

... people who make 80 to 120 per cent of the median should be starting to buy their first homes, so there needs to be something available in their range. That means they should be spending $1,100 to $1,650 on their mortgage, property tax and house insurance combined, which pretty much caps that group at paying no more than about $235,000 for a place to live. (That assumes a 10 per cent down payment of $23,500 with a mortgage on the rest). In the Lower Mainland, that doesn't get you much - unless you're willing to move to Maple Ridge or cram into a postage stamp in the bad part of Mount Pleasant. A few people will even say that Vancouver's housing problem is so severe that the affordability squeeze extends up to households with 200 per cent of the median income. Even though $110,000 a year seems like a lot, it's not that much when a fixer-upper crack house on Vancouver's eastside starts at $500,000 and the average single-family house price in Vancouver now hovers around $765,000.
It used to be that it was mainly those living in Vancouver proper who fretted about affordability - and historically the problem was moving to the cheaper suburbs or other cities in the province. But then the affordability crisis spread, with Whistler next to feel the pinch. As it developed into the province's first resort town, Whistler found itself, as other resorts around North America had, struggling with the question of housing its service workers and ensuring that regular people who live there year-round have a place to call home. ... (-- p. 64)